Children Cognitive Perception of Their Neighborhood

Abstract

In urban spaces children constitute a majority of users, so, children’s illustrating their ideas on the cities they live in, as users of the urban environment and interpreting these cognitive illustrations create an important source both for the today’s urban designers, architects, educators and government officials. The cognitive maps of children are not only some visual productions, but are also covered by the everyday life, like an organically designed textile. Scarce of studies on the children’s relation with the urban space and their range are the reason for the focus of this study. Although reading cognitive drawings is, in fact, a psychological subject, as they contain cognitive perception of the space and are related with the outer world, they are particularly of interest for the planners and designers creating the environment. Based on what the drawings display, what the human-focused design needs and does not need shall be interpreted in scope of this study. In this study, the drawings by 10-14 years old students from Al-whidat community in Jordan of the environment, their cognitive perception of their living environment and the unhealthy chaotic aspects of the city, is interpreted.

Keywords: Growing up in city, human use of urban landscape, children drawings, urban children, cognitive mapping, Al-wihdat, Amman, Jordan;

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Introduction

The population of children in MENA region and in Jordan in particular represents more than one third of the whole population. Nevertheless, they are the groups that are prioritized the least in the improvement of urban areas. Taking into account the quantitative amount of children is an implication to the qualitative importance of them in terms of Jordan’s economic, cultural and social conditions (Shami and Taminian, 1995). In addition, children are worth analyzing for the lack of sufficient number of spaces for them. The fact that children grow up in bad quality urban areas might affect their personal development, creativity and capability to take on responsibilities. Children are locked indoors in a manner fed-up from the city’s complicated life and are not able to use the urban areas apart from between home and school.

The most important reason why there is not enough concern about areas for children in the urban areas is because adults see the childhood as a short and temporary period. Because children are the weakest group of the society that lacks the power to influence change, they have no political say. Therefore, they are not able to publicly express views on their needs and expectations. Unfortunately, cities are not constructed according to children, who lack that kind of expression. There deserve some detailed field studies and research to find out how children perceive the life conditions in cities, the urban areas they use and the places they live. Today’s children should be seen as the adults of tomorrow and their relationship with the city should be analyzed, the spaces they require should be determined and the insufficiencies in today’s urban areas should be identified.

Children and the Urban Environment

In the past 35 years, researchers have gained better knowledge of children’s understanding of their environment. While topics and methodologies have varied widely, studies have focused on what children know about their environment; how they acquire their knowledge; and what they like and use (Hart, 1979; Moore, 1986; Moore and Young, 1978). Psychologists, geographers, planners, and designers alike have studied such areas as cognitive mapping in children (Lynch, 1977; Matthews, 1980; Matthews, 1984); children’s environmental exploration (Matthews, 1987); and children’s way finding skills (Darvizeh and Spencer, 1984; Golledge et al., 1985). While these studies represent significant contributions, they often neglect children’s attitudes and feelings about their environment. A child’s feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values affect his or her behavior (Patton, 1990). An exception is the work, Growing Up in an Urbanizing World (Chawla, 2002). This book presents a collection of work from eight countries that focused on the importance of understanding children’s feelings and attitudes about their environment. The volume also stressed how to learn from children themselves; how they evaluate their places; and how they would like to live in the future. This dialogue was used to bring children and adults together in participatory programs to improve the urban environment (Chawla, 2002).

The experience and the processes used in the eight GUIC projects were developed in 2002 into a manual for participation (Creating Better Cities with Children and Youth by David Driskell in collaboration with members of the GUIC research team). The manual advises on how to conceptualize structure and facilitate the participation of children in the community development process. Driskell described the goal of the manual in the Amman workshop as a road map to engage children in making improvements to the places where they live. One of the most effective strategies for creating better neighborhoods and places for youth is through participation. This can help children listen to one another; respect differences of opinion; find common ground; develop capacities for critical thinking, evaluation and reflection; support processes of discovery, awareness building and collective problem solving; and help them develop the knowledge and skills necessary for making a difference in their world (Driskell, 2002).

Researchers espousing a developmental sequence of spatial information acquisition generally base their work on the theories of Piaget, who saw spatial understanding as passing through several separate stages during childhood. During this developmental sequence, children understand increasingly complex principles of spatial relations, maturing from an understanding of topological principles such as closeness, separation and closure, to a cognizance of projective space and later of Euclidean principles (Matthews, 1992; Moore, 1976).

Piaget focused on small-scale models and small objects. However, Hart and Moore (1973) attempted to connect Piaget’s ideas to children’s understanding of large-scale environments. They offered a model in which a child’s understanding of his or her surroundings becomes less egocentric and concrete and increasingly abstract with age. Hart and Moore (1973) believed that until the age of five or six, children tend to view the world egocentrically, considering the environment only as it relates to them. In addition, they found that, beginning around age three, a child’s self-centered orientation is gradually replaced by a fixed reference system in which the environment is thought of in relation to important landmarks, such as the child’s house or school. As children approach the age of ten or eleven, their reference system becomes more abstract and they view the environment in terms of coordinated reference systems.

While Hart and Moore’s (1973) model has not been explicitly applied to environmental preference studies, it suggests the need to examine the attitudes of children toward their surroundings in a developmental context. It is reasonable to assume that if children’s configurable knowledge of the environment changes as they grow their attitude towards that environment might also change. Thus, environmental preferences should be examined in a developmental context.

Garling and Golledge (1989) explained that children receive information from the outdoor environment. The information they receive is employed in intellectual development. In every society, children receive information that is life enhancing, provides a range of choices and experiences, and is stimulating and challenging. This has implications in the provision of texture, color, sound, and aesthetics.

The outdoor environment provides settings that in many traditional societies have served the full range of normal childhood development and the various types of play that enable that development (Moore and Young 1978). Physical development is associated with large- muscle or gross-motor activities, such as running, jumping, and climbing. Through these activities, children come to know their bodies; to be aware of their physical abilities and limitations (Millar, 1974); and to develop a sense of mastery or self-esteem by (learning and exercising) particular skills. Outdoor activities are an essential experience of childhood (Francis, 1985; Moore, 1986). Such activities affect the personality, character, and ability of the child (Michelson and Roberts, 1979). The importance of outdoor activities lies in the central role that activity occupies in the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development of the child. They offer opportunities for physical exercise, sensory pleasure, testing and improving skills, emotional release, trying out autonomy and self-reliance, experimenting (learning to give and take), developing conversational and organizational skills, cognitive development, and adventure and exploration (Francis, 1985; Moore, 1986).

Since outdoor activity is so crucial to a child’s development, it should be integral part of child development education (Moore and Young 1978). What makes a good place for children to play? Children need places free from hazards, such as excess traffic, yet diverse in character with different kinds of geography, surfaces and adequate space to play all the outdoor games in which children like to engage. It is a location where children can hide and build things. Children should be able to do these things without disturbing adults. Outdoor space is a learning environment (Moore and Young 1978). Children are attracted by nature. If there are people with whom they can safely meet, they can learn about social life. Learning about the urban context depends on children’s freedom to roam safely in their neighborhood away from vehicular traffic and other threats, such as kidnapping, drug dealing, bullying, and other crimes.

In spatial minds, there are rather learned images. People keep the cognitive maps for different spaces in different levels. These follow a scale from small to large such as from houses, neighborhood units, cities, nation and to the whole world. Regarding urban children, as Holloway and Hubbard (2001) underline in their study, children’s cognitive maps, the pictures they draw and their role model exercises have a different approach to those of adults, and they also touch on different emotions. In the studies carried out with regards to the disciplines of design, the relationship of children with the space is rarely touched upon. It is also underlined that, in a similar way, children’s relationship with the space and environment is not focused on in the discipline of Geography (Ward, 1990). It is possible to say that; there is a spark of interest in this yet new topic.

Design for children requires knowing the child; to understand the importance and necessity of places for the child, and to know activities children do and want to do especially in urban public areas (Acar, 2013). Therefore, studies could be carried out that display how children use the urban areas in current circumstances. It is increasingly important to find out what kind of space children need and what spaces they lack by learning from their own language, writings and drawings.

Children’s Perceptions and Views

The last thirty to forty years have seen growing research interest in children and their relationship with the urban environment. Researchers from different countries and academic backgrounds as (Lynch (1977), Colin Ward (1977), Roger Hart (1979), and Robin Moore (1986) ) pioneered their approach of observing the experiences of young people in the city. First, Lynch (1977) in Growing Up in Cities, studied small groups of young people in diverse cities (Melbourne, Warsaw, Salta and Mexico City), in an attempt to discover how they used and valued their environment, and identified the importance of urban space as a vital to their development from adolescence to adulthood. Hart’s (1979) major study, Children’s

Experience of Place, aimed to discover the landscape, as it exists for children. His arguments were based on the findings of a case study carried out in a small town in New England, US. The core conclusion of his research was that within each child lies a primary urge to explore and come to know the larger environment. Meanwhile, at the same time as the above studies, the British anarchist and education reformist, Colin Ward (1977) carried out research in the UK to produce a qualitative record of children’s experiences and explorations in the urban environment through education and play. His radical study advocated children’s rights to participate in urban planning and design and suggested that they should be included in the public participation process through strategies based on the recognition of their independent capacity to hold and exercise rights.

The above studies proved to be very influential in inspiring future worldwide research on young people and their local environment ― both urban and rural. A new era of social science research, environmental planning and design dawned in the late seventies with these researchers. Most studies have focused on children’s perceptions and experiences of their local environment and their participatory role in planning and decision-making of environmental projects. However, since the mid-1990s, researchers have shifted their interest towards more fundamental studies questioning governmental policies and strategies, which lead to the exclusion of young people from public space through the criminalization of certain activities (e.g. skateboarding, graffiti) and policing of their movement (e.g. juvenile curfews) (Percy-Smith, 1998). The following sections in the literature review present the most salient studies and critically discuss their findings.

Children’s Drawings

Today, the visual media tools settle in our lives very quickly, and it will be inefficient if output images are not used in educational sciences. Also, interpreting children’s pictures must be approached in a different way than interpreting their writings. Williams (2007), also highlights the multi-formed educational means of children, and points out the significance of interpreting the drawings made by children for their own merit. Because children’s drawings are clear, easy to understand and sincere, it has been an interest to many researchers to read and understand them, and this interest still continues. The pictures that children draw are not only some output images they made on their own. On the contrary, these pictures are interwoven with daily life (Driskell 2002). Although reading mostly implies the reading of a written text, the increasing number of visual stimuli and the visual materials in children’s education today make it urgently necessary to read and interpret children’s pictures.

In addition, this technique also reflects the work of others, including Burns and Kaufman (1970), Knoff and Prout (1985), and Moore (1986) who have developed conceptual frameworks to interpret children’s drawings. Many investigators have demonstrated that children’s drawings can reflect self-concepts, attitudes, wishes, and concerns (Burns, 1982; Golomb, 1992; Klepsch and Logie, 1982; Koppitz, 1983).

Children’s drawings of their local area provided a tool for discussing perceptions, activities, range of movement, and favorite and least favorite places. Observations of the drawing process and the drawings themselves provided insights about what was most and least important to the respondents. Drawings were conducted and integrated as part of the one-to-one interviews and administered by the researcher. Drawing was an engaging technique and as such a good ‘ice-breaker’ early in the process.

This study analyses the pictures of the 32 students in two Al-Wihdat secondary schools (1 girls school, 1 boys school) for who are partially in the reality stage and more in the naturalization of reality stage (between 10-14 years old). When the child reaches his/her last stage of development, his lines are a realistic display of his/her life, and his/her multi-sided cognitive development is rooted in these lines (Burns, 1982; Golomb, 1992; Klepsch and Logie, 1982; Koppitz, 1983). The children of these stages are aware that they are part of a society and they depict it on their pictures. These drawings display signs of the society and culture that they live in. The fiction of space is improved in the picture and the spaces where the events take place are reflected in the picture in a detailed way. Their fine motor control of their hands has matured; however, the emotional turbulences of puberty might be reflected in their pictures (Driskell 2002).

Description of Study Area

In the early stages of the study, two sites, Al-Wihdat refugee camp and Al-Natheef neighborhood, were selected. However, due to the lack of students from Al-Natheef neighborhood in the schools where I was permitted to conduct the research, the study area was widened to include children who go to the same school district but live in Al-Yarmouk District, Al-Qwuaismeh District, and Ras Al-Ain District immediately adjacent to Al-Wihdat Camp (Figure 1 & 2). These new boundaries gave a broader area with more diverse student population to be included in the study. Although I would have preferred to limit the study to the original areas selected at the early stages of the study, the restrictions by authorities and the difficulty in obtaining another permit for another school district were factors in adjusting the study boundaries to its current configuration.

In preparation for the drawing exercise, the children were asked if they visited areas outside their neighborhood and how they would describe it to someone who had never been there. This was done for two reasons: (1) to obtain untainted or preconceived images of the neighborhood from the child and before the child became influenced through later discussions, and (2) to evaluate children’s verbal abilities to articulate their thoughts and views about their outdoor environments. Children’s abilities to articulate thoughts and views graphically were explored. Each child was given an 18” x 24” white sheet of paper, medium- point black marker pen and color crayon markers. At the start of the exercise, the children were asked to make a map or drawing of all their favorite places – where they go after school or on weekends. I emphasized that whatever the child drew or wrote down on the drawing was fine and assured the child that the exercise had nothing to do with his/her normal classroom work. At the end of the exercise, the contents of drawings were discussed with each child individually. The aim was to make sure that I understood what was being drawn. I made light pencil notes on each drawing for future reference.

[image: image1.png]The reviews and analysis are primarily subjective. It is not the intent of the research to develop a technique for quantitative analysis, as a number of these are already well discussed in the literature. Rather, to highlight issues and objects that children identified in their intimate neighborhood landscape and to demonstrate the potential usefulness of children’s drawings in informing policy makers, planners, and designers.

Each child was asked to make a drawing of their neighborhood where he or she lived, including the most important places in it. The drawing was discussed with the participating child. To encourage discussion, some probing questions were introduced.

The analysis of the drawings provided insights into the children’s perceptions and values regarding the outdoor environment. The analysis of the drawings and any subsequent oral comments were viewed as a whole. Using the drawings, cognitive responses were coded in one of the twelve subcategories, which were adapted from Moore (1986):

  1. Streets, Pathways & Associated Places: neighborhood streets, pavement, alleys, footpaths, public steps, and through streets.
  2. Home and Home Sites: child’s home, friends’ and relatives’ homes, building roofs, rooftops, private courtyards, and gardens.
  3. Vegetation and Landscape Features: regular and fruit trees, flowers, grass, hills, sand, water body (lakes and ponds), sky, sun and topography.
  4. Non-residential Buildings: schools, pre-schools, television broadcast stations, mosques, hospitals, and post offices.
  5. Open Space: parks, gardens, amusement parks, playgrounds, vacant lands, play fields, schoolyards, and parking areas.
  6. Commercial Facilities: shopping centers (Souq), local shops, repair garages, and machine shops.Children-Made Appropriate Play Places: abandoned buildings, dirty places, concrete fence, walls, street plays, and girl’s outdoors play areas.
  7. Traffic: vehicular traffic, traffic lights, pedestrian bridge, and cars.
  8. Asphalt and Concrete Surfaces: schoolyards, parking lots and streets.
  9. People: child’s portraits, child’s siblings, child’s friends and others, kids playing and walking.
  10. Sports Facilities: soccer fields, basketball courts, and swimming pools.
  11. Animals and Birds: cats, dogs, sheep, rabbits, doves, and birds

Children spend large portions of their days outside in their neighborhoods. This exposes them to a wide range of social values, thus building and shaping their physical capabilities, personalities, goals, and directions. The neighborhood is a primary setting in which child spends unstructured time. Figure 3 illustrates the results of the drawings’ analysis.

A child carries certain cognitive images of his/her neighborhood. These are images built through years of personal experience. Lynch (1977) pointed out that these images are used to interpret information and guide action. As children explore their neighborhoods, they begin to learn the ways in which their culture defines territories. For example, they learn how far they can go away from home, the road to take when they go to school; or the road to avoid because of heavy traffic or physical danger. They learn what is public and what is private. They learn that they can invite children into their homes, but they do not have the right to enter another person’s house uninvited.

[image: image2.jpg]It was assumed that these drawings represented experiences that are memorable and of importance to the child. It was the child’s own home and surroundings (mentioned in more than half of the drawings) that appear to be the most important places for the children. Additional items were mentioned in more than quarter of the drawings: playground, vacant land, play field, mosque, library, car, street play and play areas, traffic, traffic lights, pedestrian bridge, parks, garden, amusement park, schoolyard, parking lot and pavement. Other types of places shown on the drawings by children diminish in significance, without distinct gaps, across the children’s frequented and occasional ranges.

[image: image3.emf][image: image4.jpg]Figure 3 indicate that there was minimal variation between boys and girls’ representation of their favorite places, which contradict the findings from interviews and their behaviors. This variation was expected because it is the result of tabulating all the elements indicated on the drawings. In this case, the children drew their home because it is part of their habitual range ― it is the starting and ending location of their activities. However, a closer look reveals that the majority of girls favored home sites. As they demonstrated in the interviews, the drawing reinforced this theme by showing that the majority of the girls’ drawings featured home. These places represented a safe and appropriate environment for girls within the Islamic culture, where they do not face harassment or social threat. When they were asked to explain why they considered home sites their favorite, the majority stated that it is safer for them and there are no teens around to harass them. In addition, their parents do not allow them to go to any other places in the neighborhood for fear of assault and physical danger.

On the other hand, boys scored the highest most favorite for streets, pathways and associated places (35 mentions), followed by home sites (34 mentions). These two categories, while they appear different, are almost the same. The streets and pathway referred to most of the time by boys are those places in front of the house or a friend’s house. Other streets referred to by both boys and girls are those streets between home and school. Thus, the interviews and drawings support the notion that girls have an extremely limited range and they only draw the places that they know from their limited experiences.

In addition to their favorite place, the drawings indicated the children’s habitual ranges. It is clear that boy’s habitual range wider but controlled by parental consent. In comparison, girls’ habitual ranges are limited and very narrow due to restrictions placed on them by both parents and society.

[image: image7.jpg]As for the importance of vegetation and landscape between genders, girls scored twelve more mentions than boys, an indication that perhaps girls see natural elements as more important in the outdoor environment. The mid-range score of Al-Wihdat community and neighboring areas in the ‘open space’ category reflected a shortage of open spaces around them. This emphasizes two things: dependency on city parks and playgrounds; and the resilience of children who can adapt to streets and any other spaces that exist in their community for their daily activities (Figure 8)

Since the similarities between genders are stronger than the differences, the scores for the remaining categories indicated a common core of childhood environment experiences. The similarities in perceptions and views of the outdoor environments of both boys and girls were a clear indication that the intense level of urban development had a strong impact on children’s behavior

Discussion and Conclusion

The pictures mostly show the streets and buildings but not students’ total neighborhood. Architectural form consists of many other elements that enable the first impression from the visuals (Berg and Medrich, 1980; Cohen and Horm-Wingerd, 1993; Heft and Wohlwill, 1987; Lidz, 1968; Moore, 1986). Here, the buildings are usually drawn in long, multi-story and rectangular shapes. That is because there is a faceless and disorganized urbanization around them in their community. In the drawings the proportion of the objects and figures are generally paid attention to. The pictures mostly do not have the horizon line. The green elements in their environment are minimum. There are no other obvious natural elements only clouds and the sun. The number of children who drew playgrounds are minimum. The children have usually drawn their flats or buildings in greater details than the adjacent buildings with trees and green spaces that indicate fantasy rather than reality. Some pictures were just sketches and there was little to talk about them. Male children mentioned that they hate drawing pictures and they usually show very basic elements and abstract. During the discussions with them after drawing, several children said that they thought their work was incomplete. Female children have more details in their pictures. When doing the visual analysis of the space, it is important to notice the details, which shows communication with the form. In some of the drawings, there are details such as the windows, flowerpot, children playing on the street and aunties looking out of the window.

The short answer is that the results indicate that the outdoor physical environments within Al-Wihdat and its environs do not provide the child residents with reasonably viable explorative outdoor environments. The analysis shows that the existing outdoor spaces and facilities had far more limitations and constraints than benefits on child users. Children showed that they were very resilient, adaptable and content. The outdoor physical environment in Al-wihdat community and environs do not fully support healthy explorative activities for children.

The research indicated that there is a clear divide between boys and girls’ outdoors spaces, which means outdoor environment is gendered. While the boys dominated the public spaces, girls retreated to home-oriented sites.

In conclusion, children are passive and easily influenced in addition to being an important portion of the society in every aspect. Children should be able to make use of the common rights and services the adults have, live in an urban environment that is free from evil and various threats, to play safely in open urban areas, be able to meet their friends/others, be able to share and learn together with other kids (Moore, 1986). Under current circumstances, it is possible to see the children’s pictures and verbal expressions reveal the lack of such means. The interactions of individuals with their environments that occur as part of spatial cognition and consciousness have a direct impact on the development of their internal world. Children need to have an urban structure that allows them to go out on the streets of the city and safely use the urban spaces.

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