Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Studies of Children's Neighborhoods
Two approaches have been used to characterize neighborhoods. In some instances, researchers use U.S. census data to differentiate neighborhoods. One study, for instance, found that high-poverty areas differed from low-poverty areas on such health and developmental outcomes as third-grade reading scores, low birth weight, infant deaths, and juvenile delinquency.5 Other investigators use a descriptive approach to link physical and social features of neighborhoods to children's neighborhood activities and sense of autonomy. For instance, one study of how 11- and 12-year-olds in four northern California neighborhoods spent their time indicated that neighborhoods with hilly terrain, major thoroughfares, and low densities of children offered less desirable optimal play environments and constrained children's access to community resources and social interaction.10,11 In another study, the researcher took a "neighborhood walk" with 7- and 10-year-olds in metropolitan and suburban California neighborhoods; the children reported on sources of formal and informal neighborhood support, and on their activities, both structured and unstructured.12 That study found that children living in neighborhoods with more social and physical resources, where they were allowed more autonomy and more opportunities for unstructured interactions with others, were more skilled at understanding the perspectives of other individuals. They more often had a sense of personal control or mastery.
The study that is the focus of this article employs a descriptive approach to examine the neighborhood experiences of third graders from heterogeneous neighborhoods in southern California. The goal of the study was to understand how the perceptions that parents and children hold of neighborhood problems and resources, social activities, and parental management strategies are linked to the children's social functioning. The study combines descriptive information about neighborhoods, interviews with parents and children about the neighborhoods and rules governing children's activities, and teacher and classmate ratings of the children's social adjustment.
The study emphasized parents' perceptions of neighborhood quality because those perceptions may be just as important as, or even more important than, objective dimensions of the neighborhood context in determining how the family uses community resources or regulates children's activities.13,14 As anticipated, when parents—especially mothers—saw their neighborhoods as problematic places for children, they restricted their children's activities more and the children were lonelier than children in more positive, child-friendly neighborhoods. Surprisingly, teachers and classmates viewed the more closely supervised children from difficult neighborhoods as comparatively well behaved and socially competent.