The city as a playground
Text & Photos: Svetlana Khairova
It was early summer, our family was standing on Herzen-Street and waving to the drivers of passing trains. In return, the train drivers sounded the horn, and that made us wave back even more enthusiastically. We walked under the railway tracks to the boating station, gazed at the boats, had a talk with a grumpy dog. Down at the river, we followed with our eyes a little motorboat and a big ship. The kids were throwing stones, climbing up and down a pile of stones and sand. We looked at Yunost Island and the Esplanade along the river. Getting back to the car, we went directly over the tracks. In the backyards we found a half-constructed ship. And then started waving again to the train drivers.
How do children see the city? What is interesting for them?
I thought that kids actually do not need any artificial playground, the city itself is a true real playground. There is no need to entertain the kids, just bring them into the city and they will find something to do.
Am I right or not? Is the city interesting for kids? What is particularly interesting for them? I have questioned 26 kids aged from 6 to 12, personally or through their parents. Children of 6 years are independent enough from the parents and have sufficient self-awareness to show their own interest in the world and ask questions. Starting from 12 years of age, they are already autonomous and their relationship with the city is determined rather by teenage concerns and wishes than by an interest in the place they are living in.
The children were asked the following two questions:
- What do you find interesting in the city, what are your favourite places, where do you like to stay and why.
- Let’s assume you have got a guest, a child of the same age as you and he or she has never been to Irkutsk. Where would you take that child to show him or her the city?
I think the second question allows us on the one hand to learn something about the child’s interests that, for some reason, it does not recognise as its own interests, and on the other hand it gives us a more comprehensive picture, thanks to taking a look from another point of view.
Some of the answers were predictable, some of them were surprising. The interests of a child are determined by its age and, to a lesser extent, by its sex. One should consider that I have conducted the survey in summer, therefore the children talked about places they usually visit when it is warm. However, ice slides and the New Year’s tree were mentioned a couple of times as well. Besides that, I have questioned people from my own circle of contacts, and this limitation certainly influenced the results. However I think that the findings might represent general tendencies for all Irkutsk families and are not income-dependent.
And now, what is interesting for kids in the city?
Why is Irkutsk called Irkutsk? Maybe because of the river Irkut? But the city is located more on the river Angara? Why is it not Angarsk then?
The “Middle” Esplanade, that is, Gagarin Boulevard, the part of the Esplanade with the statue of Alexander. It is called middle because there is also the Upper and the Lower Esplanade. These places are perhaps on top of children’s most favourite places in Irkutsk. There is a straight and even path, suitable for biking, roller skating and simply running. One can go down and throw stones into the river Angara.
“My favourite place is the Esplanade, there are a lot of bouncy castles and other attractions”
“My favourite place is the Esplanade, because there you can bike and look at fishermen and fish”
“I would take my guest to the Esplanade, to the part with the statue of Emperor Alexander III, because it is beautiful and I like to walk and run there and to watch the river”
Quite often the children say the Eternal Flame when they actually mean the Lower Esplanade. Eternal Flame is easier to remember than the fact that this part of the Esplanade is called the Lower Esplanade. Here one can bike and roller skate as well, smaller kids love the playground with swing, slide and bouncy castles.
What is the purpose of the houses built on the Island of the Lower Esplanade?
“I would like to bike through the whole Esplanade, on the Lower and on the part with the statue”
“My favourite place is the Lower Esplanade. It is beautiful and there is a nice playground”
“My favourite place is the Lower Esplanade, because it is beautiful, there are many kids and a playground. And you can bike there”
Shopping mall “Modny kvartal” (Fashion Quarter) and 130th Quarter
This place does not seem to be for children, but it is very popular among children of 10 to 12 years, especially among girls. This might be explained by age specifics, when one would like to hang around and feel like an adult. To visit shops and cafes is considered then as an obvious sign of being adult. Boys mention the possibility of visiting museums in the 130th Quarter: Experiments’ Museum, Planetarium, Children’s Museum.
“I like to go to Modny kvartal: it is fun, you can hover around shops, have a walk and go to the cinema”
Lisa, 12 лет
“I like 130th Quarter: museums, restaurants, biking or roller-skating, cinema and that sort of thing. I very much like going to shops like Adidas and Lego or just to toys’ shops to help my sister choose a doll. Now I have got less time for Lego, so I just look and don’t buy. I go to bouncy castles as well, they take kids up to 12 years old there“
Stas, 12 лет
The children mentioned different fountains as favourite places in the city. Smaller kids like the idea of getting wet completely or in parts; the older ones appreciate the beauty of sprinkling water and the setting. The leading fountain is the splash fountain close to the Museum of Irkutsk History. To be honest, I’ve seen many adults who couldn’t resist and tried to cross the fountain before the water mode changes from calm to full power. When three 8-year-old boys, being very hungry after a stroll around the old city and hence hurrying to the next café, were passing by that fountain, the desire to visit it turned out to be stronger than their hunger.
Why does the fountain not work in winter?
“My favourite place is the splash fountain. I wish we had more of them in the city. I love to bath in it”
“I like the splash fountain. It is fun and wet”
“I would bring my guest to the splash fountain, where you can run”
“I like the fountain close to the circus, because there is a small bridge from where you can see the fountain”
“My favourite places are the fountains near to the Tank. I like to watch them, they are beautiful. I like to hold my hands in water and throw coins into it”
Tank at the Sovetskaya Street, military vehicles near the Dom Oficera (Officers’ Club), Karl-Marx-Street
These places are not really for children, however, they are on top of the list of children’s favourite places. Why? These are simply great places for climbing! Kids don’t wonder why and for what purpose there is a tank and military vehicles in the city.
I have asked my 7-year-old son Timur where it is more interesting to climb, at the playground or on the tank. Timur’s answer was very clear: “On the tank! At the playground it is boring!”
Why is the hydro dam built in this place? What does “suburb” mean?
“I would take my guest to the Tank, because you can climb there”
“I would show to the guest our street, the Sovetskaya-Street. There is a tank there where you can climb”
It’s interesting that only girls mentioned zoos as a favourite place. Can it be that loving animals is one of the manifestations of the maternal instinct when a woman is still a girl? Girls like children’s zoos, where they can make the right decision about that carrot they brought along; girls like the classical zoo close to the Puppet Theatre. I would add the hippodrome to the zoos, as there the kids are looking rather for contact with animals than for racecourses. I myself often take my kids to pet stores as if they were zoos; there one can see birds of extraordinary colours and guinea pigs of rare fluffiness.
”I very much like the children’s zoo at the Botanical Garden. There you can caress and feed the animals. It is beautiful there, there are places to walk and take pictures of. I also like the hippodrome, there you can feed the horses and ride on them”
I asked the children where they would take a guest to show the city of Irkutsk. It turned out, the kids are aware of the distinctive character of Irkutsk. They mentioned places they consider unique and inherent to Irkutsk; and, in fact, they are of that kind. The children would like to show the city from above, and this I also count as something specific of Irkutsk, as every city has got its own unique city planning, and a view from above gives us a picture of the city as a whole. Look, here is the Angara river, it divides the city in two parts; there is the dam where you can see churches, and there is the city centre.
Xenia, 6, asking her mother about the ‘babr’: “Why is this monster on the Irkutsk coat-of-arms eating a poor cat?” An explanation about the sable followed, but questions didn’t stop. Her mother asked her what would be a better animal for the coat-of-arms. In Xenia’s opinion, it should be a river as the most important thing in Irkutsk.
“I would take a guest to the Planetarium, the Experiments’ Museum and the Sealarium, because you can find shops and cafes in other cities as well, but not places like these ones”
“I would take my guest to the ‘babr’ in the 130th Quarter. Why? Well, because it is a symbol of Irkutsk”
“I would take a guest to the hydro dam and to some high buildings of the city in order to show the city from above”
“I would take my friend to Pik Lyubvi, because the view is beautiful and you can see the whole city”
“If I had a friend visiting me, I would definitely bring him to the Sealarium, because Sealariums are not to be found anywhere, just Dolphinariums. Yet seals are so cute and smart”
“I would take my guest to the Limnological museum in Listvyanka, because they tell very interesting stories about Baikal Lake. (And Irkutsk is close to the river Angara, which is the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal, so it is important to show it.) There you can also see the Baikal seals, Omul fish, sturgeon, look at the sand and water, worms and that sort of thing under a microscope… I would also show the Museum of Irkutsk History, there you will be told how the city developed, how things looked in the past. I would also take my guest to the centre of the city, where the market and shops are, so that my guest knows what and where to buy things”
I have to say I was puzzled by the answers of the kids on what is interesting for them and where they like to go. I expected answers like “I like to walk on the streets gazing around and looking into things”. I thought that childish curiosity by nature would bring them into hidden streets and corners, basements and housetops, would make them spy and question. I was convinced that all children are explorers by nature. But in fact, the children do not explore the city.
They use the city in order to satisfy their needs to move, to communicate, to see beautiful things.
Sometimes they don’t even notice the city, because the backyard where they spend time with their friends quite satisfies their interests and they do not need more: all they need now is concentrated here. Perhaps children are physically and psychologically not able to see more.
And quite often, children tend to consume the city. On the one hand, they copy their parents, on the other hand, they do things and act within boundaries set by parents. How often do we adults just walk around the city, out of curiosity and joy? Of course, evolution brought us the crazy pace of life, and one has to have remarkable inner resources to resist this speed, not everybody is ready for that. Often we simply don’t have time for a walk. Often, the power of habit doesn’t allow us to change the tried and tested paths. We go everywhere by car, it is easier.
We transport our child from A to B. It is an amazing fact of our life: often, public transport is considered both by children and adults not as a means of transport but as entertainment! Let’s have fun and take a ride on a tram! We feel fear for our children; machines, weirdos and age-inappropriate temptations are everywhere. So, most of the kids are deprived of the chance to freely walk around, which is necessary to discover, to learn and to make it one’s own.
What is the purpose of building a city on two river banks, if a bridge is more expensive to build than a road?
“When my kids see a tram, they ask to take a ride. For them it is an amusement”
Olga, mother of a 9-year-old Artemy and a 11-year-old Alina
“We always go by car. I see that we almost never stroll through town. I think my daughter doesn’t even know what a street is, where it starts and ends. I wish my kids knew the city and knew their way around it”
Olga, mother of a 6-year-old Anya
“We leave our kids at home to do our business in the city, we don’t show them anything, we always use the same way and don’t think of changing it once. It is not even lack of time, it is lack of perspective. I‘ve been aware of it for quite a while. Awareness is good, that means that something will change”
Natalia, mother of a 10-year-old Olesya
“Milana found it difficult to answer where she would take her guest! She said that I am the one who thinks about where we go. I was quite puzzled. I should give her more freedom to choose in such things…”
Nastya, mother of an 8-year-old Milana
I am convinced that every modern child will learn to use the public transport one day and know their way through the streets – it cannot be otherwise. Maybe they will meet friends or teachers or a book that will excite them and arouse interest in the city, its houses and traditions. By the way, why not try to ask your kids: what do you find interesting in the city? Their answer might surprise you, you might get to know them better, or it might be a challenge for you. Finally, you might end up with a new hobby – exploring the city you live in.
Stas is 11 years old. As a place for a stroll he chose the Eternal Flame Square. I wondered, what on earth could be interesting in such a place for an 11-year-old? When we met, the things were clarified. Stas said that he likes to visit Eternal Flame because it is a site of commemoration for those who died in the war. “My great grandfather was in the war, I remember him a little.” Then he likes to go down to watch the river, it is beautiful. And to look closely at the locks of newly married couples attached to the fence – they are so different, it is interesting to read the dates and names. Stas read the information boards placed on the bust statue of general Beloborodov and city founders’ monument. He became interested in the street lamp: “How old is that? How does it work? I have to come and see it one evening.” He looked closely at information stands with the pictures of children who need a family. At the land surveyor’ monument he explored the map held by the youngest of the group. All the time Stas was looking around, asking questions and arguing. And I understood: an interest in the city, the interest to explore it, like any other interest, is not necessarily for everyone. One likes biking, the other likes roller skates, a third is fond of worms under microscopes, and the fourth prefers to explore the space around him or herself.
Watching children in playgrounds, I also noticed that the ones who go to the playgrounds are mothers and grandmothers of kids up to 3 years. They build sand castles and practice slides and swings. With such young kids, mothers prefer not to walk far away from home. The playgrounds near the kindergartens are full of pre-schoolers in the evenings, when parents come to take them home and they ask to stay outside. School students occupy the playgrounds when walking home from school: they swing, ride on the carousel, climb on monkey bars and simply have fun. Of course, a playground is an absolutely necessary part of a backyard. However, I am convinced that a city is a huge playground, and the proof is the fact that children are able to tailor a place, which was originally not considered for children, to their own needs.
How many people live in the city? Who counts them and how?