As Whitney Houston once warbled, ‘children are the future’, but teenagers, on the other hand, are the scourge of society, engaging in antisocial behaviour and mob rule, or so the media would have us believe. What is it that leads to this sudden slide in public perception between the ages of 12 and 13, how can we learn to understand this better and be more accommodating to the needs of teenagers?
Teenagers, as a distinct group in society, did not materialise until the 1950s, when, amongst other things, the proliferation of the motor car enabled young adults to be more independent. This created a space in time where children could find out about themselves before entering into marriage and employment. Still processing the impact of sustained war in Britain and simultaneously increasingly free from their constant presence of their parents or other fully grown adults, teenagers began to develop their own culture, experimenting with fashion and lifestyle choices before ‘settling down’.
Sporting activities are the most well catered for in teen activities, with Multi Use Games Areas being a feature of most public spaces and parks. Funding can be hard to find and community groups and local authorities are keen to protect this investment, but sometimes the steps taken to do this can significantly limit their use. Lighting can often be turned off in the evening, unless an organised group has booked and paid for the space. In winter time, this act prevents the space from being used for long periods of time for more ad-hoc activities. One approach to promoting better use of these spaces is to start exploring more responsive technologies, for example motion sensitive lighting systems which can be activated when required.
Sports, by their very nature, will only appeal to certain teenagers that are physically confident and happy to fit in with the rigid rules and practices that dictate a sport. These rules and structures can be very inhibitive to other teenagers, who may benefit from less rigid interaction with the public space.
Although they may have already taken on an adult build and physique, teenagers are still children, with a different set of needs which we are meeting with limited success. As an individual whose background is primarily in play, it always strikes me as odd that primary educators recognise play as an essential part of learning. Steps are routinely taken to ensure effective play experiences are provided. However, this provision disappears overnight, or more accurately over the six week summer holiday, when children enter secondary school. Play is suddenly the preserve of small kids.
If designed well, public spaces can still include playful elements that will appeal to teenagers – seating fences, for example, are often the chosen perch for teens as they represent unconventional rest points. Vantage points are important – so they can keep an eye out for those coming and going, be they friends, perceived threats, potential suitors or unknowns. Large scale climbing structures are ideal as they require focus and skill to conquer the equipment, but once you reach the summit you are the master of all you survey. In our experience we have found that fences segregating the play area act as a barrier to teenage participation – the act of entering the playground is seen as too childish. If equipment is sited outside a designated play space, teenagers are far more likely to gravitate towards it, as it feels and appears like a spontaneous act. High energy equipment is also appealing, pieces like the Queen Swing or the Giant Revolving Disc providing a fast paced real thrill.
Parkour and Skate are effectively a half-way point, not as rigid as traditional sports, but not as free as fixed play equipment. Still dogged by associations with anti-social behaviour, Skate, BMXing and Parkour can deliver real tangible benefits to child development, helping develop dedication, discipline and motor skills to perfect tricks and building confidence and staying healthy along the way. Although some research into the health and social benefits of wheeled sports has been conducted, more needs to be done to remove the veil of fear which shrouds wheeled sport developments. Where traditional sports sometimes fail to engage, skateboarding, scooting and BMXing can be particularly effective in delivering health benefits and building self-confidence. Moreover, skate and wheeled sports fulfil a very important need – to create spaces where older children and teenagers are free to develop, express creativity, be inspired and be themselves.
This dedicated space, carved out of wider society and exclusively designed for their use is important in signposting society’s acceptance of teenagers. Teen or youth shelters are also crucial for this, set aside from playgrounds, formal gardens, cafes and visitor centres. These exclusive spaces are critical in supporting the development of autonomy and identity.
Since time immemorial, every generation has been afraid of the next. Maybe this is down to basic human programming, but as a society, it is time we began to more actively question this hard wiring, stopped being scared of teenagers and instead began to have more conversations with them and embrace them into our community.