Photo/stories from the field: Do greens stand for fire-blocks or for nature-preservation?

Among the methods we’ve used in the study was what we called the walking tour of children’s neighborhoods. We’ve asked children to walk us around their neighborhood, showing us places that were significant for them – in any way possible. The walks were incredibly interesting, often very enjoyable, always very rich in data production – and many a time a nightmare to write up in fieldnotes afterwards too.

Walking practices, which have until recently remained a largely understudied area of human culture (in particular with regards to its treatment by the social sciences), in recent years are attracting the attention of a number of scholars across various disciplines (cf. Horton et al. 2014). Lorimer (2011) has identified this renowned interest in walking as a distinct area of study in itself, which he labels, the ‘new walking studies’. Such studies are often finely tuned with a wider phenomenological agenda in the social sciences, and in fact much influenced by the work of Ingold & Vergunst (2008) (but also cf. Ingold “The Perception of the Environment”). An equally influential contribution has been Middleton’s (2009) study on the interrelation of time, space and identity in the context of walking in an urban environment (London), as well as the multiple temporalities and spatialities that emerge and shape urban pedestrian movement. Accordingly, there have recently been attempts to systematically employ walking as a methodological practice (i.e. ‘walking interview’ – cf. Evans and Jones 2011; ‘walking with video’ – Pink 2011).

While walking and talking with children in Athens, things were pointed at, stories were remembered, and recounted, random encounters generated talks about all possible (and sometimes impossible) themes. Yet apart from the very rich data that were generated through the discussion, during those walks, I became increasingly interested on the various modalities of children’s walking. I started thinking that thinking about walking opens up to multidimensional and complex phenomenological understandings of non-stationary ways of being in the world (and navigating it). For instance, the study of children’s walking practices, in the context of an urban ethnography can provide the grounds to discuss both the messiness and fine choreographies of one’s experiential perception of being in the urban outdoors.

Since early on in the research (in fact during pilot research in Athens) I was thinking about the ways in which children’s walking at times becomes a very playful act which merges together imagination, play, functionality, sport, creatively dealing with routine – and many, many more. I will use an example, from two walks on the Filoppapou hill, in the centre of Athens to illustrate my thoughts and reflections on such themes.

Two of our children interlocutors live around the hill, Petros, a boy aged nine at the time of the walk and Zoe, a girl then aged eight. Quite naturally, as they both individually commented, both took me for a walk at Fillopappou when I brought up the idea of walking around places that matter to them in their neighbourhood.

I first went there with Petros. It was pretty cold, and Petros was a bit hungry – but he forgot about both as soon as we were up on the hill and started playing around. When, after quite a while, we started walking downhill from the south side of the hill, in order to go to his place, Petros told me that we will play the game ‘fire and ice.’ He explained that it’s based on a videogame, that a friend of his from school has, in which there’s an orange fire hero and a blue ice hero. Two players play at the same time, and each picks up a hero. Each of them runs across platforms which are made of both blocks made of fire or ice, and each hero can only step on his blocks, or else he loses. So, Petros explained that we are going to play this game during our walk. The surface of the ground at this point comprises of green patches, and patches of rocks or ground. The green would be the fire and rocks and ground the ice – I was allowed to pick first which hero I would be. Yet, he advised, that although ice seems easier, further downhill, where there’s more vegetation, it’s going to be pretty tricky. He knows well, as he plays this game often, with his mother, or with friends, or sometimes by himself even, without having said to anyone he’s playing it. I didn’t take his advice, I picked the ice hero and lost. (Let alone I fell down as I was trying acrobatics to reach between patches of ground.)

A few weeks later, while I was walking this time uphill the Filoppapou southern side with Zoe, she told me about her game: One must not step on grass. We would thus do the least harm in the wild greens, and it’s funny too. So, we were heading for the bare ground and the rocks. I was reminded of the game last week with Petros – yet in Zoe’s game our efforts were collaborative. We would sometimes help each other, holding by the hand to help manage a long jump and so on. After a short while, when the vegetation wasn’t that dense anymore as we were moving uphill, Zoe started walking more hastily, jumping around, often picking the more challenging options – I was pretty much left behind. As she was walking, she was making some funny choices on how to walk or where to jump to. I asked her why – pretty much shouting, and she told me that Oh! She forgot to tell me that if I have the choice of going on a rock, I should prefer that to the bare ground. We met on a rock, which felt like an island in a sea of wild greens.