Aboriginal children’s movement through and use of space and place has rarely been subjected to systematic and in-depth study in Australia. This thesis presents the first empirical study on Australian Aboriginal children’s environments from within the multidisciplinary field of children and the environment. It is also the first such study employing an environmental psychology perspective, combined with architectural and anthropological insights. Research evidence from psychology more generally has recognised that the nature and quality of children’s transactions and experiences within their physical environment can promote or restrain social, cognitive, affective and motor development. This is especially salient for children in middle childhood, where exploratory and imaginative transactions with built and natural environments are most prominent. The intimate bonds children form with their surroundings during this time are fundamental to developing a genuine interest and concern for the environment later in life.
The gradual erosion of cultural norms in Australian Aboriginal communities has altered the way many Aboriginal children interact with their local environment. This comes as a result of such factors as Aboriginal people’s institutional history, their removal from traditional country, loss of hunter-gatherer traditions, environmental degradation, and persistent social problems. Cherbourg, a rural Aboriginal community located in South-East Queensland, was established in the early twentieth century by the Queensland Government to institutionalise Aboriginal people from across the state and today displays many of the post-colonial problems and challenges present in numerous remote Aboriginal communities across Australia. Focusing on children aged between 9 and 12 from Cherbourg, this thesis explores Aboriginal children’s use and experience of their extended community environment and identifies existing planning and design considerations that arguably frustrate, rather than facilitate, children’s needs, aspirations and preferences.
The research is theoretically and methodologically founded on the transactional perspective of environmental psychology. Incorporating a number of elements of this approach offers productive pathways in studying children’s environments. The flexibility and adaptability of the transactional approach facilitates the development of a methodology that is culturally appropriate and suitable to child-oriented research, supporting research explorations of a distinct cross-cultural setting and illuminating unanticipated community issues and concerns. The thesis constitutes a critical synthesis of diverse perspectives, including the two key ecological psychology approaches, namely the concept of behaviour settings and the affordance approach. It also addresses a number of other core environmental psychology constructs, including place meaning, attachment and identity. Working with both child and adult respondents, several methods were implemented throughout the study including self-directed photography, digital storytelling narratives, place expeditions, aerial and freehand mapping, activity diaries, focus group and semi-structured interviews and rating scales. These differing methods are drawn together within a transdisciplinary framework to achieve both pure and applied research outcomes.
The results present a picture of children’s transactions and experiences in their cross-cultural and variously institutionalised places and spaces in and around Cherbourg. It shows that children living in Cherbourg have a great degree of freedom to independently move around their local environment, which facilitates the discovery and utilisation of numerous affordances for physical activity, social interaction, and restorative experience. Furthermore the nature and quality of these transactions influence the formation of children’s place attachments and local place identity constructions. However, children’s strongly dependent and internalised attachments to their home community setting can have negative consequences when these confine and restrict children within the hidden boundaries of their small, often segregated, rural community environment. The study reveals that children living in Cherbourg experience high levels of boredom, lack environmental control, and suffer from privacy and security issues. The thesis identifies specific planning and design recommendations that strive to achieve better congruence and fit between Aboriginal children’s needs and their local natural and built environment at Cherbourg and other similar Australian Aboriginal communities.
Each of the introductory Chapters 1, 2 and 3 of the thesis presents the theoretical perspectives, methodological considerations, and the context of the study situated within its geographic, demographic, historical, contemporary and sociocultural parameters. Chapter 4 locates and maps children’s places and describes significant and frequently utilised behaviour settings within the community. Chapters 5 and 6 attempt to describe and capture how children move through and transact with their natural and built environment, using the framework and concept of affordances. Chapter 7 examines and analyses children’s place meanings, attachments and identity pathways. Chapter 8 details contributions of this research to the study of children’s environments and outlines a number of community planning and design recommendations.
The overall significance of the thesis lies within its combined academic and practical contributions. On the one hand, the research contributes to the literature on children’s environments and to specific theoretical constructs and conceptual models from environmental psychology and ecological psychology by empirically examining these ideas within a distinct cross-cultural setting, while on the other hand, the research yields significant insight with respect to the design of Aboriginal children’s environments for planners, architects and landscapers.