“When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere. It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision. Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home”. The contrast between Edward and George’s childhoods was highlighted in a report which warns that the mental health of 21st-century children is at risk because they are missing out on the exposure to the natural world enjoyed by past generations. The report charts the change in attitudes iagainst the wanderings (or not) of four generations of the Thomas family in Sheffield, England.
The UK report echoes a paper by Henry Jenkins that explores the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend some quality childhood time in wild woods, but his son has grown up in apartment complexes, surrounded by asphalt parking lots. Video games constitute his main playing spaces.
I was prompted to revisit these two stories by an appointment I have tomorrow to meet with French colleagues to discuss the participation of high school students in an eco-design project. As was the case in Dott07’s Eco Design Challenge we’ll probably spend a small part of the meeting on content and a large part searching for slivers of free time in the over-crammed curriculum.
I’m increasingly convinced: one of the most important design actions we can take for a sustainable future, if we’re to have one, is to free free up lots of space and time for the follower generation to just get on with it.