Risking trouble and troubling risk: children's outdoor play and risk in the more-than-human city
Playful outdoor experience in various urban spaces is a vital means through which children engage with the complicated (often fraught) intimacies of more-than-human cities and grapple with the project and possibilities of living in and with entangled multi-species worlds. However, children in many urbanised countries in the Minority World, including Australia, are spending significantly less time playing outdoors than previous generations. An increasing preoccupation with risk is often identified as one of the key reasons for the changing geography and ecology of Australian childhoods. This thesis explores how different risk constructions and interventions at individual, family and institutional levels are shaping children’s material, affective and semiotic experiences of playful outdoor spaces during middle childhood in Sydney. In helping untangle the dialectical relationship between constructions of ‘risk’ and ‘nature’, it is particularly concerned with how these constructions are drawn into ontological framings informing how children come to think about, relate to and see themselves in more-than-human worlds.
Adopting a hybrid methodology that brings together more-than-human and children-as-researcher approaches, I draw on three key data sources. Firstly, semi-structured interviews conducted with twenty Sydney families. These include parent interviews, as well as a series of child interviews combined with map-making and child-generated photo activities. Secondly, interviews with twenty-seven other key informants concerned with planning, designing and managing outdoor spaces. Finally, my own ethnographic observations drawn from time spent dwelling in playful spaces across Sydney.
This thesis develops a conceptual framework for thinking through risk in which constructions can be viewed as ranging from more categorical approaches tied to conceptions of risk as an inherent negative property of a particular entity, activity or space, to an ontology of risk as both precariousness and playful possibility emerging from more-than-human relational assemblages. I argue that wider adoption of a more relational ontology of riskiness can help invite and enliven children’s playful outdoor experiences, encouraging more generous and convivial approaches to negotiating risky attachments with the multifarious creaturely, microbial and foliate ecological denizens that share and shape our cities.