Children, Communities and Social Capital in Australia

What do children in Australia value about their communities? How are communities supporting children? How are communities failing them – and why? These questions underpin the “Children, Communities and Social Capital in Australia‟ research project, undertaken in 2014.

Over the past fifteen years, governments at Commonwealth, state and local levels have been concerned with strengthening communities as part of a policy shift towards “local solutions to local problems” and to place-based initiatives. This policy shift was heavily influenced by ideas of social capital. Children are often assumed to benefit from “strong communities”, yet we know very little about children‟s views on what makes a strong, supportive community.

Indeed, we know very little about children‟s places and roles within Australian communities. If policies and initiatives are to be inclusive of children – as this report argues they should – it is crucial that we understand children‟s views and experiences of their communities.

Children, Communities and Social Capital in Australia is one of the first research projects to explore in depth what children in middle childhood think about their communities, how children experience “community” on a daily basis, and what vision they have for their communities. For the purposes of this research, “middle childhood” is defined as the eight to twelve year age group. The project was funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, and carried out in collaboration with The Benevolent Society and NAPCAN (National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect).

This report presents the findings of participatory, rights-based research with 108 children aged between eight and twelve years across six sites in eastern Australia. The findings provide important insights into communities from a child‟s standpoint.

This research also demonstrates children‟s capacity to engage in detailed discussion and deliberation about “what works” – and “what is broken” – within their community. Additionally, it demonstrates the important insights children can provide into how to fix that which is broken.

Based on the children‟s conceptualisation of community, we use the following definition of community in this report:

Community is a social space within which people are personally connected and known to one another. Within this social space, people provide friendship and support to one another and work towards common goals. Respect and kindness are very important. In times of severe difficulty or crisis, communities need to be supported by helping professionals, such as police and ambulance services. The people who make up a community can be diverse.

The findings presented here are structured around the “Community Jigsaw”. The Community Jigsaw is an analytical tool, based on children‟s priorities of what makes a strong and supportive community. The Community Jigsaw is shaped by four overarching categories:

  • Relationships as forming the basis – the very heart – of community;
  • Safety as essential to children‟s perception and experience of community;
  • Physical places as important to children‟s experience of and connection with community;
  • Resources as important in contributing to, and often shaping, experience of community.

Within each of the four categories, several sub-categories emerged, resulting in a rich mosaic based on children‟s views and experiences. The sub-categories can be seen as forming pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When all pieces are in place, communities are strong and supportive of children. The more pieces missing, the less supportive the community is of children. At some point so many pieces are missing that the jigsaw falls apart. At this point, communities have become dysfunctional places from children‟s perspectives.

The children who participated in this research identified as important, issues which are represented by the following pieces of the Community Jigsaw:

  1. Relationships: Family; Time with Parents; Friends; Good Neighbours; Caring People; Being Listened To; Community Get-togethers.
  2. Safety: Positive Interactions; No Violence; No Bullying; No Drunkenness.
  3. Physical Places: Home; A Good Environment; Inclusive Spaces.
  4. Resources: Financial Security; Public Services.

In our representation of children’s input in the Community Jigsaw (read the full report, available in the resources section below, for more detail), we have left the edges unfinished, indicating that this research is not exhaustive or comprehensive, and there is potential for the Community Jigsaw to be refined and extended, based on future research with children. Central to each piece of the jigsaw are the vitally important concepts of respect and inclusion.