Newswise — For many school-age kids, geography consists mostly of maps of faraway places and the capitals of the 50 states.
But some inner-city Buffalo children have been studying geography much closer to home and University at Buffalo researchers are paying attention.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, about 30 children in grades 3-6 who attend an after-school boys and girls club in Buffalo are using photography, journals and original artwork, as well as standard geographic tools such as maps and handheld Global Positioning Systems, to learn about the neighborhood surrounding the club.
At the same time, the UB researchers who supervise the project are discovering how children in inner cities view their physical surroundings, what makes them feel good or bad about urban places and how the children themselves impact their communities. They also are exploring how those perceptions could contribute to a more meaningful geography curriculum at the elementary school level.
"This project helps us see the neighborhood through the eyes of the children," said Meghan Cope, Ph.D., UB associate professor of geography and principal investigator.
"While concentrations of poverty and racial/ethnic minorities in cities have been a major concern for geographers for several decades, the perspectives of children on their neighborhoods, cities and urban spaces more generally have not been thoroughly examined," she said.
As part of Cope's service learning course, Geography 496/596 "Children's Urban Geographies," undergraduate and graduate students in the class work with a group of these children after school and in the summers, tutoring them and engaging them in what the children enthusiastically dubbed "the UB projects."
The diverse projects are helping Cope and her students learn more about the microgeographies -- the small-scale social/spatial interactions of everyday life -- of children's urban experiences, uses of different spaces and perceptions of neighborhoods.
One such project is the Neighborhood Walkabout, in which each child was given a disposable camera to take pictures as they walked through the neighborhood with UB students. The children took pictures of barking dogs, the houses of their friends, stores that sell candy, trash on the street and a dead rat that someone had tossed in the garbage. Asked if she could make change happen in her neighborhood, one child noted, "If I picked up the trash they would just throw it down again."
"Popular children's media and toys represent 'neighborhoods' as safe, supportive places for children to have fun, play with friends, negotiate space," Cope said. "But the lived experience of the children at this club is quite different."
For example, she explained, late last year the club, which has a long history of serving the community, was nevertheless "tagged" with gang graffiti; she noted that some members of the club as young as 10 years old belong to that gang.
And on a weekend in 2003, when many children were outside playing, a drive-by shooting resulted in the injury of an 8-year-old girl.
Cope noted that not surprisingly, much of the literature that exists on urban children and how they view their communities focuses on how such environments endanger children, through traffic and crime, for example.
However, her research also reveals in small, but significant ways that many of the features of this West Side neighborhood work against those dangers.
"People are out on their porches, kids play, adults fix cars, there are yard sales, and this outdoor activity goes on even in pretty crummy weather," said Cope.
She explained that such activities occur, in part, because it is an urban neighborhood, houses are very close together and many residents don't have cars so they walk to and from public transportation.
"Ironically, this is exactly what proponents of the 'new urbanism' movement advocate," she said. "A lot of affluent, suburban communities have now been planned with smaller yards, houses closer together and porches in front to recapture that sense of community and yet they find that the built environment alone cannot foster real social connections. So I'm interested in how low-income neighborhoods are 'doing' community, even despite the many other challenges they face, such as discrimination and poverty."
Other projects Cope has implemented with the children include:
* A Trip to the Zoo, in which children used microscopes and binoculars to explore the zoo and then made their own "field guides." The researchers were struck by how excited the children seemed to be in a "wild place in the city."
* The Ideal Play Space, in which the children were asked to make a three dimensional model of their ideal play space. The model that they made featured a camping area prominently, again emphasizing the children's desire for wild, green spaces.
* The Neighborhood Quilt, in which each child decorated and sewed together canvas squares to depict their own homes and their "neighborhood," demonstrating their understanding of basic geographic concepts.
* The Spaces of the Club, in which the children came up with their own ideas about how they would modify the inside of the club. Suggestions will be developed into an action plan and presented to the club director.
Cope's research also demonstrates the critical role that children themselves play in constructing active, connected communities.
She noted that in the areas considered to be the "margins" between public and private spaces -- porches, sidewalks and streets -- children are especially evident.
"The presence of children is so integral," Cope said. "Children have a critical role in establishing what's really an important communal space and in signaling that sense of community."
That's relevant, she said, because as urban cores have declined throughout the United States, the average age of their inhabitants has dropped, resulting in a concentration of low-income children from marginalized ethnic and racial groups.
The ethnically diverse neighborhood around the club is workingclass and the median household income is $13,000 per year.
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