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
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past columns are at ellensteinbaum.com.