On Forming a Child-friendly Environment in Urban Communities
May 25,2020   By:CSHRS
On Forming a Child-friendly Environment in Urban Communities

CHI Liping*
Abstract: The community is both a learning and living environment that significantly influences the physical and mental development of the children, as well as an important arena for realizing children’s rights. However, the development of urban communities in China is not particularly child-friendly, causing children to abandon or misuse the communal environment. Creating a child-friendly environment in urban communities requires the adoption of three basic approaches, i.e. a shift from the “adult’s perspective” to the “child’s perspective”, a shift from a simplistic focus on the “hardware” of the environment to a dual focus that balances both “hardware” and “software”, as well as a shift from providing an environment to man­aging and guiding the use of the environment. Specific technical indicators for developing child-friendly environments in urban communities, which based on these three approaches, should be designed.

Keywords: child-friendly communities ♦ children’s rights ♦ environment-friendly ♦ service-friendly
Aside from home and school, the community is the most important environment for children. The community provides conditions for children’s physical health, and is also a platform for children to socialize and learn more about society, and develop a psychological sense of community. However, at present, the construction and shaping of urban communities is dominated by adults and so serves their needs, and the significance of the community to children’s development tends to be overlooked. Building child-friendly communities is an essential condition for safeguarding children’s right to development and fostering their physical and mental health. Therefore, this paper will briefly discuss the impact of the communal environment on children’s development, with a focus on the approaches and specific indicators for creating a child-friendly environment during community construction.

I. Building Child-friendly Communities is Required to Protect Children’s Right to Development

In 1996, UNICEF launched the Child Friendly Cities Initiative, indicating that governments should fully implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Whether in a large city, a medium-sized city, a small city or a community, children should be given priority in decision-making. By this token, the construction, use and governance of child-friendly communities should be based on the full respect and protection of children’s rights to enable them to develop physically, intellectually and psychologically, and ensure that children have reasonable access to communal environments and educational resources in the environment, and should respect their rights to participate in community life and decision-making in community public affairs.

Since then, countries around the world have begun to pay greater attention to protecting children’s interests in the urban space. In 2010, the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council introduced the Goals and Policy Measures for Creating China’s Child-friendly Cities, in a bid to encourage local governments to meet their responsibility for managing children’s affairs and formulate public policies that are conducive to children’s development; encourage governments, relevant departments, all sectors of society, schools and families to jointly participate in the management of children’s affairs; and encourage children to participate in family, school, community and social life, and to participate in decision-making on children’s affairs. At present, many cities including Shenzhen, Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, and Haining have made the construction of child-friendly cities an integral part of their urban planning. As a basic unit of the city, the community is an important subject of the implementation of the child-friendly city strategy. How to improve the child-friendliness of the environment at the community level has become a common concern for researchers and practitioners in public policy, community governance, children’s rights, children’s development, environmental planning, social services, family education and other professional fields.

In 2016, China established the “Working Committee for Child-friendly Communities” and introduced Guidelines for the Construction of Chinas Child-friendly Demonstration Communities (hereinafter referred to as the Guidelines), which is designed to construct and assess “China’s Child-friendly Community Ecosystem” in the three dimensions of policy, environment and services.Among them, child-friendly policies emphasize the provision of policy and institutional conditions in the community governance system to safeguard the fundamental rights of children as enumerated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For example, the construction of child-friendly communities must be led by governments at or above the sub-district/town level to foster a supporting financial budget and supervisory mechanism for inclusive public services for children, and to facilitate the filing or registration of child-friendly community service organizations. The mechanism of detection, reporting, response and referral for child protection shall be established to promote the concept of child-friendly communities and the implement the principles of “children first” and “children’s participation” to community workers, residents and children.

Child-friendly spaces emphasize how to realize the respect and protection for children’s rights through the planning, design, construction and maintenance of the “hardware environment” of the community. To this end, environmental planners, designers, child psychologists, sub-district/town governments, neighborhood committees, property managers, schools, children and their parents are all required to cooperate and participate in different stages of community construction. The Guidelines require that the construction of the community environment start from the perspective of children, respect the needs of children-led activities, and truly fulfill children’s wishes by fostering public spaces, public facilities and free play environments in urban communities that are conducive to children’s healthy development, which should be the basis for the all-round planning and design communities. With children’s residences as the starting point and other spaces in the community as the main circle of peripheral development, it is required that reasonable planning ensures the layout of spaces is suitable for the living, learning and play activities and provides supporting facilities for children of all ages,to guarantee children’s safety and increase children’s and adult’s presence in community engagement and interaction, and improve the availability of public spaces and community vitality, so as to realize children’s rights, benefits and well-being physically, mentally, cognitively, socially and economically. In the meantime, it is also necessary to encourage children to participate in the design and maintenance of public spaces, and encourage the community to listen to and adopt children’s opinions.

Child-friendly services mainly refers to the construction of the “software environment” in the community. The goal is to establish a professional team of community workers for children’s welfare to provide sustained inclusive services and support for all children aged 0-18 and their families in the community. To this end, community construction should achieve indicators as follows: popularizing community-based inclusive services for children and support for family upbringing; carry out continuous, locally distinctive services that reflect traditional culture for children of different ages and with special needs; advocating the integration and complementarity of family education, school education and community education; encouraging parents and children to set up self-organization; establishing feedback and management mechanisms for child-friendly service quality. This paper mainly focuses on two dimensions of urban community construction: child- friendly spaces and child-friendly services.

To sum up, UNICEF, the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council and the Working Committee for Child-friendly Communities have adopted various conventions, initiatives and construction guidelines for the protection of children’s rights and interests, which clearly set forth the institutional requirements for building child-friendly communities. However, judging from the actual situation of community environment construction, the child-friendliness in urban communities in China is not so desirable.

Although the community space should play an important role in education as an important place for children to do physical exercises, socialize, study and practice outside kindergartens and schools. However, many children choose to spend their spare time staying at home in front of “screens” (cell phones, computers and TV screens), becoming so-called “shut-in children” and “screen slaves”, and seldom engaging in activities beneficial to physical and mental development in the open environment of the community. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the community environment hasn’t been shaped to meet children’s needs for healthy growth. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “the fundamental needs of children should be incorporated into the planning of neighborhoods or cities”, the State of the Worlds Children 2012: Children in an Urban World released by the United Nations sharply points out that “our cities are abandoning children”. This is also a case found in China. In the process of rapid urbanization in China, many cities are not being constructed to reflect the concept of “child-friendly communities” and “child-friendly cities”, making it difficult to guarantee children’s basic right to use the community environment. Then, which spatial characteristics of the community are related to children’s physical and mental health, and which services are set to better reflect the respect for children’s rights? From a  “child-centered” perspective, the following parts will sort out the research results of multiple disciplines, including sports science, psychology, public health and architectural design, on the relationship between urban community environment and children’s physical and mental development, as an effort to provide scientific basis for the planning and construction of urban communities.

II. Influence of Urban Communities on Children’s Physical and Mental Development

Children’s development involves children’s physiological development, language and movement skills, development of various psychological functions, personality formation and social awareness, formation and development of attachment and interpersonal skills, etc.

Children’s development is inseparable from their social environment, and is closely related to the community environment to which he or she is directly exposed. According to the “Developmental Niche” theory, each species has a unique niche suitable for its own growth to distinguish it from other species; the destruction of the niche environment will make it difficult for the species to survive. The physical and humanistic environment of the community, the children’s upbringing and education habits determined by local culture and history, the psychological characteristics of parents, etc., have interplayed to form the niche on which children rely for their development.2 The community environment promotes, nourishes, and restricts the physical and mental development of children through housing structure, spatial layout, physical activity equipment and material supply, traditional parenting practices, community cohesion, etc.

A. The community environment provides conditions for children’s physical health and sports activities

As a permanent residence for children, the community environment (including physical and humanistic environments) directly affects children’s chance of contacting a disease, the incidence of overweight and obesity, the frequency of physical activities, the risk of encountering traffic accidents, etc., which relates to children’s survival and health.

First of all, venues, equipment and administrative rules suitable for sports activities in the community will affect the physical health and physical exercise of children. According to the research results on the relationship between daily physical exercise and urban spatial layout, the spatial distance between sports venues, such as basketball courts, public green spaces and fitness trails, and residences will affect the frequency of physical exercises performed by people.3 For children, the community in which they live is the sports area with the best accessibility (within 50-300 meters of the residence). Therefore, whether the community environment can provide supporting conditions for their sports activities, such as public green space, sports equipment, fitness facilities and the ban on motor vehicle travel, may affect children’s physical exercise in an imperceptible manner. However, a survey of nearly 1,000 urban adolescents aged 11-18 in China has revealed that, due to parents’ concerns about the safety of outdoor environment and the lack of a sports facilities in the community, 80 percent of adolescents are physically inactive and 73.2 percent of students have sedentary behaviors and screen-based behaviors such as watching TV, and playing on computers and cellphones.4 This physical inactivity and the lifestyle shifting from being dynamic to static are the main factors that combine to foster the obesity-prone environment, which increases the risk of children and adolescents becoming overweight and obese. If the level of physical activity does not meet the recommended standards or the use of computers or game play exceeds the recommended time limit, the obesity rate may be 3-4 times that in normal conditions; children who watch TV for more than five hours a day will have an obesity rate 5.3 times higher than those watching TV for less than 2 hours a day.

Second, the slow travel environment in a community can improve the travel safety of children and reduce the disease infection rate. Apart from outdoor games and other physical activities and sports in the community environment, the largest proportion of children’s moderate to high intensity physical exercise is active commuting, i.e. children and adolescents going to and from school on foot or by bicycle. However, the accelerating urbanization process and the modern mode of transportation based on automobiles have brought potential safety hazards to activities such as walking and cycling, and increased parent concerns about the safety of children’s independent travel. All these have made it increasingly unlikely for children to travel independently. In the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and some Nordic countries, with the dramatic fall in the rate of children traveling alone, the proportion of children being sent to school and other places of activity by car has also seen a sharp rise.5 To solve this dilemma, in 2004, London put forward and applied the “walking bus” method, where a group of children travel to and from school on foot, supervised by more than two parent volunteers. This method, being healthy and environmentally friendly, was soon popularized in the UK and copied by other countries. Thus it can be seen that whether community roads are friendly for children to walk, whether there are dedicated bicycle paths, or whether there are supporting adult protection mechanisms will affect the possibility of children travelling independently and safely. In addition, a slow traffic environment suitable for walking and cycling, with a ban on motor vehicles, is also conducive to increasing children’s physical activity and reducing the risk of disease infection. A study on the associations between community space and children’s health in Boston found that the coverage rate of community outdoor space accessible to children, walk scores and other spatial characteristic indexes can predict the emergency treatment rate of asthma for children aged 3-17.6 

Finally, the humanistic environment and public services in the community provide guarantees for the healthy development and growth of children. To ensure safe travel and free play for children in the community, alongside the hardware environment mentioned above, the role of the “software environment” (such as the humanistic environment, public security and public services) in the community should not be ignored. Practices such as the community-based parent traffic volunteers and community-based “half past four”, and “walking bus” parent volunteer teams all create a good community atmosphere for children to use the community environment independently. According to the results of a study on communities in China, those communities where most of the residents work at the same institution enjoy a stronger atmosphere of mutual assistance and more active participation in community activities, and are more likely to form a neighborhood atmosphere of mutual support and help.7 Children living in such communities are more likely to travel and play independently. At the same time, health lectures, safety and disaster reduction education activities organized by the community for children and parents also help reduce the risk of accidental injury and disease infection in children.

B. The community environment is an important venue for the recovery of cognitive and emotional functions of children and adolescents

First, a high-quality natural environment in a community can provide conditions for the recovery of children’s psychological functions. When people try to ignore all potential distractions and concentrate on completing work and learning tasks in a cognitively clear way, they consume more mental energy and are more prone to fatigue, which leads to reduced work efficiency, increased work error rate, increased negative emotions, and even short-term physiological dysfunction or abnormal behavior. At this time, people will show a special preference for environments with certain characteristics, such as natural environments with attractive scenery, visual focus, and plants and water. This preference is natural and is the result of human evolution. As a result of various physiological and psychological functions still being immature, children will consume greater mental energy when they focus on learning activities, and they are more prone to fatigue and thus show a series of cognitive, emotional or behavioral biases. In one of our research interviews with teenagers, one middle school student described it like this: “The homework piles up like a hill, and almost any extracurricular activity is redundant. Life is really tough for us. Parents don’t understand us, either.”8 Thus, it is apparent that academic stress may put students in a state of physical and mental fatigue. Casual walks, exercise and play in the natural environment after learning activities provide essential conditions for children and adolescents to maintain rapid recovery and normal development of cognitive functions and regulation of their emotional state. As a natural environment easily accessible to children, the community is an important place for them to recover their cognitive and emotional functions. Our research on adolescent environmental psychology shows that playing and socializing with peers near small community parks, street gardens, community public green spaces, rockery, ponds and other architectural pieces can reduce the learning pressure and examination anxiety felt by teenagers and help to enhance their positive emotions9 and maintain higher learning enthusiasm and efficiency.10

Second, the interpersonal interactions within the community help adolescents relieve the stress caused by learning tasks. For adolescents in secondary school, besides the challenges in physical, intellectual and endurance aspects brought by learning tasks, the accompanying stress is also one of the reasons for the decline in adolescents’ cognitive functions and the prevalence of emotional disorders. Schools and families are environments dominated and controlled by authoritative adults, who are focused on academic performance, while the interpersonal communication in the community environment can provide a free and equal atmosphere that reflects their independence as members of society. Our research on the use of the community environment by middle school students shows that small community bookstores and snack bars that are full of human warmth are favorite and frequent places for teenagers to meet and socialize. They think that these places help to relax their minds and discharge negative emotions. These places have some common features: storekeepers value interpersonal communication more than profit making; storekeepers and teenagers are socializing on an equal footing; the conversation covers positive topics such as study and life goals.11

Finally, community educational resources and services can help children develop in an all-around way, and alleviate psychological dysfunction caused by academic stress. China’s examination system overemphasizes academic performance and neglects the development of teenagers’ hobbies and social skills, resulting in great academic stress, incomplete competencies and low self-acceptance among teenagers. Most teenagers expect to receive education and guidance in music, art, sports, computers, painting, etc., as well as to increase their understanding of social reality. These demand gaps can be filled by the community and relevant social work agencies. In Western countries, especially in the United States, teenagers have opportunities to participate in various sports activities or extracurricular clubs and community activities, from which they can discover and cultivate their own abilities and seek more development possibilities. Teenagers in our country seldom get such opportunities within the community.

C. The community environment is the platform for children’s social interaction

The “Group Socialization Theory” put forward by Judith Rich Harris, an American psychologist, emphasizes the important role of peer interaction in children’s socialization. According to the theory, the family has important influences on the initial socialization of children in early childhood, but these influences will gradually weaken and fade away as they are replaced by those of adolescent peer groups. Once adolescent peer groups are formed, group assimilation and group dissimilation will occur in which  the existing social culture is transmitted and a new culture formed. It is in this process that the sociality of adolescents keeps developing until it becomes an integral part of their personality, which has an important influence on their lives. Peer group socialization of adolescents is achieved by engaging in group activities in certain places. Usually, we believe the school to be the main place for adolescents to engage in peer group activities, however in reality, school life for teenagers is highly organized, mainly involving attending classes and learning, with very little time for rest and free activities, which makes it hard to meet the teenagers’ needs for peer group activities. And teenagers in families have fewer opportunities to interact with peer groups than they do at school. Therefore, the community becomes an important space for children, particularly adolescents, to engage in social interaction and group activities outside the school and home.
At present, urban communities in China fail to provide sufficient spaces for adolescents to socialize, and there is a lack of design and guidance for adolescents conducting community activities. In some other countries, many communities set up special teenager entertainment centers or boys’ and girls’ clubs, which provide guided peer group activities for children and adolescents. In addition to communities, states in the United States also set up extracurricular activity centers for children at the city level, and open to middle school students free of charge libraries, museums, zoos, botanical gardens, parks, space museums, planetariums, aquariums, art galleries, science centers, art centers, etc. These spaces effectively support students’ group activities. Studies have shown that community leisure activities that provide safe and healthy facilities and activities, clear rules and expectations, and adult guidance and supervision, while ensuring adolescent autonomy, can facilitate positive development of children and adolescents, and help children to create a positive peer culture.12

D. The community environment is a window through which children perceive society

The process of individual growth is the process of socialization whereby a young individual transforms into a social person. As an environment dominated by authoritative adults, schools and families aim to accelerate the socialization of teenagers in a planned and step-by-step manner. Therefore, the socialization delivered by school and families covers the morality, ideals and social norms that the state and society expect individuals to possess. However, these are actually “filtered” ideal cultures, not cultures in real social life. The real society is far richer and more varied than that presented by schools and families. This is especially true in the era of scientific development and the prevalence of multiculturalism. The community can expose adolescents to the real culture in a free way through various opportunities, becoming a window for children and adolescents to perceive the society in which they live. Taking American community service as an example, there are many organizations in the United States that can provide opportunities for middle school students to engage in volunteer activities in their districts, such as hospitals, medical laboratories, community service agencies, and the Red Cross Society. In hospitals, middle school students can help nurses send patients to various auxiliary examination departments such as the adiology department, or chat with terminal stage patients suffering from incurable diseases, answer phone calls, etc. In community nursing homes, teenagers and children can provide simple services for the elderly including blood pressure measurement, heart rate monitoring, art performances and company care. In museums, planetariums, zoos or botanical gardens, popular science introductions and company for young children provided by adolescents can also be seen frequently. Involvement in those real services in real social scenarios helps enhance children’s understanding of social life, and fosters their sense of social responsibility.

E. The community environment is the field for cultivating children’ psychological sense of community

A community is more than a place where people live, but a community of social life based on a common psychological foundation. The shared psychology of community residents is reflected in a series of psychological variables, such as shared sense of community, community values and community personality, identification with and attachment to the community, participation in community affairs, mutual trust and support between neighbors, etc.13 The attachment to and identification with the community is the core element of a shared community psychology, and starts to develop since an individual’s early childhood. According to the developmental model of place attachment by the American psychologist Paul Morgan, children’s attachment to the community environment originates from their exploration and use of the physical environment in the community during their childhood.14 Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-American human geographer, also pointed out that when children and their peers (or adults) meet repeatedly and get to know each other in a certain place in the community environment, and eventually establish deep friendships, this place will become a “place of care” for children. It is reused by children and becomes part of their peer relationships. It is incorporated into children’s important memory and becomes the basis for fostering a strong sense of belonging and identity toward this place in the future.15 Children engaging in favorite activities and having a lot of close friends and familiar neighbors in the community environment will increase their community attachment and identity. Therefore, the community providing sufficient physical spaces and engaging activities for children will facilitate the formation of psychological sense of community in children.

Residents with a higher sense of community identity show stronger inclinations to help others and participate in community activities.16 Similarly, cultivating children’s community identity can stimulate their willingness and action to participate in community affairs (participating in community recreational and sports activities, community volunteer organizations, etc.). For example, the community service-learning project carried out by Jayne Renee  Pivik allows children, as the project leader, to convene and organize community assemblies, formulate rules of procedure, raise funds, and engage in the construction and operation of charitable second-hand shops; community psychologists, school teachers, local government staff and adult residents in the community, as facilitators, help children learn and acquire skills and abilities in project operation, public affairs decision-making, etc. In this process, the children not only acquired knowledge of community engagement, but also become part of the engagement process by their own will. For another example, in 2007, Urban Planning & Design Institute of Shenzhen organized children from Hongli Community to participate in the community planning so that children’s psychological demand for community construction could be understood. To summarize, the frequent and free access to the community spaces and participation in community construction are conducive to fostering children’s psychological sense of community.

III. Problems with Children’s Current Use of the Community Environment

As a supplement to family and school environments, the community environment has important influences on children’s physical health, cognition and emotions, understanding of the society and development of psychological sense of community. However, the current use of community environment by children is not so desirable. Currently, children’s use of public community environment is characterized by three main characteristics: first, children are “disappearing” from public community environments, as they tend to decreasingly use these environments; second, children often “incorrectly” use public spaces and facilities; third, children do not have a “community life”, as they are rarely involved in community services and administration.

A. Children are decreasingly using community facilities

Psychological research shows that active and play-based exploration of the community environment is quite necessary for children’s healthy development. However, in recent years, children have fewer and fewer opportunities to independently play in the community, and the probability of children playing in the community without adult supervision has seen a significant drop. According to an early longitudinal study in the United Kingdom, the frequency of 7-year-old children going to school or playing in the community unsupervised decreased from 72 percent in 1971 to 7 percent in 1990, while the proportion of children aged 10-11 decreased from 94 percent to 54 percent. A follow-up study conducted in 2010 showed that the opportunities for British children to engage in community activities and the level of independent activity had continued to decline. Studies conducted in the US, Canada and New Zealand have revealed this similar tendency of sharp decline.17 A survey of more than 5,000 children aged 6-12 in five major cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai, has shown that 87.4 percent of the children surveyed liked outdoor activities, but only a much lower proportion of them could actually engage in outdoor activities. Parents having concerns about safety yet without time for supervision, a lack of suitable activity spaces in the community, etc., were the main factors restricting children’s outdoor activities in the community.18 Thus it is obvious that parents no longer regard the community as a safe space. They worry about stranger abduction and safety risks incurred by traffic and buildings, and prefer to accompany their children in the community or play games with them at home. Streets, communities and other public outdoor environments are increasingly inaccessible to children, and the utilization of those environments is also increasingly lower.

B. Children are “incorrectly” using the community environment

Although more and more children are becoming “shut-in children” and making little use of public spaces in their communities, many of them still love outdoor spaces. A survey of primary school students in four schools in Wuhan found that 90 percent of the children were willing to reduce their indoor activities if there were more outdoor play areas; “soft open lawns” are the ideal play area for them; but in reality, 99 percent of them have played games in the streets with heavy traffic.19 R. Vanderbeck et. al. have found that contemporary urban children and adolescents have been marginalized in the use of outdoor open spaces, and their meeting places are instead stores and shopping malls.20 In real life, we often see children climbing and frolicking on landscape sculptures or rockeries with “no climbing” signs, using adult fitness equipment as climbing frames with no regard for “equipment instructions”, or using the adult arm sling as backboards to practice shooting. These “incorrect” uses of the environment reflect the problems with community environment design: first, a lack of adequate spaces and facilities suitable for children’s play and sports; second, the available facilities are boring and not attractive for children; finally, the community landscape and equipment design completely ignore the unique perspectives of children.

C. Children are basically not involved in public community activities and rarely use community educational resources

Due to the implementation of the “two-day weekend” system and the “burden reduction” education policy, plus the summer and winter holidays and national holidays, after-school time for Chinese primary and secondary school students is nearly half a year. These vacation arrangements provide sufficient opportunities for primary and secondary school students to engage in learning and practical activities off campus. However, in fact, primary and secondary school students seldom participate in such activities in the community. Even if they do participate, they only try to complete those activities as an out-of-school assignment, not as a routine in their community life. This situation is partly due to an under-supply of community activities and services. At present, most urban communities fail to provide sustainable, quality and targeted community services for children. Community governance is also basically adult-oriented, covering few topics related to children’s development, and it is even more rare for children to be part of the discussions and decision-making for community public affairs.

To summarize, the trend of children “abandoning” and “misusing” the community environment shows that there are problems with the current urban community construction, such as the dislocation of perspective for the physical environment design, weak guidance for follow-up management and use of the physical environment, and underdevelopment of the community software environment, which require solving and improving in the construction of child-friendly communities.

IV. Basic Approaches to Creating Child-friendly Environments in the Community

Based on the important influence of community environments on children’s physical and mental development and the problems with children’s current use of the community, we propose three basic approaches to creating child-friendly environments in urban communities.

A. Shifting from an adult’s perspective to a child’s perspective

A general review of the literature and practice on the design of children’s play spaces and children’s living environments in urban planning, environmental design and other disciplines has revealed that the space environment design in this field shows a typical “adult’s perspective”, seldom adopting a “child’s perspective”, which results in environmental planning and construction failing to truly serve children. For example, the aforementioned “incorrect” use of the environment by children is usually defined as a lack of moral education and public morality, and has not been considered from the academic and practical view of environmental design and community construction. This reflects that the public, researchers and environmental planners have failed to realize the difference between the “child’s perspective” and the “adult’s perspective“. The “adult’s perspective” in environmental design is characterized by more attention paid to the “standard functions” defined by the society (such as instructions for fitness equipment), with few extended associations made beyond the social definition. Children are more willing to define the function of the environment or equipment themselves (we call it the “children’s perspective”). By observing the form and structure of the environment, children think about what possibilities they can provide for their activities without paying attention to the social definition of the environment. For example, when children see a sofa, they think more about bouncing on it, possessing it, climbing and hiding. When adults believe that children are misusing a place element, it is actually that the place element has been mis-designed by adults, leading to the abuse. The construction of child-friendly community environments requires a shift from the perspective of adults to that of children and avoidance of “over-standardization” of the functional definition of children’s activity spaces and equipment to leave room for children to create. We should also pay more attention to indicators that can reflect the needs of children, including “challenge”, “sense of control”, “sustained supply”, “sense of territory”, “privacy”, “ecology” and “playability” of playgrounds and equipment.

B. Shifting from a focus on the “Hardware” of the environment to a dual focus that balances both “hardware” and “software”

The existing indicators for community environment assessment mainly focus on physical characteristics (such as the size of site spaces, the type of equipment and scale of facilities), and emphasize the influence of environments on children’s physical health, which include provision of material conditions for children to participate in sports and games and travel independently, while ignoring the function of “software” characteristics, including the humanistic environment and services, in helping children engage in peer interaction, explore the environment, get to know the society, develop a psychological sense of community, etc. In fact, the hardware and software environments of the community are not independent of each other, but interrelated. On one hand, the construction and improvement of community humanistic environments can make up for the shortage of physical environments to a great extent. For example, the existence of a neighborhood atmosphere of mutual help and mutual support such “walking bus” schemes can make the path to and from school that does not completely separate pedestrians from vehicles less dangerous. On the other, changes to the hardware environment will help enhance the quality of the software environment. For example, a newly constructed children’s playground in the community not only provides play spaces for children, but also fosters communication and friendship among children, as well as promotes interaction between children’s supervisors, with the possibility of fostering parent volunteer organizations, associations for the protection of children’s rights, etc.

An examination of the “Children’s Traffic Friendly Community” project implemented in Shuanghe Community, Chengdu, offers us a clear insight into how improvement of the hardware environment and construction of the software environment have interacted to achieve enhancement of child-friendliness.21 In order to solve traffic congestion and safety risks posed to children in the community, the project transformed the hardware environment, such as adding roadblocks, traffic signs and other facilities, setting up one-way lanes, and adding crosswalks, which solved the problem of motor vehicles occupying the road. In terms of software environment construction, children and parents were mobilized to form volunteer service teams to publicize traffic rules and child protection concepts, and guide children, community residents and merchants around the school to drive by rules and correct improper traffic habits; a 17-point child-friendly community traffic agreement was introduced. At the same time, a child-friendly merchant alliance was established to bring together a wider range of entities within local jurisdiction to participate in community governance to create a safe and friendly traffic environment for children.

C. Shifting from providing an environment to managing and guiding the use of the environment

Traditional community construction (or reconstruction) mainly focuses on the provision of physical environments: whether there is enough activity space, supporting sports equipment, and greenery coverage rate up to standard seems to determine the construction level of the community environment, with less emphasis placed on the later-period management and maintenance of the environment, not to mention the failure to include the use of the environment into community construction considerations. The construction of child-friendly community environments is a systematic process: the “provision of community environments” is only the starting point for community environment construction, while the follow-up environmental management and use guidance, to a large extent, determine the child-friendliness of a community, and will in turn even influence and revise the original environment provided.

The community environmental management includes the maintenance, repair and update of the hardware environment (such as the site, facilities, equipment, etc.) to ensure the safety of use; it also includes the construction of the humanistic environment, the purchase of public services, the creation and development of community self-organizations, and the guarantee of corresponding policies and systems. The latter is often ignored by researchers, becoming the short board of the current community construction. A survey of children in a Shanghai community has once again confirmed this lopsidedness of community construction.22 Children gave a high rating on indicators that reflected the physical environment of the community (e.g. play space, greening, walkways, etc.), but a low rating on indicators that highlight the management of the community environment (e.g. maintenance of facilities in activity spaces, whether plants have name signs, whether play is affected by passing vehicles, whether they have participated in children-led out-of-school groups or activities, etc.).

Effective guidance of use of community environments is necessitated by realizing the value of construction of child-friendly environments in the community. Both community managers and educators for children need to guide children in their use of community environments, and invite children to be part of the preparation of environmental usage rules. Children should be allowed to develop and create new features of the environment, and the original community physical environment and environmental management should be refined and adjusted to more fully reflect the children’s perspective, which is also a guarantee for children to exercise their right to participate. All in all, the enhancement of child-friendliness in a community should be a process where the provision, management and use guidance of the environment are interacting and revising one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

V. Technical Indicators for the Construction of Child-friendly Environments in Communities

To turn the aforementioned three approaches to creating a child-friendly community environment into the practice of community construction, it is necessary to draw specific technical indicators at the operational level. The indicators, on one hand, can be used to guide the construction of the community environment, and on the other, serve as standards for follow-up examination and assessment of the child-friendliness of the community environment. Corresponding to the three approaches, the technical indicators of community environment construction are also divided into three categories: physical environment construction indicators, physical environment management indicators, humanistic environment and public service construction indicators. There can be overlapping parts among the three categories of indicators, i.e. one indicator may require both the design and management of the physical environment and the humanistic environment.

A. Physical environment construction indicators

The priority consideration for the physical environment construction standards is whether the environment construction fully reflects the child’s perspective, and the standards are basically composed of seven technical indicators as described below. It’s worth noting that these seven indicators are not completely independent of each other, but work in a mutually influencing manner. Therefore, while the suitability of a single indicator is considered, it is also necessary to balance the matching degree of all indicators.

First, the accessibility of play and sport spaces. In the research on the relationship between community environment and children’s physical and mental development, as well as the practice of community environment design, the most established friendliness assessment indicator is the “accessibility” of play and sports places, that is, the distance between these places and children’s residences. Most of the researches, whether it is based on GPS tracking technology, field observation or questionnaire survey, have shown that the main users of community environments are children under age 12, and the space where they can play freely is that within 100-300 meters away from home. Therefore, the design of play and sports venues in the community should take into account of the spatial distance from residences, to ensure their walking accessibility to children.

Second, the safety of community environment. The “safety” of community environment is an important factor that affects children’s use of the environment. Safety, on one hand, refers to whether the size, shape and material of the site and equipment pose any potential safety hazards; on the other, it includes the risk of stranger abduction, bullying, abuse, discrimination and traffic accident that worry parents. It can be seen that the safety indicator covers both the requirements for the hardware equipment and the software condition of community atmosphere.

Third, the “age specificity” of the environment. Children of different age groups have different demands for the community environment, play venues and sports equipment. Repetitive body-movement equipment, such as slides, swings, climbing or chasing frames for younger children, are subject to the accessibility of play venues and facilities; but for adolescents who prefer intense physical exercises, factors such as the size of the activity space, cycling suitability, the presence of circular trails and sports equipment, and the availability of time and money, play a much bigger role. Therefore, the location of activity spaces, the type and scale of equipment, etc., should be classified and designed according to different needs of children of different ages.

Fourth, the “ecological feature” of the environment. Compared with the artificial environment, the outdoor natural environment (especially the natural environment containing plants and water) is more helpful for children to relax their body and mind, relieve pressure, and develop good focus and motor coordination skills. In some Western European countries, the integration of natural elements into the design of kindergarten and school environments has effectively improved the attention span of children and extended the duration of children’s focus. Therefore, in the design of the physical environment, the ecology feature should be kept as much as possible to minimize artificial elements. For example, for green spaces in the community, the untrimmed parts can be retained for children to dig soil, pick stones, learn about interesting plants, and observe insects there; in addition to ornamental arbor and shrubs that function as barriers, plants suitable for children to climb and pick can also be added to activity areas to give children a chance to get close to nature. It is worth noting that the ecological feature indicator is a requirement not only for physical environment planning, but also for subsequent environmental management, use guidance, community public services, etc. It is suggested that the community, based on the existing physical environment conditions, rationalize the planning of the environmental usage (for observation or for play) and guide children in participating in the development of physical environment usage rules and environmental maintenance and management. For example, the community can organize children to identify the plants in the community, make name tags for different types of plants, and participate in the later maintenance of plants after understanding their properties, such as repotting, loosening soil, pruning, picking seeds, and preparing for the next round of planting.

Fifth, the “openness” of the distant view and the “privacy” of the nearby view should be taken into consideration. Young children need adult supervision during their play in the community, so the environment should be designed to ensure that the sight of adults is unblocked. However, children in this age group are passionate about hide-and-seek and need an environment that blocks their view. This requires a balance between safety and fun. In the design of the environment, low shrubs can be arranged to form mazes or various animal models, which not only realizes openness of the distant view to meet the adult need for supervision, but also ensures the privacy of the nearby view to add fun to children’s play.

Sixth, the “sustained supply capacity” (or “game potential”) of the environment. The sustained supply capacity of the environment refers to the possibility of the structure and form of the environment to be used for game play, or to be transformed and upgraded for new games. If a chair, besides the function of being sat on for a rest, allows children to hide under it as a “house”, to lie on it as a bed, or to stand on it as a platform, this chair has a sustained supply capacity many times higher than an ordinary chair and so it is more attractive to children. Rockeries and sculptures in community environment are often used by children to hide things, climb or play hide-and-seek, showing that the environment has a certain “sustained supply capacity”. In the process of interacting with the environment, children endow the environment with new characteristics to make it more appealing to them. If the sustained supply capacity of the environment is designed in a proper or visionary manner to allow children to make changes and create different ways of playing while using the environment, it will bring children a pleasant game experience and unforgettable community experience. Therefore, the environmental supply capacity, on one hand, benefits from the careful design of the physical environment, and on the other hand, it cannot do without the subsequent environmental management and use guidance.

Seventh, the child-friendliness of travel. In addition to play and sports venues and equipment, the assessment of child-friendly communities also covers “children’s travel paths” to these places to encourage children to travel independently to participate in sports and games. These paths ensure that children can easily and safely reach activity areas by slow means of transportation, such as walking or cycling. This indicator includes not only path planning and traffic sign systems suitable for children, but also a series of traffic rules that are accepted and followed by community residents to maintain path-friendliness, and advocate a children-first community atmosphere.

B. Physical environment management indicators

Apart from the physical characteristics of the environment, the management of the environment, as well as the guidance of the use of the environment is also an essential category of indicators in the construction of a child-friendly environment. In addition to the above-mentioned ecological feature, sustained supply capacity and child-friendliness of transportation, the complexity of environmental use, the interaction and reciprocity between children and the environment, the institutionalization of environmental management, and the participation of children are all technical indicators that cannot be ignored.

First, the complexity of environment use. In urban communities composed of high-rise buildings, the biggest barrier to improving the child-friendliness of communities is that the land resources are limited, making it hard to meet the different needs of a large number of residents in the community, so it is particularly important to improve the environmental complexity. A complex community environment enables children’s play areas to simultaneously assume multiple functions, which, instead of interfering with each other, work in a mutually promoting manner. For example, the playground for young toddlers and the gathering place for the elderly can be shared harmoniously. In the construction of a child-friendly community environment, Haining, Zhejiang Province, took measures to foster a community culture that upholds “harmony between the old and the young”, which not only activated the traditional virtue of respecting the old and cherishing the young, but also lent support to both old-age care and children’s development through social culture.

Second, the interaction and reciprocity between children and the environment. When an environment is up to the safety standards and is strong in sustained supply capacity, it is able to meet the physical and psychological needs of children by providing them with the conditions to engage in their favorite activities, in which case children will show their willingness to care for and maintain the environment. In the management of community environment, it is necessary to provide conditions to guide children in achieving this interactive and mutually beneficial connection with the environment and help them to turn the desire of environmental maintenance into action, so as to increase children’s identification with and attachment to the environment.

Third, the institutionalization of environmental management. Each process, from the maintenance and upgrading of community spaces, equipment and apparatus, to the use guidance of spaces and equipment, and to children’s re-creation of the environment, should be normalized and institutionalized, and cannot be relaxed or neglected due to the replacement of personnel or the passage of time. To this end, the community management department should put corresponding work plans, procedures and mechanisms in place, and provide full policy and finance guarantees.

Fourth, the participation of children. The management and the use guidance of the community environment should include children, who are the users, remakers and re-creators of the environment, in the process, as a way for children to participate in community affairs and community management. The participation of children can be divided into different degrees ranging from opinion expression, decision-making participation to behavioral participation, which should also be institutionalized and normalized.

C. Humanistic environment and public service construction indicators

The indicators for the humanistic environment and public service construction, in addition to the aforementioned safety of the community environment and the child-friendliness of transportation, also include the inclusiveness of community services, the pertinence of services, the educational significance of children’s activities, the degree of organization of community participation, etc.

First, the inclusiveness of services. According to the requirements of the Guidelines, the community and service center, the resident enterprises, schools, hospitals and other organizations shall actively cooperate to regularly carry out family education-based community services or theme activities, and ensure there are normalized and inclusive children and family service programs implemented every day, so that all children and families can get support for inclusive services.

Second, the pertinence of services. The community should provide all types of services for children aged 0-18 years and children with special needs. Community services for children should reflect local characteristics and carry forward traditional culture, and activities can be carried out in a sustained manner, without the possibility of cancellation due to the adjustment of service institutions. The kindergartens or schools, community service agencies, community service centers and neighborhood committees within the jurisdiction should regularly interact with each other to engage children in community practical activities and organize regular discussions or exchanges among teachers and parents, so as to realize mutual integration and supplement of family education, school education and community education.

Third, the educational significance of activities. Community activities organized for children and adolescents should be conducive to their physical and mental development, showing the following characteristics: regular activity schedule, clear rules, guidance by one or more adults, emphasis of skills development and ability enhancement, increasing complexity and difficulty of the activity, feedback on the activity results, partner cooperation or family member support during the activity, and compliance with the socially acceptable value norms.

Fourth, the degree of organization of community management. Community involvement and management is more than the spontaneous behavior of individuals, and can also be achieved through the establishment of organizations such as children’s committees and parents’ committees. The Guidelines encourages primary and secondary school students in the community, who have a certain ability for decision-making, to form a children’s committee on their own to participate in community construction on behalf of the children of the whole community. The children’s committee should be facilitated by a formal organizational structure, bylaws and work plans, with teachers and community workers serving as advisers to convene meetings on a regular basis. At the same time, each school within the jurisdiction can establish a parents’ committee, supervised by a special person, to convene meetings on a regular basis for participation in the community construction.

At present, the academic research and practice of the construction of child-friendly communities focus on the construction of the physical environment of a community, delivering abundant results of research and practice. However, there is only limited research on the software environment of the community (including the management and use of community environment, humanistic environment and public service construction). Improving the child-friendliness of the hardware environment is undoubtedly a necessary measure to protect children’s right to development. However, the full realization of children’s rights to development and participation cannot be achieved without the construction of a software environment in the community. This requires the joint efforts of researchers in various fields, families, schools, other organizations in the community, social service institutions, community service centers and other forces to realize the leap from policy advocacy to actual implementation of child-friendly community construction.
(Translated by NIU Huizi)

* CHI Liping ( 池丽萍 ), Professor of School of Children’s Development and Education, China Women's University. This paper is one of the major research achievements at school level of China Women's University.
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