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Gangs, violence rob inner-city kids of physical activity, study says

Monika Stodolska, left, and Kimberly Shinew
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L. Brian Stauffer

Fear of crime prevents children in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood from engaging in many physical and recreational activities, including after-school programs and organized sports, according to a new study by Monika Stodolska, left, and Kimberly Shinew, professors in the department of recreation, sport and tourism.

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7/27/2011 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Many of the adults living in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood are first-generation immigrants, raised in Latin American communities where people feel close to nature, leave their doors wide open to their neighbors and the outdoors is an extended space for socializing with the community.

However, the fear of crime has dramatically changed that in South Lawndale, also known as Little Village. One mother’s rules, posted on the refrigerator for reference when her children are home alone in the apartment, include the admonition, “Never go outside.”

The largest Hispanic neighborhood in metropolitan Chicago, Little Village is an area plagued by high crime rates and gang violence. Although the community comprises only 4.4 square miles, police recorded 2,625 crimes there during 2006, including 1,222 thefts, 268 robberies, 22 criminal sexual assaults and 11 murders.

Monika Stodolska and Kimberly Shinew, professors in the department of recreation, sport and tourism, a unit in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, have conducted several studies with Little Village residents, examining recreational patterns among Latinos, how they use parks and trails, and the impact of culture on physical activity.

To explore how children’s recreational activities are constrained by the neighborhood’s crime, the researchers surveyed and interviewed Latino students at two of the neighborhood’s middle schools – John Spry Elementary Community School and Gerald Delgado Kanoon Magnet School – and two of its high schools – Community Links High School and World Language Academy High School – between May and December 2010. The children that participated in the study ranged in age from 11-18.

“What was unique about our study was that we looked through the eyes of the children and were able to tap into their perceptions of crime, how they experience it, what they miss in their community and how they try to protect themselves,” said Stodolska, who is the director of the Diversity Research Laboratory at Illinois and led the study. “We looked at different environments where kids could be involved in physical activity or use public resources, including parks, streets and alleys, schools and the surrounding areas. The crime rates in those areas were just alarming.”

“Most of the adolescents had witnessed people being assaulted and killed, gang shootings, fights, carjackings, drug use and gang activity in the area,” according to the report, which the researchers furnished to officials at the schools and in city government. “Their family members and friends had been victims of violent crime. Children recounted being shot at while playing soccer in front of their school, being beaten by gang members while walking to school, and being fearful of gang members wanting to join their basketball and soccer games.”

The few parks available in the community are dominated by gang activity, and many children said they avoided them or were forbidden by their parents to use them. Residents also were cut off from enjoying a nearby pool and other facilities because they had to cross gang boundaries to get there.

Since walking home after dark could be especially treacherous, some children shunned after-school activities and sports leagues that might keep them out past sundown or require their being at school after classes dismissed, unless their parents were available to transport them.

“A lot of children mentioned that it became very dangerous to stay around school after 3 p.m.,” Stodolska said. “The high schools organize a lot of interesting after-school activities but children don’t want to participate because they don’t want to travel through the territory after dark.”

Fear of crime precluded some children from participating in any leisure activities outside their homes.

Children viewed the areas surrounding their homes as being safer, and when they did play outdoors, younger children favored games such as tag that weren’tsite-specific, could be played close to home and could be easily moved to safer locations if danger loomed.

Kids felt safest in facilities such as the Boys and Girls Club, where activities were indoors, organized and supervised by adults and monitored by security cameras.

Children were pretty much in agreement about what might be done to help them feel safer participating in recreational activities – more police patrolling the streets, the parks and the schools after hours – and more security cameras monitoring activity, Stodolska said.

Older children’s recreational activities were constrained more than younger children’s because the older youth were more aware of crime and its consequences; they also were more likely to be targets of serious crimes because gang members viewed them as threats, Stodolska said.

As with the previous studies, the researchers found that Latino children who were more assimilated to U.S. culture engaged in less physical activity and outdoor recreation and had less healthy eating patterns than their peers.

Editor's note: To contact Monika Stodolska, call 217-244-5644; email stodolsk@illinois.edu. To reach Kimberly Shinew, call 217-333-4410; email shinew@illinois.edu.

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