Kids, Cars, and Cognitive Development

My bro and I playing in the leaves
My bro and I playing in the leaves in our walkable neighborhood

When I started kindergarten, I lived in a small town and walked to and from school every day. Although I moved less than two years later, I would swear that I could still make that walk today*: Down the little hill on our sidewalk to the end of the block, take a left by Lisa’s house and the telephone pole where my newly-developed phonics skills helped me to learn my first really bad word, cross the busy road, go right a couple blocks past the street where Ingrid’s daycare was, turn left and down the long street, and and then another left and school is straight ahead. I remember walking home with Ingrid and my best friend Jana, and being so impressed that one of them knew how to spell “elevator.” I remember Ricky, who ate worms. I think I remember the look and feel of the approach to the school through the lens of a dream than reality – in my dream I had forgotten to get dressed and showed up in my underwear, and I can VIVIDLY picture the spot where my mortified self was dream-standing when I realized it!

I moved again in second and fourth grades, and both of these moves were to houses on busy streets. I rode the bus to school then. There was really no question of going anywhere on the roads – there were no sidewalks, and traffic was (and is) both heavy and fast. Ironically, the elementary school I went to after the first move – Mackensen – was almost exactly the same distance from home as Elsa Meyer, where I had gone to kindergarten.  But whereas Elsa Meyer was on the outskirts of a traditional town with well-connected blocks, Mackensen is hemmed in by cul-de-sacs.** In both of our busy-street neighborhoods, we knew the neighbors next door and across the street, but not much further than that. My brothers and I played in our backyards and climbed trees and made forts and wandered around back by the railroad tracks that passed through the middle of our short country mile block. It was good, and I have great memories of those things. But I had very little sense of how one thing connected to another, outside of our yards I don’t remember anything like the detail that I do about my kindergarten neighborhood, or the people in it.

There’s a reason for this, as it turns out.  Being driven everywhere presents some problems for kids’ cognitive development and the way they process their spaces.  This article in The Atlantic – Cities is a fascinating summary of the surprising impacts that living in an auto-oriented environment can have on a child. To begin with,

Children who had a “windshield perspective” from being driven everywhere weren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community connected, whereas children who walked or biked to get around produced detailed and highly accurate maps of their neighborhood street network.

Kids in auto-based neighborhoods (like the one we live in now) are typically driven everywhere and don’t make mental connections about where they are and where they’re going in the same way they do if they’re actively experiencing their environment. This is probably familiar to many of us – I personally have no idea where I’m going unless I’ve driven it myself; being a passenger just doesn’t cut it for me to learn my way around. Kids are the same way.

The corner of River and 8th, cutting through Holland's otherwise fabulous downtown
The corner of River and 8th, cutting through Holland’s otherwise fabulous downtown

What’s more, and a little more sad to me, is this,

In the Heavy [traffic exposure] neighborhood, the children frequently expressed feelings of dislike and danger and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment.

You know that undercurrent of tension you have when walking around with your kids in an area with heavy traffic – maybe along River or Ninth Street downtown in Holland?  Kids feel that, too, and apparently that sense of threat prevents them from fully taking in their surroundings.  It’s hard to notice things like trees and that funny crack in the sidewalk that looks like a shark if you don’t feel safe enough to relax.

As I see it, the bottom line is this: areas that are designed around cars (instead of people) in some sense rob kids of the ability to connect with and experience their very own communities.

I say this because most areas that have been designed around cars are places where traffic is either heavy, or fast, or both. Our neighborhood, with its thirty-foot-wide streets and SUVs flying through at 35 mph or more, is certainly an example of that.

What do you think – are these observations accurate? And are we okay with that? What do we do about all of this, as parents and as a community?

*In fact, I just did a quick search on Google earth and discovered that I do indeed accurately remember my route to school three decades later!  WOW. The route was almost exactly a half mile. It kind of gave me chills, in a good way – I haven’t visited or seen any representation of this neighborhood in over twenty years.

**Elsa Meyer gets a WalkScore of 32, surprisingly to me. Mackensen’s WalkScore is 14.



One thought on “Kids, Cars, and Cognitive Development”

  1. Loved the memories! I agree that you always remember what you do more vividly than what is done for you. Even as an adult passenger without children in the car I am less sure of directions than if I have driven it myself. As a child, if my memory is correct, your perspective was less a “windshield” perspective than a “book-in-the-lap” perspective. Interesting thoughts on connecting to the community.

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