Children’s perceptions of an ideal city: representations and
mapping of mobility, interaction and play in public space.
Frederico Duarte Lopes1, & Carlos Neto1
1 Laboratory of Motor Behavior, CIPER, Faculdade de Motricidade Humana, Universidade de
In this paper, we present SoftGIS methodology used in an undergoing PhD cross-sectional research.
By using a web-map based questionnaire, children are allowed to self-report and place-mark
significant interactions with the environment on a map of the city. Children were presented a list of
several affordances according to play, leisure time, social and emotional categories, and asked to
choose and locate those that were meaningful. After locating an affordance, a series of questions
concerning mode and type of travel to place were presented. This methodology is child-friendly
because survey’s content and usability is adapted for children’s perceptions and skills. In a preliminary
stage of study, Beta version of this survey software was tried out individually with 21 children (12-16
years old) from social deprived background, in the western area of Lisbon city. Trial testing was
successful and led to the development of a questionnaire designed to characterize children’s mobilities
in the urban environment, both daily and ideally; map out children’s current use of public space with
distinct physical features; and identify play value city has for children, namely, real vs ideal and
structured vs unstructured. Articles 12 and 31 of the CRC ground and guide our research approach and
Keywords: SoftGIS methodology, children’s mobilities, affordances, play, child-friendly, real-ideal city
Inspired by the work and studies of Kyttä et al. (2012) & Kyttä, Kaaja, & Horelli (2004) that
are methodologically hinged on SoftGIS methods, rose the idea of doing deeper research on
children’s independent mobility and play in context-specific physical settings, using a more
qualitative, child-centered and child-friendly approach. Moreover, in line with sociology of
childhood and with article 12º of the Convention on Child’s Rights (CRC), ensuring that
“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the
right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child
being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” (UN General
Assembly, 1989), it is fundamental to include children as active participants in the data
collection process and that their opinions and perceptions about the city they live in are
listened to. In this way, using SoftGIS methodology enables commitment with the former
perspective and simultaneously provides very relevant data concerning children’s meaningful
experiences in the environment.
The term SoftGIS (soft geographical information systems) defines a methodological approach
of data collection that combines ‘soft’ subjective data with ‘hard’ objective GIS data, enabling
the study of human experiences and everyday behavior in the physical environment (Kyttä &
Kahila, 2011). The participants of these kinds of studies are asked to fill in internet-based
surveys through user-friendly internet based applications. The surveys are associated with
maps allowing users to produce self-reports based on their localized environmental
perceptions and experiences. The subjective perspective of residents’ environmental
perceptions is combined and analyzed along with the information concerning the physical
structure of the environment. SoftGIS methods allow the linkage of human experience in the
physical setting with its spatial expression.
According to Kahila & Kyttä (2010), SoftGIS methodology was developed to foster
communication and better links between urban planners and residents of communities and of
municipalities towards collaborative planning practices. The principles behind the
development of SoftGIS methods are presented by the former authors (pg. 15) and are as
The operationalization of perceived knowledge is grounded in the theories of
humanistic geography and environmental psychology.
The perceived knowledge is gathered through scientifically valid, reliable and ethical
The softGIS methods are developed in cooperation with urban planners, who can use
this knowledge in their planning practices.
The database enables systematic GIS and statistical analysis possible.
The methods provide a user-friendly internet platform for residents to evaluate their
everyday living environment.
The first prototype of SoftGIS methodology was developed in Finland, in 2004, by groups of
media technology students in the Institute of Technology of the Espoo-Vantaa University of
Applied Sciences and it was used to study localized perceived affordances on the quality of
environment in the Finnish city of Järvenpää. Since 2005 internet base softGIS methodology
has been developed in Aalto University enabling the collection, analysis and delivery of soft,
localised, geocoded knowledge produced by 9000 Finns, across eleven Finnish cities (Kahila
& Kyttä, 2010; Kyttä, 2011). Kahila & Kyttä (2010) present three categories of SoftGIS
methods, namely, mapping the perceived environmental quality, specific thematic and special
group. SoftGIS for children is included in this last category. The purpose of SoftGIS-special
group is very much related with the idea of generating citizen’s participation on issues which
are relevant to the general public. Therefore, softGIS methods should be easy to use by
people, meaning that the usability of the applications ought to consider that people are not
familiar with web-based GIS services, ensuring that they are the most user-friendly as
possible. Moreover, the content of the surveys should be relevant and meaningful to group’s
needs, perceptions and interactions in daily life. The softGISchildren method (Kyttä, Broberg,
& Kahila, 2012) was specially conceived to be used by children and young people and was
used to study children’s environmental experiences, behavioral patterns, and home setting
characteristics based on locality. This methodology is theoretically sustained on Kyttä's
(2003) and Moore's (1986) definition of environmental childfriendliness where the diversity
of environmental resources or affordances and access to play and exploration are two central
criteria for a child-friendly environment. In Kyttä et al. (2012) study, the use of this web-
based survey allowed to study children’s localized meaningful places and to analyze the
specific urban structures where children’s affordances where marked. These specific urban
structures were operationalized by hard objective GIS data, namely, residential density,
proportion of green space and proportion of children, which were calculated within a 500
meter buffer of each respondent’s home.
The Beta version of the SoftGIS children survey that was created for the undergoing research
was called “SoftGIS-Lisboa para ti”. The content of this survey was based on the works of
several authors (Cordovil, Lopes, & Neto, 2012a; Cordovil, Lopes, Arez, et al., 2012; Kyttä et
al., 2012; Lopes et al., 2011; Machado, 2008; Moreno, 2009). The general idea for the testing
of “SoftGIS_Lisboa para ti” survey was to verify the possibility to characterize children’s
independent mobility in the city of Lisbon; mapping children’s play, interaction and
behavioral patterns in the urban environment; and identifying positive features of the city
physical environment based on children’s meaningful experiences and interactions. Survey
respondents had to mark places, draw trajectories and answer questions related with their
interactions with the city places, according with the content displayed on the questionnaire
pages. This content varied depending on the type of dimension of child-place interaction,
whether it would be social, emotional, play, leisure, or mobility and behavioral. In the play
dimension, from a list of options, the child was able to choose the ones related with his, or her
daily life, marking each one of them on the place of the map where it occurs, so, for instance,
a point in the map can be categorized as a place where the child cycles, if the child chooses it
so. This happens in the same way for the other dimensional categories, except for the mobility
and behavioral one. On the latter, there were questions on mode of travel and company to
places and drawing the home-school trajectory on the map of the questionnaire. Children were
also asked to describe how accessible and likeable the places they marked were, draw the
home-school itinerary and indicate environmental fears.
Testing “SoftGIS-Lisboa para ti” questionnaire
The first reason for testing the Beta version of the SoftGIS children survey was related with
the fact that, in Portugal, this kind of surveys had never been used before by children.
Secondly, we were aiming to use softGISchildren methods in a different methodological
design than the one that had been previously used by the Finnish researchers. Instead of
applying the web-based questionnaires in a collective manner (children in a classroom filling
the questionnaire at the same time, using a computer per child), under the guidance of
research assistant and teacher (Kyttä et al., 2012); we wanted to test the SoftGIS survey in an
individual setting. This means that the questionnaire would be applied individually to each
child, guided by the researcher. In this manner, the researcher could give a better support to
each child by being able to specifically clarify any aspect or doubt that might occur
throughout filling the questionnaire and act more like a mediator in this process. Also, the
triangulation child-adult-softgischildren intended to enhance possibilities to capture children’s
real perceptions about their interactions with the physical environment.
By adopting this data collection setting, our expectations were that more data locations would
be marked, meaning a greater diversity and number of affordances, hence, a more profound
and complete insight into the quality and meaning of daily child-place interactions. A total of
21 children aged between 12 and 16 years old (3 from year 5; 6 from year 6; 3 from year 7; 6
from year 8; 3 from year 9) participated in the survey. These participants were all attending a
specific school in Lisbon, autonomous from the general Department of Education, that focus
on working with children from deprived social backgrounds and low income families. The
room provided by the school for testing and the environment surrounding were quiet. The
child and the researcher sat perpendicular to each other, the former facing the computer and
the latter facing a notebook. This setting is displayed next in fig. 1. In fig.2 an example of the
questionnaire’s page with place markings and trajectories is shown.
Fig. 1- Data collection setting for “Lisboa para ti-SoftGIS” survey
Fig. 2- Questionnaire page with place markings and trajectories from “Lisboa para ti-
Outcomes of testing “SoftGIS-Lisboa para ti” questionnaire
The results of testing Beta version of SoftGIS children survey are not of qualitative character.
Nevertheless, it was possible to conclude that children were able to answer the survey
questions, mark places according to the pre-established categories and draw the home-school
route using hybrid maps (satellite and road maps). The individual sessions of testing took
between 20 to 63 minutes. Generally, older children (year 9 and year 8) took less time to fill
in the questionnaire than younger ones (year 7 and year 6). All children from year 5 the 5th
grade and one child of year 6 grade took the longest time to fill in questionnaire. The use of
satellite map was fundamental for children to perceive their local environment and identify
In terms of number of places that were marked, there a total of 445 markings, with an average
of 21 places per respondent; the minimum number of places marked by a child was 7 and the
maximum number was 57. Also, nearly half of the participants marked between 20 and 29
places on the map. All of the children were able to mark their home location and draw the
home-school itinerary but one of them (from year 5). In terms of map navigation, it was
concluded that children from year 5 found it a more difficult task, and, consequently, marked
less places on it. The researcher was more active in helping them find the places where the
affordances occurred than with the older children. The latter were more able to autonomously
navigate through the map and use the softGIS survey tools.
The previous finding was very important and led us to conceive that subsequent data
collection would be composed with children from year 6 to year 9. In Portugal, young
children have very low levels of independent mobility (Cordovil, Lopes, & Neto, 2012b). At
the same time, traditionally, from year four to year five (transition between 1st to 2nd cycles of
basic schooling, approximately with ages between 9 to 11 years old) children will change to
another school and remain there until they complete year 9. This means that on year five,
parents are still very reluctant in allowing their children to travel autonomously to school.
From year 6 onwards, children are granted more autonomy by their parents.
Relating the categories of affordances, it was conclude that children from year 6 marked more
functional (play) affordances than children from year 7, 8 and 9. Generally, drawing the
home-school itinerary was the most time consuming task on the questionnaire. However, it
enabled children to become familiar with the survey tools of place marking and helped them
to recognize their geographies and mobilities on the displayed map.
The use of “SoftGIS-Lisboa para ti“ survey by one child at time using the computer guided
and mediated by the researcher proved to be very effective on the number of obtained
multidimensional affordances. Former research conducted by Kyttä et al. (2012) and Broberg,
Salminen, & Kyttä (2013), both in larger sets of participants, adopted SoftGIS methodology
and collective data collection (many children in a classroom using a computer each, led by
one or two research assistants). In these studies, the mean number of meaningful places per
participant was respectively of 7 and 6, whereas in our survey testing the mean number was of
After testing the Beta version of SoftGIS, the application was updated in terms of graphic
resolution and new content was introduced in order to capture children’s views regarding their
“ideal” mobility, according mode of travel and accompaniment to places, and “ideal” kind of
play (structured vs unstructured). These innovations to the survey would not only differentiate
from the questionnaires used in former softGIS studies involving children, but also allow
children to suggest possible changes that they would like to take place, when interacting with
the physical public space. Moreover, further studies should look at the possibility of using
SoftGIS triangular-individual data collection, accompanied by semi-structured interview. In
our view, this combination of methods may bring a more ecological comprehensive view of
child-place interactions and reveal details about the symbolic meaning of the city and of its
places for children. Thus, we propose SoftGIS methodology as powerful tool for research
with children and youths regarding meaningful experiences in the physical environment; as a
platform to enhance a more effective children’s public participation; and as a means for local
administrations access relevant data to devise public policies that are child and play friendly,
under the radar of articles 12 and 31 of CRC.
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