Public perceptions of children: interviews with adults

The relative paucity of children’s experiences in the UK, and the limitations they experience, suggest that, by default rather than by intention, we are hostile to children. This attitude is compounded by beliefs that children are a nuisance, an encumbrance, and above all the personal property and private responsibility of their parents. This sombre perception was confirmed by the newspaper cuttings described above. For this chapter, we also undertook a small pilot study.35 We carried out semi-structured interviews with over 100 adults, parents and non-parents from a variety of ethnic and class backgrounds. The interviews were carried out in various public and semi-public settings – in supermarkets, in parks, waiting outside schools, in restaurants – to ascertain views about the presence of children in those spaces.

We included supermarkets because they encapsulate many of the dilemmas described above. They constitute a semi-public space where parents and children regularly come in their hundreds of thousands. Yet they are a place of extreme consumer stress. There is a plethora of goods which to a young child may appear overwhelmingly tempting, but present a very different value to the parent who shops. Conversely, many of the goods over which parents deliberate are mystifying to children. How do parents and children behave in such circumstances; and how do the staff in the shops negotiate ‘the whine factor’ – the deliberate ploy by advertisers to get children to influence their parents over purchases.36

The three stores we visited, all from well-known chains, had policies on children. These policies included control of displays at checkouts – no or few sweets; keeping dangerous items on higher shelves; posting safety notices and instructions on trolleys; offering play cars to children, attached to trolleys; and having procedures for dealing with lost children. The respondents almost all noticed the strains that occurred, but tended to blame parents for not controlling or admonishing their children sufficiently. The manager of one store went so far as to describe it as a class issue:

There is a 50/50 balance (in this store) between affluent and non-affluent parents and the difference between the two is very noticeable. Affluent parents generally keep an eye on their kids at all times and are polite when there are any problems with their children are pointed out to them. Non-affluent parents tend not to be so observant and are often rude to staff if any comments are made with regard to their children.

Almost all the staff in the stores said that whilst some children were well behaved, they had noticed children behaving badly: eating stock (especially pick and mix); having tantrums; screaming; running around and pulling items off shelves; or even getting into open freezers in search of ice-cream! Parents tended to try to act responsibly about their children’s behaviour, although there were some unfortunate lapses. He gave two examples: two mothers fighting over their children’s behaviour; and a mother refusing to control her child who was throwing oranges ‘what do you expect, he’s only a child’. There was a consensus that even if supermarkets had child-friendly policies, they were difficult places for children. Children influence family purchases, and are commercially welcome because they do, but many of our respondents considered that the best way to deal with shopping was to avoid bringing children. This may be wise, but hard to arrange.

In parks, traditionally a refuge for children, dogs reigned supreme. Although the council in the parks in this study had provided dog bins, they were often disregarded and dog mess was common. There were also many dogs out with their owners, but running free. Respondents, including park managers, thought that the main users of parks were dog owners rather than children. One park was described as ‘a relaxing friendly place for dog owners to meet’. Dog owners seemed to think dogs and children could share space; non dog owners were more sceptical, and some thought dogs were a hazard, especially to children, ‘Dogs are a bloody pest’.

But all respondents, parents and non-parents alike, were clear that the park was a dangerous place for unaccompanied children: ‘its not right, its dangerous, they might be kidnapped or raped or murdered… dogs are not the problem, animals aren’t wicked, it’s the human beings that are the problem.’ ‘kids need to play, vent their feelings, but its not practical. there is nothing wrong with the world, it is the people in it.’ ‘Children should be able to run around and explore. But it’s not safe these days. What if an accident happened? There are child snatchers, dodgy perverts. You have to be very careful. Children are easy targets.’

No one thought that children should visit the park on their own, or even as a group, but considered that adult supervision was essential at all times. Children were more likely to be secure in enclosed or specially designated playground areas. The parks were used by organized groups – schools, keep fit clubs, football clubs – but not children on their own.

The Government’s task force on urban green spaces suggested that parks are barometers of the state of the area in which they are located. Only 18 per cent of parks are in good condition (including one of the three in our survey). Parks are disregarded because, paradoxically they are free: ‘While other forms of recreation, from indoor sports and leisure to computer games, are aggressively marketed to urban populations, a visit to the local parks can seem a less exciting option.’

The solution of the task force was that parks should have more designated places within them, for specific activities and games. The parks we visited had park rangers, whose job was partly educative. They produced pamphlets for children identifying birds and plants, laid nature trails and put on events. But this was all adult directed and adult led. Two of the parks also had very busy ‘one – o-clock clubs’, separate playspace where carers could come with young children, with indoor and outdoor facilities. But these playspaces were locked and guarded outside of their short periods of weekday use.

School playgrounds are one of the few remaining spaces where children can congregate and play freely. We interviewed mothers waiting outside a school, about their views on their children’s use of school playgrounds in and out of school hours. The school was a Victorian building with enclosed asphalt yards and a small picnic area with benches. There was an additional closed off play space with outdoor equipment for nursery age children. Parents criticized the space for having no shade and no green space, no quiet corners for reflective games, and no proper football pitch, but recognized that it gave children opportunities to play with one another. When we asked whether (as in some countries) the schoolyards should be open to children outside school hours, not everyone agreed. One parent argued that ‘This is a school, its for learning!’ Another took the view that children left alone would destroy everything: ‘This is a country of young yobs’. The majority welcomed the idea of the playground being used after hours, but only with adult supervision and tight security, otherwise there would be accidents, vandalism, and worse.

We were interested too in spaces for eating. Eating is an intimate and social event – is it possible to eat in public with children? MacDonalds make a speciality of catering for children, but many eating places exclude children. We spoke to five restaurant managers, two of them from well­rated restaurants. One of the latter claimed that children were welcome at all times. Children were provided with crayons and paper, and at weekends they ran videos in the downstairs bar area for children. They did not consider children difficult – although their parents could be: ‘Often it is more effective to talk directly to a child if there is a problem, because in a public place like a restaurant children are more likely to listen to staff than to their parents.’

The other well-rated restaurant also welcomed children and provided activities. The manageress felt that ‘you need to have a specific awareness of children and their needs in order to create a child-friendly environment, e. g. carrying hot food and liquids around the restaurant, parents and staff have to be aware of the danger.’

A third restaurant, a Turkish firm, accepted as normal that children would come in with their parents. But the remaining two restaurants were more hostile: ‘Children can run around and get in the way of staff, they can also be very demanding and noisy. This ruins your enjoyment of the meal. You go out for dinner to enjoy yourself, not to listen to screaming.’

Apart from McDonald’s and similar chains, however, there was no place where children could eat on their own, or hang out. It may be that many small, individually owned cafes are more tolerant of children and young adults. Most children have a very limited income. They could not afford to buy much food; consumption of food ties them to home. However, there are many take-away food outlets, and if children eat out, they often do so on the move, or hanging around. For adults, eating is a collective pleasure. For children, it may be a more solitary affair. Children’s access to food, the spaces where they consume it, and who they eat with would make an interesting study.


The evidence suggests, and our own small survey confirmed, that children have a hard time in accessing public spaces. They are subject to constant surveillance when they do. Children’s resilience, creativity, need for activity, and their friendships with one another are constantly underrated. At the same time they are subjected to overwhelming consumer pressures. The preferred solution for most adults, if not children themselves, is not to make existing public spaces more accessible to children, but to create separate spaces and institutions for them. But even these separate spaces are controlled and surveilled. The health and safety legislation, and the requirements of the 1989 Children Act for adult surveillance of children’s activities means that all spaces where children spend time must be surveilled and controlled by adults. Building on Danish examples, the Adventure Playground movement from the 1950s, initiated by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, tried to create spaces for children that minimized adult intervention and tried to cede as much control of the environment as possible to children themselves.37 The kind of spaces and the kinds of attitudes described by the playworker Jack Lambert in 1974 have mostly vanished:

Our job is simply to allow (children) the space and scope they need to play…I feel it is dangerous to go around talking about the significance of children’s play…it is down to this, I am not a leader but a servant to the children.38

If the situation for children is to change, then action needs to be taken on many fronts. The public view of children as vulnerable, threatening and in need of constant surveillance and control by adults, needs to be challenged.

The sociologist Berry Mayall has argued that schooling is a central arena where childhood can – and must be – rethought. At present, children are taught prescribed knowledge in formalized settings. Children at school are generally assumed to be immature, untrustworthy and incompetent, and schooling is literally and metaphorically designed around these assumptions. The new discipline of the sociology of childhood is providing a conceptual basis for challenging schooling and curriculum:

In the sociology of children, data collected with children and by children, is teaching us adults that children are knowledgeable, constructively critical social agents, competent, able to cope, resilient.

The social construction of childhood leads us adults to question our assumptions, by recognizing that they are tied into our social and political systems and goals.

The structural sociology of childhood tells us that children are contributing to the social order. They do socially useful and indeed necessary things, including active engagement with learning, contributions to household and more general economies, and participation in building and promoting good social relations.39

The United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child provides an accessible charter for taking children seriously. The Convention stresses children’s rights to protection, provision and participation in the daily happenings of their lives. Various organizations have used the Convention as an opportunity to provide an advocacy platform for children themselves.40 Children’s own views about their circumstances, even the views of very young children, can help shape their environments.41

Robin Moore carried out scholarly research in three settings – in inner London, in a new town, and in a decaying northern industrial town. He asked local children to map the areas where they played, showing him where they went and what they did.42 In this study, carried out 20 years ago, children freely mentioned playgrounds, streets, footpaths, fences, parks and open spaces as sites for their play. Moore concluded that there were a number of policy initiatives to support children’s play and use of public space. Firstly, by ensuring their participation in the planning, design and management of their surroundings. Secondly, by making the streets liveable – by controlling traffic. Thirdly, by recognizing and conserving special childhood places, acknowledging where children play and respecting it in any kind of planning and redevelopment. Fourthly, by ‘roughing up’ urban parks and greens because spaces used by children are often ‘overdesigned and highly manicured’. Fifthly, by providing ‘animateurs’ – people whose job, like that of playworkers, or in Scandinavia ‘pedagogues’, is to support children in using their environment. If these kinds of planning initiatives were needed in the 1970s and 1980s, they are needed even more now.

But as well as children gaining more independent access to public spaces, i. e. parks, streets, and schoolyards, where they can congregate and play, more attention needs to be paid to the spaces provided exclusively for children. As Shier writes:

We should be concerned that children cannot be properly integrated into society and can only play freely in a special preserve behind a high fence. It has been suggested that our priority should not be the building of playgrounds but the redesigning of the environment as a whole, and indeed the restructuring of society so that the needs of children are recognized and provided for in every aspect of community life… (but) even in some future society which accepts and values its children, the children will want special places for themselves where they can pursue their own interests.43

How those places might look, what they might contain, how children themselves might influence their design and content and ongoing activities are the subjects of this book. But paradoxically such initiatives are taking place at a time when the rhetoric of child protection is overwhelming and the consumerization of childhood is ferocious. In many ways children are marginalized, isolated, exploited, belittled and confined as never before.


1 Muir, J. (1913). Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Reprinted by Canongate Classics, Edinburgh. 1996. p. 22.

2 Peter Hitchens, quoted in the New Statesman, 23.9.2002, p. 24.

3 The UK has recently been criticized by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, (Session 31, Oct. 2002, Concluding Observations) for failing to uphold children’s rights in a number of key areas.

4 ibid, p. 25.

5 Ward, C. (1990). The Child in the City. London: Bedford Press.

6 O’Brien, M., Jones, D., Sloan, D. and Ruskin, M. (2000). Children’s Independent Spatial Mobility in the Urban Public Realm. Childhood, 7 (3), 357-277.

7 IPPR. (2002). Streets Ahead: Safe and Liveable Streets for Children. London: IPPR.

8 Penn, H. (2000). Policy and Practice in Childcare and Nursery Education. Journal of Social Policy, 29 (1), 37-54.

9 Penn, H. (1997). Comparing Nurseries. London: Paul Chapman.

10 DfES. (2003). Every Child Matters. Green paper on the future of Children’s Services. www. dfes. gov. uk/everychildmatters.

11 Letter to the Daily Express, July 10, 2002. p. 29.

12 Alanen, L. and Mayall, B. (2001). Negotiating Childhood. London: Falmer.

13 OECD. (2000). Country report on Norway. Paris: OECD.

14 Woodhead, M. (1999). Working Children. Stockholm/London: Raada Barnen/Save the Children.

15 Seiter, E. (1995). Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. NJ: Rutgers University Press. pp. 11-12.

16 Kenway, J. and Bullen, E. (2001). Consuming Children. Bucks: Open University Press.

17 Kline, S. (1993). Out of the Garden: Toys, TV and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. London: Verso.

18 13 ibid. p. 80.

19 Buckingham, D. (1995). The Commercialization of Childhood? The place of the Market in Children’s Media Culture. Changing English, 2 (2), 17-20.

20 Toyshop brochure, quoted in Kenway and Bullen (2001), p. 82. (See note 16.)

21 Tobin, J. (1997). Making a Place for Pleasure in Early Childhood Education. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 16.

22 McKendrik, H. (2000). KID CUSTOMER? Commercialization of playspace and the commodification of childhood. Childhood, 7 (3), 295-314.

23 Hart, R. (1995). Children as the makers of a new

geography. In Building Identities: Gender

Perspectives on Children and Urban Space (L. Karsten et al., eds) Amsterdam: Institute for Social Geography, University of Amsterdam.

24 Opie, P. and Opie, I. (1969) quoted in Moore, R. (1986). Childhood Domains. Berkeley, California: MIG Communications, p. xiv.

25 Opie, P. and Opie, I. (1959). The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

26 Opie, I. (2001). Foreword. In Play Today in the Primary School Playground (J. Bishop and M. Curtis, eds) p. xii, Bucks: Open University Press.

27 Blatchford, P., Creeser, R. and Mooney, A. (1990). Playground games and playtime. The Children’s View. Educational research, 32 (3), 163-74.

28 Bishop and Curtis, ibid.

29 Bishop and Curtis, ibid. p. 15.

30 Sutton Smith, B. (1970). Psychology of childlore: the triviality barrier. Western Folklore, 29, 1-8. p. 4.

31 Armitage, M. (2001). The ins and outs of school playground play: children’s use of ‘play spaces’. In Bishop and Curtis ibid. p. 55-56.

32 UNICEF. (2000). Child Poverty in Rich Countries. Florence: UNICEF.

33 OECD (2001). Starting Strong: Early Education and Care in Twelve Countries. Paris. OECD.

34 Gandini, L. (2002). The History of Reggio Emilia. In Lessons from Reggio Emilia (V. Fu et al., eds), p. 17, NY: Pearson.

35 These interviews were carried out by Eleanor Snow.

36 Kline, ibid.

37 Shier, H. (1984). Adventure Playgrounds. London: NPFA.

38 Lambert, J. and Pearson, J. (eds) (1974). Adventure Playgrounds. London: Penguin, p. 157.

39 Mayall, B. (2003). Sociologies of childhood and

educational thinking. Professorial lecture.

London: Institute of Education.

40 For instance the Office of Children’s Rights for London has worked with groups of young people to try to influence the Greater London Authority strategy on children.

41 Mayall, B. and Hood, S. (2001). Breaking Barriers: Provision and Participation in an out of school centre. Children and Society, 15, pp. 70-81.

42 Moore, R. (1986). Childhood Domains. Berkeley, California: MIG Communications, p. xiv.

43 See note 37.

Helen Penn is Professor of Early Childhood in the School of Education at the University of East London. She acts as consultant to various inter­national organizations including the EU, the OECD, UNICEF and UNESCO. She has worked all over the world, most recently in Central Asia and Southern Africa. She has written many books and articles on the position of young children and serv­ices provided for them.

Updated: October 9, 2015 — 10:59 am