July 18, 2004
Making the City Safer for Child’s Play

That sweet familiar face was in the paper again just the other day: Kai Leigh Harriott, smiling her radiant four-year-old smile, her hair pulled back with fancy bows. In the picture you didn’t see the wheelchair. Kai, of course, was paralyzed last July by a random bullet as she played, carefully watched over, on the porch of her home.

If bullets can find them under the watchful eyes of their family, who dares let their children play out of sight? “It’s not a safe world for children unless we plan it that way,” says Irene Smalls. As the author of 15 children’s books, including Jonathan and His Mommy and Louise’s Gift, Smalls has given the subject a lot of thought.

“Play is the work of children,” she says, adding a modern twist on an old axiom that “all work and no play makes Jack an overweight, stressed-out, depressed, and dull boy.” And since, as Smalls points out, children live in a world created by adults, it’s up to adults to make sure that world includes safe and abundant room for play.

Remember summer when you were a kid? There were probably some long lazy unstructured days to ride your bicycle to the library or go to the playground with friends. Now, unless parents are there to watch them, the children are often indoors.

“Children’s play is more restricted now,” says Smalls. “They’re not jumping up and down and playing leapfrog, and there’s an impact on the child and on the whole society.”

Not a good impact. Kids aren’t supposed to be sitting indoors on summer days. Children who aren’t free to play safely outdoors spend their time less actively, and, consequently, we have a new term--childhood obesity--to learn about and deal with.

In a chapter she contributed to the recently published book about Boston, The Good City, Smalls wrote about her first home in the city in the early ‘80s. It was on St. Botolph Street, filled with families drawn to its roomy three- and four-bedroom floor-throughs.

“On our block at that time the street was alive with children playing stickball and ring-a-levio and jumping rope,” she wrote, adding that, within a decade, gentrification had put an end to that scenario and stripped the street of nearly all the families with school-age children. “Simply put, to be a truly good city for children, Boston needs much more affordable housing.”

Twenty percent of Boston’s population is under 18. If they were voting age, they’d be a power to be reckoned with. But what’s good for them is good for us all. Says Smalls, “the good city nurtures its young, and also the young at heart, and embraces the importance of fun and play for all ages.”

So while the tourists’ kids are riding the swan boats and patting the ducklings and throwing the tea overboard, let’s look hard at how our own kids are living. Let’s pay attention to affordable housing and safe neighborhoods so that this city that’s been handed down to us can be handed down to another healthy generation. The businesses may be mostly branch offices these days, but the kids we’re growing here are still the real thing.

What we’re reading now. Irene Smalls is reading Toni Morrison's new book Love, and says Morrison is, to her, “the quintessential writer.” I’m reading Transit by Susan Donnelly and The Burning Glass by Diana Der Hovanessian. These are touching and beautiful books by two Cambridge poets who treat words both reverently and irreverently.

What are you reading? Mary O'Donoghue of Cambridge is reading Stella Descending (cq), by Linn Ullman. In this novel a young woman’s death leaves her story to be told by those whose lives she has affected. What would you recommend? Write to citytype@globe.com. Past columns are at ellensteinbaum.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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