How the neighbourhood constructed a positive and healthy sense of self.
If play is the lifeblood of childhood, the central lifeforce for children, the impetus of their development and vitality, then the neighbourhood is the vein (cardiovascular) system for this lifeblood to circulate. It is the network of channels where this lifeforce can flow freely. Invigorating, stimulating and nurturing the whole child towards a sustained healthy adulthood.
What happens when this lifeblood is restricted, or the circulation cut off?
I am part of Generation X and for me, as a child, the neighbourhood was everything. Nurturing me across all levels of being and becoming. Protecting and flourishing my health and wellbeing.
I had no idea all this was happening for me, and neither did my parents.
I would only learn about this as I got older. This awareness would only be stimulated out of nostalgia, because now, for most modern children, these veins of childhood have been cut off, and the physiological, mental and social effects are beginning to show.
For a minute consider who you are and how this sense of self came to be. Consider the role the neighbourhood played in shaping who you are today.
Childhood Identity - Sense of self as a neighbour
According to theorists, a sense of self, or self-concept is who we believe we are, how we view ourselves, and what we would like to be (Lewis, 1990).
What we think our strengths and weaknesses are across all areas of life. The way we look, the way we act, the person who we are to ourselves and the person we are to the world. We have a sense of self as a learner, thinker, reader, writer, doer, mover, friend, partner, sister, brother, daughter, son, father, mother. How we view our capacity for resilience, the type of community member we are, how accepting we are of others, our capacity for compassion and kindness. Our capacity for optimism or pessimism. Our level of justice and integrity. Our perceptions of our ability to be independent, autonomous, set goals and achieve. Our ability to help others in need. Our ability to love and be loved.
We all have constructed our self-concepts over many years and our identity is constantly in a state of flux. However, the foundations of our identity were honed as children, and started as young 3 months of age. The architecture of our identity was shaped during childhood, in reaction to the plethora of experiences and the environments we were able to access. The channels of which we travelled.
As we grow into childhood, the sense of self outside the family starts to strongly feed our sense of self, or identity. The channels along which the lifeblood of childhood flows begin to broaden.
Neighbourhood – I Am Physically Active
Back to my childhood;
The neighbourhood was my most potent source of physical activity. Moving through the channels and networks of the local area all my fundamental movement skills were being nurtured to life and honed. Every day, walking, running, riding through the streets, the parks, to school, through the green and wild spaces, climbing trees, playing games, chasing friends, being chased, kicking, catching, jumping, throwing balls to each other.
I was building an identity as someone who is physically active, a competent and confident mover. This is who I am. The neighbourhood was the channel enabling this identity to grow.
Neighbourhood – I Am Sociable
The neighbourhood was extremely effective in helping me develop socio-emotionally. While wrestling, playing tag, superheroes, stars wars, marbles, hide and seek etc. I made many local friends all the time. While playing so many different neighbourhood games I learnt how to be a good friend, to read emotions, to compromise and to listen to others. I grew an understanding of when I had hurt someone, both accidentally and intentionally, how this made me feel upset as well. I learnt to be caring, kind, and developed a sense of justice and fairness. I experienced the value of saying sorry, taking responsibility for my actions and maintaining relationships. I learnt to negotiate rules, be of use, began to understand group dynamics, contribute to the group, the value of succeeding as a unit. I began to understand leadership and it was the first of many teams I would work in to achieve great things. Together.
In my neighbourhood I grew a sense of self as a competent social being, as a good friend, someone worthy of friendship, likeable, loveable, and trustworthy. After school, on weekends, during holidays, I was constantly strengthening my competence within a social context. This is who I am.
Neighbourhood – I Can Express Myself & Connect
The neighbourhood was the place where my capacity to vocally express myself was significantly extended. While roaming the neighbourhood with my buddies, playing out in the street, in the park, on the way to school, to friends' houses, the never-ending prattling and banter was how new words came to my attention. Trialing and testing new words, using them in context, pushing the depths of how clearly I could articulate my feelings, ideas, and what I wanted to achieve. In groups, together. Creating, cooperating, collaborating and negotiating rules of games. Promoting new locations and construction ideas for hide-outs, bases and cubbies. Boundaries, inclusion, exclusions. Formed, practiced and conveyed through my words. Daily.
I was building the identity of someone who can communicate with others and use my words to convey who I am, as well as accomplish goals within groups of people. This is who I am.
Neighbourhood – I Am Intelligent in Many Ways
The neighbourhood was where I got to flex my creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and develop complex thinking patterns. As I grew in age, size and maturity, the neighbourhood rose to meet me as a teacher. Whether it was developing more complex games, such as a suburb-wide-all-school-holiday-long game of team tag, or the cubby we built by digging six feet underground complete with full camouflage, the neighbourhood was the space that enabled these complex neural pathways to be formed. Generating complex ideas and alternatives. Planning, organising, sequencing thoughts and actions. It was a space where I grew my capacity to focus, manage my time, and think long term.
The neighbourhood became a more complex and interesting space as my capacity for thinking become more complex. I was building a sense of self as a competent thinker, intelligent in many ways. This is who I am.
Neighbourhood – I Belong, I Am Part of Something Bigger
As I grew the neighbourhood grew, as did my experience and awareness of the neighbourhood. As a physical space, I knew my neighbourhood inside out. Where all the children lived, where to access friends, even where the houses were that had children in them who never come out to play ‘The Strange Ones’. We would conjure up speculative and circumstantial stories for these children: What do they do in there all day? Perhaps they are locked in their rooms by their evil parents? We would formulate plans to rescue these children.
I also knew where all the green spaces and cool adventurous spaces were. How to get to the shops, the shop keepers' names, where all the vicious barking dogs lived. All the short cuts to every spot in the neighbourhood. I knew the most interesting routes home, the best gutter to do jumps on my bike, the best trees for climbing. I grew to know it all intimately.
As a space where many people lived, the neighbourhood was where I formed an understanding of diversity, acceptance of difference, that there are many ways to live. Constantly in and out of many neighbourhood friend houses, many sleepovers, parties, celebrations of many kinds, I got to live the lives of those who I was surrounded by. Different rules in houses, different foods, different parenting styles, different levels of punishments, different levels of love and affection. Their house, their rules, their norms. I lived ‘difference’ and diversity on a deep and intimate level.
As I grew, my sense of community expanded into other worlds such as soccer, dance, school friends from other neighbourhoods. However, my neighbourhood was the failsafe, a sanctuary I could retreat to, that would welcome me back.
The neighbourhood instilled and grew in me a sense of citizenship. I was constructing an identity of someone from this land, a place where I belong. I am from here. These are my people. This is who I am.
Neighbourhood – I Am Capable, of Anything
Throughout all these experiences in my neighbourhood, as I grew, I was forming values, beliefs. Tried and tested in the neighbourhood, these became outwardly expressed attitudes and behaviours. Honesty, balance, compassion, challenge, equality, perseverance, fairness, loyalty, respect and service. These were formed, practiced and strengthened into core features of who I am today.
Perhaps the biggest gift the neighbourhood gave me was independence, self-determination, and its fostering of intrinsic motivation in my character. I did many things, because I can. I became driven, goal orientated and focused, because I learnt the value doing and achieving, on my own. Especially for the greater good.
The majority of what I did in the neighbourhood was without grown-ups. They were there when I needed them. When intervention was required. For the most part all the above occurred because my parents did not restrict my circulation throughout the neighbourhood (unless I deserved it).
If play is the lifeblood of childhood and the neighbourhood the veins allowing this lifeforce to flow, then my parents were the heart enabling me to pulse my way through my local area, allowing me to grow, build the foundations for the positive sense of self and identity I have today.
Perhaps in this regard one the most important characteristics I have to offer the community is ‘I am a neighbour’.
Can modern children say this? What is feeding their sense of self?
According to Murdoch institute, children are sitting for 11 to 12 hours per day and are active for 32 minutes per day. If this is the case, what environments are influencing their identity? What will be important to these young people? How will they view themselves?
What will be the impacts on the children, on society, on the economy, as a result of cutting off access to the lifeforce of childhood flowing through the neighbourhood?
Time will tell.
Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality (pp. 277-300). New York: Guilford.
Murdoch Research Institute, Child Health Check Point, 2019