Feature

People often muse why childhood today seems different than it was when they were young-when a free day meant they ran out the door after breakfast and played until twilight. By contrast, many of today's children-especially middle-class children-seem to have less time for such unstructured play as they balance a flurry of planned activities that might include karate lessons, tutoring, ballet or parent-organized play dates.

Geographer and City University of New York professor of environmental and developmental psychology Roger Hart, PhD, thinks we ought to do more than muse. "We need to be thinking about what is lost in children when you program so much for them," says Hart, a longtime member of APA's Div. 34 (Population and Environmental). "Changes in the degree of children's freedom, in space and in time, to direct their own activities must surely have important implications for their development and for society."

Indeed, in an effort to understand the factors that drive today's childhood play and environmental interactions and the social and developmental implications of these transformations, Hart is completing a longitudinal study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)-a project that started as his dissertation research 30 years ago.

He's already finding that today's children spend less time outside and rely on their parents for guiding creative play they once fostered amongst themselves, he says.

Hart says he hopes his study can inform developmental psychology theory and prompt more collaboration between developmental scientists and geographers on ways to improve children's physical surroundings-such as parks and community spaces. The study results could also help address public health concerns such as the obesity epidemic among children. And most importantly, he says, the results may spur public dialogue among health professionals, educators, urban planners, policy-makers and parents on children's free time and development.

"There are a lot of anecdotal assumptions on changing childhood, that the quality of kids' connection with their environment is changing and more restricted," says environmental psychologist Louise Chawla, PhD, of Kentucky State University. "Roger has rich baseline data and is in a position to return to a place and document exactly how childhood is changing-and that has not been done."

Children then...

Indeed, Hart's baseline data from 30 years ago include two years of field interviews and observations on how children explored and used the environment through play that are backed up by 13 hours of film footage shot by a documentary filmmaker. As a doctoral student in geography at Clark University in the mid-1970s with a strong interest in child development, Hart spent two years interviewing at length every child age 4 to 12 who lived in a small rural Vermont town. Although the sample isn't racially diverse, the town offered him the opportunity to interview the children in-depth- what he sees as a unique way to start exploring whether childhood has changed.

Hart developed methods to talk with the children about how they visualized their town, where they spent time with other children and how often their parents supervised their play. He also documented how they changed their physical environments through play such as by building houses, tree forts and "miniature dirt airports" with sticks, grass, mud and leaves. In informal "walking interviews," he asked children about their fears of places, their favorite places for play and where they went to play with each other.

His findings-covered in Science magazine and published in Child Development in 1978-revealed that children's experience of "place"in the 1970s involved time they spent alone, or with peers, exploring their environment.

In addition, he found that working-class families encouraged different skills and experiences than middle-class families did: Working-class parents tended to give their children greater freedom to manipulate their physical environments to create their own play opportunities while middle-class parents created more controlled landscapes for play-close to their homes-with manufactured play items, such as swing sets and sandboxes.

Hart's study also garnered mainstream attention: The BBC based a film on Hart's dissertation research called "Place and Play: Transforming Environments."

...and now

Fast forward to today: Hart and NSF saw value in revisiting his Vermont data in light of recent concerns about programming children's time, childhood obesity and commercialization of play, to name a few. His current research has two components: a longitudinal study of how the now-grown 1974 children view childhood as parents and a cross-sectional study with the children who live in that same town today.

In all, 75 percent of Hart's initial sample live close enough for Hart to re-interview and many are now parents themselves. He is asking each of them to compare their memories of childhood with their own children's lives and to discuss differences. At the same time, he's conducting similar interviews with each child now living in the town-regardless of whether their parents were involved in the initial study-with the help of two additional researchers and new and improved recording technology.

So far, he's found that today's parents are much more concerned about the minute-to-minute details of their children's lives and want to know more details about the study than those 30 years ago. Some have even asked to tag along during the informal walking interviews-a request Hart politely rebuffs.

That involvement appears to trickle down and possibly affect children's independence, he says. When he asked one child, for example, to name his "secret places"the child called to his mother for help identifying such a spot. "That would have been inconceivable 30 years ago," he posits. "Then, most children I interviewed had places they went to that their parents had never been to."

Recognizing that the makeup of a Vermont town isn't a representative sample of the nation's diversity, Hart believes that many of these changes in childhood affect children everywhere. He plans to use his findings as a springboard for completing a more global picture of how childhood is changing and to try to prompt other communities to reflect on the changing nature of childhood as a way of improving their urban and community planning. He also hopes the research will inform his work with the Children's Environments Research Group, a children's rights research and policy group he founded that collaborates with international children's aid organizations such as UNICEF.

"If anything, [my study] may help people ask other questions about their communities, about their parenting," says Hart, who will complete his study in 2007. "We don't have to answer everything, we just need to spur thinking."