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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Designs for a child-friendly city

Karen Malone
Dr Karen Malone is Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong. Email kmalone@uow.edu.au

Ideally, towns and cities should be the site where children socialise, observe and learn how society functions. They should also be places where children can find refuge, discover nature and find tolerant and caring adults who will encourage them to explore and wonder about their world.

A generation ago, children were far more likely to play independently in their own neighbourhood than they are today. The child's right to free play in a city is something we may be giving away too lightly.

A recent research study by Nickelodeon Australia, A Day in the Life of an Aussie Kid, found that Australian children are pocket money-rich but time-poor and lack basic life skills. The study, based on 500 focus groups and 40,000 interviews, revealed that that ‘much of their free time is now taken up with organised activity (after-school sport, dancing, various clubs etc)’, and that ‘kids are yearning for more unstructured time to do their own thing’ (Houlihan 2005: 14; see also details of Nickelodian research contacts).

Independent play develops resilience, a sense of place, a sense of self-worth, social connectedness and environmental knowledge. Whether it is strolling up to the local shop to buy milk, talking to elderly neighbours or having a tree to watch the world from, these freedoms and privacies to be a child within our local environment help develop important competencies that are drawn on throughout our lives. As environments become more complex, these competencies play a key role in supporting children to become streetwise and good risk assessors. At a time when children need these competencies more than ever, we are limiting their capacity to develop them.

Lack of engagement with nature (aptly named nature deficit syndrome by Richard Louv) is associated with higher levels of depression, stress and anxiety in children (Louv 2006). Professor Nancy Wells from Cornell University studied the impact of nature on children’s stress levels and found that even a room with view of nature had a significant impact on a child’s psychological wellbeing and attention capacity. She also found that ‘the protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children – those experiencing the highest levels of stressful events’ (cited Louv 2006: 49). Research in Australia, meanwhile, provides evidence that children diagnosed with ADHD show significant behavioural improvement after being engaged in outdoor environments (Bagot 2005, Taylor and Kuo 2006). As Louv states, ‘Nature time is not leisure time, it is an investment in our child’s health’ (2006: 120). 

In short, children who now have less time available for free play, because they are engaged in structured adult-organised activities or restricted by protective parenting, are being disadvantaged and are ironically more at risk of harm.

Bubblewrapping of Gen Z

Children’s loss of freedoms is mostly due to parents increased fear of ‘stranger danger’ and traffic. Other contributing factors include the erosion of natural or wild spaces (Cunningham et al 1994; Cunningham et al 1996); increased social pressure to be ‘good parents’ (Tranter and Pawson 2001); the impact of children’s schools and childcare centres being located outside of a local neighbourhood; and the trend to ‘over-occupy’ and ‘over-organise’ children’s lives (Elkind 2001; Honore 2004; Stanley et al 2005). All these factors are contributing to a phenomenon for which I have coined a term - the ‘bubblewrapping’ of children (Malone 2007).

Timperio et. al (2006) conducted a study in which 10-12 year olds and their parents (677 families in Victoria) were asked about their greatest concerns. In terms of children using the streets, stranger danger and road safety were the highest concerns, with heavy traffic coming in third. In all three categories, parents' concerns were at least 20% more intense than their children’s. These perceptions of danger, however, far outweigh the realities. For example, the odds of death at the hands of a stranger in Australia are one in four million, substantially lower than in previous decades.

In a recent action research study with 300 children aged 4-8 years in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, two thirds of the children said they were not allowed to play outside their garden gate (Malone 2008b). While this might not seem surprising, what was most significant were the reasons they gave: ‘You might get lost or kidnapped’ (Sara, age four), ‘I may get kidnapped, killed, all those things’ (Darah, age six), ‘I would like to go outside my garden but I might get killed’ (Sally, age six). While fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are examples of how stories are recounted by parents to limit children’s natural desire to explore nature, I wonder what the impact of imagining a world so dangerous outside the garden gate might have on a child’s sense of wellbeing? Or, as Richard Louv states, ‘Excessive fear can transform a person and modify behaviour permanently… (I)t can also do the same to a whole culture.’ (Louv 2006: 127)

Implications for educators

Protectionist paradigms of parenting impede the work of schools by narrowing the foundation of environmental knowledge through which educators can build environmental education programs (Malone 2007: 525).

At the same time, schools are able to compensate to some extent for this over-protective culture: school grounds and the off-site activities organised by schools offer opportunities for children to gain real-life experiences and satisfy their natural curiosity (Malone and Tranter 2003: 115).

A recent report I produced for the British Government, Every Experience Matters, provided research evidence that learning outside of the classroom improves children’s whole development. Aside from academic performance, these learning activities have been found to enhance children’s physical activity levels, social interactions and emotional wellbeing (Malone 2008a).

For this reason, it is particularly unfortunate that some schools are limiting off-site activities due to a focus on risk management and concerns over litigation. While some schools have endeavoured to contribute to children’s independent mobility through programs such as the Walking School Bus, these programs only go so far. If limited only to adult-organised walking buses, this may actually reinforce the message that streets and communities aren’t safe for children. 

Designs for a child-friendly city

The principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) highlight the responsibility of the States Parties to uphold the child's right to live in a safe, clean and healthy environment and to engage in free play, leisure and recreation (UNICEF 1992). According to the CRC, a child’s wellbeing and quality of life is the ultimate indicator of a healthy environment, good governance and sustainable development (UNICEF 1996, UNICEF 1997).

To move forward in creating child-friendly cities, we need to recognise that cultural change, rather than a physical change in the environment, is required. The very presence of children and their families occupying the streets and parks in local neighbourhoods contributes significantly to making them child-friendly places. For many cities in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, this cultural shift is already happening: city councils, children, parents and schools are collaborating together under the auspices of UNICEF’s global Child Friendly City Initiative. To find out further information or to join the Child Friendly Asia Pacific regional network, you can visit our website or contact the author directly on kmalone@uow.edu.au. Also visit the UNICEF website.


Bagot, K 2005, 'The importance of green spaces for children - aesthetics, athletic and academic', Eingana Journal of the Victorian Association for Environmental Education, vol 28, issue 3, pp 12-16.

Cadzow, J 2004, 'The bubble-wrap generation', The Age Good Weekend Magazine, 17 January, pp 18-22.

Cunningham, C, Jones, M and Barlow, M 1996, Town Planning and Children: A Case Study of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, Armidale: Department of Geography and Planning, University of New England, Australia.

Cunningham, C, Jones, M and Taylor, N 1994, 'The child-friendly neighbourhood: some questions and tentative answers from Australian research', International Play Journal, vol 2, pp 79-95.

Elkind, D 2001, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, Perseus, Cambridge.

Gleeson, B and Spike, N (eds) 2006, Creating Child Friendly Cities: Reinstating kids in the city, Routledge, Abingdon, UK.

Grose M 2005, XYZ: The New Rules of Generational Warfare, Random House, Sydney.

Honore, C 2004, In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Orion, London.

Houlihan, L 2005, 'Being young is not child’s play: kids are richer but lack life skills', The Daily Telegraph, 7 October.

Louv, R 2006, Last Child In The Woods, Algonquiin Books, North Carolina.

Malone, K 2007, 'The bubblewrap generation: children growing up in walled gardens', Environmental Education Researchers, vol 13, issue 4, pp 517-525.

Malone, K 2006, 'United Nations: a key player in a global movement for child friendly cities', in Creating Child Friendly Cities: Reinstating kids in the city, ed B Gleeson and N Spike, Routledge, Abingdon, UK.

Malone, K 2008a, Every experience matters: An evidence based research report on the role of learning outside of the classroom for children’s whole development from birth to eighteen years, UK Department of Children, School and Families, University of Wollongong, Wollongong.

Malone, K 2008b, How child-friendly is my community? A study of the child friendliness of the City of Brimbank, University of Wollongong, Wollongong.

Malone, K and Tranter, P 2003, Children’s Environments: A study of children’s environmental learning in relation to their schoolground experience, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Timperio, A, Ball, K, Salmon, J, Roberts, R, Giles-Corti, B, Simmons, D, Baur, L and Crawford, D 2006, 'Personal, family, social, and environmental correlates of active commuting to school', American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol 30, issue 1, pp 45-51.

Taylor, A and Kuo, F.E 2006, ‘Is contact with nature important for healthy child development’, in Children and Their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces, ed C Spencer and M Blades, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tranter, P.J and Pawson, E 2001, 'Children's access to local environments: a case-study of Christchurch, New Zealand', Local Environment, vol 6, issue 1, pp 27-48.

Stanley, F, Richardson, S and Prior, M 2005, Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter, Macmillan, Sydney.

UNICEF 1992, Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations Publications, New York.

UNICEF 1996, Towards Child-Friendly Cities, UNICEF, New York.

UNICEF 1997, Children's Rights and Habitat: Working Towards Child-Friendly Cities, UNICEF, New York.


Subject Headings

Child development
Outdoor Education
Social life and customs