Ben Bartosik

September 18, 2023

Reading an excellent article this morning by Camilo Ortiz, PhD, that makes a compelling case for childhood anxiety being linked to a lack of independence. His argument is that providing children with more opportunities for independent activities might be the best way to change that. By independent activity, or IA, he means an "unstructured, developmentally challenging task that is performed without any help from adults." Examples could be riding their bike to the park by themselves, taking a bus, cooking a full meal, going to a movie with friends, or even building a campfire.

Ortiz says that so far the kids he has put through this program have resulted in "reduced anxiety in kids and their parents, increased self-esteem and willingness to try difficult things, and more free time for parents."

What interests me most here - apart from being highly relevant as a parent - is the way this intersects with how we plan and build our communities. One of the biggest impacts our car-centric planning has had is on kids. As I've written about elsewhere, I remember moving around quite freely and independently as a 90s child; biking to the library, friend's houses, the bulk candy store, and just exploring the town. My observations have been that this is no longer normal and that many kids primarily experience their communities from the back seat of a car. (Note: I am referring primarily to my experiences in more suburban communities as opposed to denser urban settings.) As kids spend less time moving about on the streets, people become less used to seeing them there and drive less carefully than they should.

I believe that design is always rooted in an ethical choice, communicating something about our values. When we design our communities in this way we are choosing to make them less safe and less inclusive for many people, including kids. It is certainly worth considering that this may be one of the reasons kids are feeling more anxious than ever before - we've taken away their independence.