Modern Play Spaces May Be Safe, but They're Stultifying, Some Experts Say

April 07, 2000

Stuart C. Aitken, one of America's foremost cultural geographers, is scrambling through giant colored tubing at his local Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant.

There's his face, set in a look of earnest pursuit behind a plastic-bubble window.

A few minutes later, he emerges, a little ruffled -- and now he must confront the blink and buzz of video monitors and electronic games, and dozens of kids scurrying about intent on spending the money necessary to earn the chits they'll turn in for shabby "prizes."

"I can't stand these places," he mutters.

For Mr. Aitken, a professor of geography at San Diego State University, chasing his two kids, Ross, 9, and Catherine, 7, through plastic tubes is participatory research in what one might call the Chuck E. Cheesing of American children.

Still, he believes, visiting establishments like this is worthwhile. It's part of an effort he and a small but fast-growing group of fellow cultural geographers have made over the last few years to explore the changing nature of childhood as a function of changing cityscapes, patterns and styles of habitation, and everyday lives.

"Ultimately," says Thomas Herman, an instructor in Mr. Aitken's department, sitting across a pallid pizza from him, "it's kids that make social reproduction possible, but how do they do it?"

Claiming that geographers -- and policymakers -- have traditionally ignored children's role in social reproduction (the handing on, with modifications, of social practices and institutions), Mr. Aitken and a group of left-leaning theorists have pressed for children's right to have more input into the provision and design of spaces in which they live.

Child-development research has long explored cognitive, linguistic, and -- in geography -- spatial skills. In cultural geography -- the study of how societies use and are shaped by spaces and places -- spatial cognition, or mapping ability, has been seen, inconclusively, as a combination of physical, psychological, social, and cultural processes.

Better understood are the varying social and physical conditions under which children live from place to place.

But what, Mr. Aitken and his colleagues ask, of another set of fundamental issues -- the ways spatial phenomena relate to the social, cultural, and political identities children form?

What is at stake? For a start, how societies build environments for children, such as schools, day-care centers, neighborhoods, shopping malls, inner cities, and play spaces.

More than that, Mr. Aitken contends, it is time to look closely at just how well-served modern societies are by high-rise dwellings, the "erosion of children's autonomous play" in favor of tight schedules of supervised activities, the "extension of childhood through the prolongation of institutionalized education," the separation of children from the world of work and other adult affairs, and the "rationalized environments of middle-class suburbia" of which Chuck E. Cheese-style playpens are emblems.

For Mr. Aitken, all the Chuck E. Cheeses and their ilk are cleverly niche-marketed "virtual reality that responds to cravings that are more likely to stultify than enhance the development of the child." So he says in Putting Children in Their Place (Association of American Geographers, 1994), which disparages modern "authoritarian environments" -- others are shopping malls and public-housing projects -- that respond to their inhabitants in a "domineering, coercive and controlling" way.

While his own kids are off investing their Chuck E. Cheese chits in games that urge them to get to the next level -- keep spending -- he laments: "Kids learn that this is the option, versus sitting at home with their parents. But kids need down time and time to reflect. We're creating a generation that doesn't know how to do nothing."

You don't get far in the decidedly post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-Marxian world of cultural geography by harking to some golden era of childhood innocence, circa 1960, and Mr. Aitken, who is a joint editor of The Professional Geographer, one of the two official journals of the Association of American Geographers, doesn't intend to do that.

For a start, he doesn't deny that kiddie corrals like Chuck E. Cheese serve positive ends: to provide respite from the rigors of parenting, for example.

And security: "Security is an issue," he says.

At this Chuck E. Cheese, customers are wristbanded, party by party, on entry, and checked on exit. Only the most devious pedophile -- a trusted uncle or friend -- could beat the system.

But, Mr. Aitken has asked, in a series of books and essays, what else is going on in middle-class, increasingly gated neighborhoods where fearful parents keep their children off the streets, other than to drive them in S.U.V.'s to yet another right swimming class or piano lesson? How, too, are children's lives changing in poorer neighborhoods that are policed, under surveillance, often dangerous, and yet often retain some semblance of communal vitality?

The new research, intent on answering those questions, is in part a reaction against the child-development authority of the last half-decade, Jean Piaget. The Swiss psychologist, who died in 1980, emphasized stages in the normal development of the typical child -- step-by-step acquisition of levels of cognitive and spatial competence. The new scholars ask what lies beyond such orderly test results -- what nuances, what telling differences among children.

Mr. Aitken is concerned that the Piaget approach, in concentrating on generalities, obscures many social dynamics -- race, class, and gender, for example. Also, he says, it touts reason, logic, and individual control, but slights such qualities as frivolity, intuition, emotion, and collective experience. So, he and others have turned away from Piaget to figures like D.W. Winnicott, the British psychologist who, in the 1950's, in reaction to Freudian psychoanalysis, looked for new conceptions of identity that emphasized play and affect over logic and reason. Winnicott proposed the concept of "transitional spaces" -- emotional, intellectual, and spiritual play and experiment in which children reconcile the external world with their developing egos.

For Mr. Aitken and others, transitional space is, as he writes, "especially intriguing" because "it may be theorized as space out of and from which culture and symbolism arise" -- or may be challenged.

Here, the concept complements the theories of the late French theorist Henri Lefebvre, who is increasingly influential in cultural geography. He suggested that, for a group to be accepted, it has to pass a "trial by space" -- it must create and control socially recognized space.

Mr. Aitken and others suggest that children, because they are generally dependents, are hard-pressed to engage in trials by space. How then, should adult society justly make space for children?

For several years, Mr. Aitken and two colleagues in his department, Mr. Herman and Doreen J. Mattingly, an assistant professor, have worked in an inner-city district of San Diego, City Heights, where children still can be found on the streets as well as at home -- if they have one -- in contrast to what one often finds in affluent suburbs. "The kids know their space very intensely there," says Mr. Herman, including such marginal places as abandoned buildings and dump sites.

Capturing children's sense of their worlds is no easy task. The San Diego researchers, like others, have used such methods as having children take photographs and keep diaries about their worlds, and develop theater shows about them.

While Mr. Aitken and his cohorts have concentrated on domestic research, other geographers have ventured abroad. Cindi R. Katz, a professor of environmental psychology at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center, has compared the lives of children in Sudan and New York City to see how they are affected by such forms of economic restructuring as "globalization."

Her work has included a long-term, on-site study of a Sudanese village after it was incorporated into a state-run agricultural-development project. Over all, she found, the project, which fostered a capitalist system of specialization, disrupted the age-old, unified way in which children worked, played, and engaged in formal learning while assisting in their families' daily activities. Children soon needed to work more in their families' increasingly specialized tasks. They, like adults, soon commanded fewer skills. The project came "to dislodge the home as the locus of social reproduction," Ms. Katz wrote in a journal article.

She found that play had previously been "a creative means for the acquisition, use, and consolidation of environmental knowledge." Children planting sorghum had at the same time trapped birds, as both work and play. Boy herders "knew and with obvious delight shared riddles and songs that incorporated the names and attributes of local flora and fauna, for example."

That changed, for the worse: "When play and work are separated, play becomes trivialized as 'childish' activity."

Still, Ms. Katz will report next year in a book, Disintegrating Development: Social Reproduction and Global Economic Restructuring, that, surprisingly, the village's children of the 1980's have, as adults, resiliently contrived to engage in a constellation of activities -- farming, forestry, animal husbandry, town work -- by constantly shifting over a large geographical area.

In her book, Ms. Katz compares that manifestation of economic restructuring with the fate of working-class children in New York City. There, she says, cuts in funds for schools, urban spaces such as playgrounds, and social programs have similarly disrupted neighborhood efforts at self-sufficiency. She describes one block in East Harlem, for example, where, "not to romanticize, but everyone had these hopes for their children, and put enormous efforts into making these wonderful children." Family structures were tight, and everyone on the block worked to improve schooling and build community gardens and playgrounds. "But many kids didn't make it. It wasn't that they had crack mothers."

She says "disinvestment in spaces of social reproduction" has taken place in working-class areas along with increased "criminalization of young people."

The widespread adoption of curfews "has been mobilised by a series of moral panics," say Damian Collins and Robin A. Kearns, a research associate and a senior lecturer of geography, respectively, at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand. A "discourse of deviance" casts young people as a "threat to the moral order" who "do not belong in public space," they say.

Specialists in children's geography believe that children and young people can mold space to liberating ends.

In her book Young and Homeless in Hollywood: Mapping Social Identities (Routledge, 1996), Susan M. Ruddick, an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto, describes youth squatters in Los Angeles improving public perceptions of themselves by hanging out with, and dressing like, punks whom adults romanticized as middle-class suburban children who'd "fallen prey to the sins of the city," as Ms. Ruddick puts it. The youths also combatted their spatial marginalization by occupying abandoned buildings right in the center of Hollywood.

Their success was short-lived. With downtown renewal, the occupied buildings were demolished, along with the youths' improved image.

Also highlighting young people's ability to create liberating space is Gill Valentine, a professor of geography at Britain's University of Sheffield. Ms. Valentine, one of the most prominent researchers in children's geography, has studied young people's ability to create "cool places" that elude adult supervision, including in cyberspace. She has pointed out, for example, that the home may be, for children, less private than the dark recesses of a city at night.

Children's relations to space hold constant surprise for the researcher, says Ms. Katz, the CUNY professor. When she studied youths' impressions of Times Square, in New York City, "I thought they'd feel excluded from this privatized, Disneyfied space, but they actually felt completely embraced by it." The reason? "By being there, in this whirl and hustle and bustle, they are incorporated into a consumer society, a kind of hyper-consumption world, without having to buy things, and without being hounded out."

One way or another, she suggests, children do find ways to create "autonomous culture." However, she argues, fast-food outlets, malls, kiddie corrals, and "corporate space" of many kinds really are "not adequate for kids' everyday lives."

Back at the Chuck E. Cheese, Mr. Aitken agrees: "Look at the values these places are instilling in our kids." Still, it seems a fairly harmless outing. No child gets abducted from this carefully monitored space -- none even gets her eye poked out in the huge play pit of plastic balls, or catches his toe under the miniature carousel.

The place is packed. The kids seem happy. Mr. Herman talks of Marcuse's notion of "passive desublimation" -- consumption and other pursuits that, in the absence of better, seem just fine.

You know Mr. Aitken hates to admit it: "My kids love coming here."