A while ago my work took me to a few of those ‘maximum security’ schools: you know the type — those with the fifteen feet high fences and slowly sliding sky-high entrance panels (‘door’ isn’t the most appropriate word here); or those with three levels of entrance stage, through narrow chain-linked spaces with no immediately visible ways of getting back out once the door behind has shut clicked closed (like descending into the realms of lower Earth, or like a progressively demonic trial by increasingly impossible inquisition towards eventual and inevitable doom!)
All melodrama aside, it reminded me of the simple question that’s often nagged me when it comes to fences around schools and designated places for play: are the fences to keep security threats out, or are they to keep the children in?
Maybe the easy answer is to say that it’s a bit of both really. This, however, throws up deeper questions: why do we, as a society, feel the need to imprison children behind such fences in the name of ‘security’?; why do we feel the need to ear-mark small parcels of land where play is deemed ‘acceptable’, but only there?
When it comes to the first question, I make a starting point of referring to Tim Gill’s book No fear: growing up in a risk averse society (2007). In it, Gill states (p.49):
Home Office data . . . gives the numbers and ages of murder victims, aged under 16 years, killed by strangers in England and Wales for each year between 1995 and 2004/5. It shows that in 1995 not a single child between 5 and 11 was killed by a stranger. By contrast, in 2002/3 four children of primary school age were killed by a stranger. But there is no trend: in each of the two years following 2002/3 there was just one case. The annual figure changes randomly throughout the 11-year period.
In fact, the figures have been at around their current level for decades. Precisely because the crime is so rare, it can be stated with near certainty that there are no more predatory child killers at large today than there were in 1990 or 1975. These statistics categorically refute the dominant media message that dangerous, predatory strangers represent a significant or growing threat to children.
As Gill goes on to state, despite this extremely low percentage of cases, this is still no consolation to the parents of those children who are the victims, and this should of course be borne in mind. However, the over-riding personal feeling towards the barricading of children behind fences is that the society that we live in would rather that they be conveniently corralled for the benefit of the adults in that society (for adults’ comfort, reduction of anxiety, and so forth), yet the emotive concern of ‘children’s security’ will always win out and acts as a kind of smokescreen.
Children’s security is important, but what needs to be addressed is adults’ attitudes towards children in order for children to be better off. That is to say, a better general acceptance that children are part of that society, have opinions and expressions, are human beings even (and I don’t think I exaggerate here too much regarding some adults’ attitudes towards children!) — all of this will contribute to a richer way of living for all.
Two contrasting examples of physically defined space, regarding ways in which children and adults co-exist, can be drawn from personal experiences in Sweden and London. Whilst Sweden undoubtedly has its social problems, like every other country, a notable personal experience was the oft-repeated story of a visit to a school in Malmö, where the boundary between the school playground and the public grass was a line of trees with a playable dirt space beneath (no fence in sight); in contrast (and apart from the obvious examples of maximum security schools to be found in many towns and cities in the UK), there’s an odd little arrangement of designated play areas taking place on Shepherd’s Bush Green in West London. On both sides of one of the footpaths through the Green, there’s a designated fixed equipment play area, each with an admittedly low fence surrounding them. What always strikes me when I walk along this path is that I’m bisecting two separated groups of playing children, hemmed in by fences, on an otherwise wide and open public green space.
Why are the fences there? I can only conclude that it’s to keep the children in. Perhaps the psychological aspect of ‘defensible space’ ought really to be added in to the mix here though. That is, as picked up from my long-lost days at architecture school and the study of public and private space (e.g. the streets on which we live), there’s often a physical ‘barrier’ that marks the limits of our land (the end of our gardens, front or back), though this might not even be a fence — it could just be a line where the grass stops. It is, however, still a psychological barrier other people are often reluctant to cross, or it’s a line we expect others not to go over because this space is our space, and the street is all of our space.
Is the low, barred fence around many designated places for play also a barrier signifying the ‘defensible space’ of children? Would children choose to ring their play places with fences if they were designing them themselves?
Perhaps sometimes children do feel safer when behind the fences of school or the playgrounds they frequent, embedded as the latter often are in otherwise wide or open public space. Perhaps, though, in modern UK society’s fixation with security at all costs, these children know no different and blindly accept the fence (similar to the alarming trend of forgetting the art of handwriting or reading a real book because touch- and slide-screen technology is rendering these things obsolete, but that’s another story). Children now may just never have experienced play without fences, or play without the hovering adult, or play that hasn’t been channelled by a society fearful or anxious or just plain annoyed by it . . . Let us box our children in containable units, just as we box our consumer-society products. We do live in a convenience world, after all. What was the Dead Kennedy’s comment all those years ago? Give me convenience or give me death. There we go: melodrama again!
I admit that the playground where I work has a high fence around it. I didn’t put it there. I look at it some days, before the children have arrived or after they’ve gone: I try to work out what I feel about it. Some days it has its purpose: it encloses a sanctuary where the man screaming at the traffic warden in the street just beyond can’t overspill his angst into the ‘children’s space’; it provides that ‘defensible space’ for us playworkers, perhaps, because I’ve noticed that even when the gates are open during the open-access weeks, adults are often reluctant to cross the invisible threshold line; it says that this space is sacred; or, last week, the adjacent similar fencing around the public multi-sports area (‘the pitches’ as the children call it), was used by other children to climb up, hang from like monkeys, and jump onto the roof of the next building from!
What would it all be like if there were no fence here at all, and (this is a pre-condition of that scenario, I suppose) if our society were much more pre-disposed towards the child as co-member of that society — respected better, listened to more, considered?
Fences are a cause of some reflection: are they to keep security threats out, to keep the children in, or both, and what else lies beneath all of this?