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Built environment influences on children’s activity space: a cross-cultural comparison

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. Geraint Ellis (; Dr. Neil Galway (

The location of children’s homes have major influences on their lives, the social and economic opportunities that are open to them and their overall health and wellbeing. There is an increasing awareness that the planning and design of the neighbourhoods in which they reside provides a key context for children’s lives. It shapes their physical and social development, exposure to hazards and the opportunities they have for active and creative outdoor play, which can shape their physical and cognitive development.

Globally, there are very major cultural differences in the approach taken to facilitating opportunities for children’s play. Even within Europe, there is  great  variances  in attitudes to children’s independent play. For example in Northern Ireland, a ‘safety first’ approach appears to predominate, while the Nordic countries afford children greater independence. There is limited understanding of how children themselves navigate these cultural opportunities and constraints, and how this influences how they interact with the  built environment. Although there is a growing body of research in this field, most  studies have engaged with parents as a way of understanding child-behaviour, or focused solely on physical barriers or facilitators of active travel and play. This research will explore how children negotiate neighbourhood space through a child-centred perspective, using case studies from Belfast (UK) and Turku (Finland), and seeks to identify key factors that could help inform innovative policy approaches to neighbourhood design.

The study will focus on children aged 9-13, as a key cohort for which independent opportunities start to present themselves and at which age long-term preferences appear to be formed. It is proposed to recruit participants via place-based community groups. The study will use a range of methods, including recording of children’s mobility using GPS/accelerometery, combined with engagement with children through semi-structured interviews, photo elicitation and direct observation of play