Changing Childhoods

Roger Hart is completing a longitudinal study on the changing nature of children’s out-of-school lives in a New England town. The study involves a revisiting of the town that he studied for his PhD dissertation in geography in the1970s. The results of the research will be published in a book and a film for television broadcast. The original study involved two years of close ethnographic research with all of the children of the town under twelve years of age on how they explored the environment, what places they valued, who they used them with and what they did. In the process, he learned a great deal about how parents managed their children’s movements and activities. The PhD dissertation was published as a book and is currently out of print but it is available on the CERG website. After completing the research, Roger returned to the town with the renowned ethnographic filmmaker, John Marshall, to complete 13hours of 16mm film with the children.

The revisit to the town, funded by the National Science Foundation, is now generating a rich account of how children’s lives outside of school have changed, and what parents think and feel about these changes. It is a valuable window into the changing nature of childhood and to theorizing about why these changes have taken place and what they might mean for children and for society. It was not possible for the investigator to conduct a straightforward replication of the original study, using the same method of very close daily participation with the children in their free time, because children’s degree of freedom to play in an unsupervised manner has changed so dramatically over one generation. Instead, the revisit to the town relied upon in-depth interviews with the parents and walking interview sessions with their children. Two kinds of comparisons are made:

 A cross-sectional comparison of the geography of children in the town in the 1970’s and today. This part of the research involves a comparison of the patterns of children’s spatial activity and use and experience of the environment for these two moments of time. The majority of parents living in the town today were not living in the town as children thirty years ago and so were not involved in the original study.

A longitudinal study with the children of the original study as parents today. A partly overlapping study has also been conducted with a longitudinal sample of the children from the original study, who are now parents, and their children. Only those who live within the town, or within fifty miles of the town, have been interviewed. After interviewing their children while visiting the significant places around their homes, the parents were closely interviewed. They were asked to describe the patterns of their children’s daily lives today, how they are different from their own childhood places and activities, what they think and feel about these changes and what they believe are the factors that influence their parenting practices. These interviews stress parent’s own capacity to contribute to theory on the changing nature of childhood.

The Original Study:

  • Children’s Experience of Place: A Developmental Study. New York: Irvington Publishers (distributed by Halstead/Wiley Press), 1978. (Reviewed in Science, Geographical Review and Contemporary Psychology). Click here to download from CERG Library
  • Place and Play: Transforming Environments. Film for BBC/Open University, 1976. Not currently available.
  • Place and Play: Transforming Environments. Playbill publication for the BBC Open University film. Click here to download from CERG Library

Radio broadcasts:

Press: