The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) is a teaching and research group focusing on cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. AUSCCER’s expertise and research is wide-ranging. Over the next few months we’ll introduce some of our academics and PhD candidates to give greater insight into AUSCCER’s work.
Kiera began her PhD with AUSCCER at the start of 2014. Here she answers questions about her research.
You’re in the second year of your PhD. What is the focus of your PhD research?
My research looks at where and how children play in the city. For example, built playgrounds are common spaces that represent ‘children’s spaces’ in the city. Playgrounds can provide a lot of play opportunities for children; however, when talking to children about where they prefer to play, research has shown that children will often talk about informal spaces in their neighbourhood or near their school. For example, a favourite tree to climb. When creating city spaces with children in mind, these everyday play spaces are more challenging to plan and design. This is where my current research interest lies.
In my PhD, I am examining play as a complex activity that involves humans and nonhumans. I am investigating how children encounter materials, humans, and nonhumans in structured and informal spaces in Wollongong, specifically playgrounds and rock pools. The aim of the project is to explore how a more-than-human perspective can inform understanding of how children use and experience play spaces in the city. This approach is also used to better understand how play is conceptualized in cities, and contribute practically to city planning with children in mind.
What university have you come from and why have you come to AUSCCER?
Before I came to AUSCCER, I was at the University of Surrey in the UK finishing up a MSc degree in Environmental Psychology. I also completed a BA in psychology with a minor in geography prior to that at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada.
I came to AUSCCER because I was looking for a space where I could explore my interests in children’s geographies, be mentored in human geography, but also be challenged by new ideas. AUSCCER has provided me with these experiences.
I also would have not come to AUSCCER without the support and encouragement from my supervisors, Leah Gibbs and Natascha Klocker. They both made a strong impression on me after Skyping and emailing me before I started my PhD. I was impressed by their tremendous support for students and also their interest in interdisciplinary research.
What made you go down the path of human geography?
I kind of stumbled into human geography, to be honest. I needed some credits to graduate my undergraduate degree and Dr. Michael Fox, the lecturer for the first year subject in human geography was pretty well known, so I took his class. Unexpectedly, the class had me hooked. After every lecture, I needed to rant about the state of the world and the class made me question my everyday practices. I remember that a bunch of my friends took the first year subject with me in our third year, and we found ourselves questioning why we hadn’t found human geography subjects earlier on in our degree.
Since then, my experience has been filled with countless kind people who have encouraged me to continue studying human geography. That first year Human Geography lecturer, Dr. Michael Fox, also happened to be the head of the geography department at that time, and in my fourth year (degrees are a year longer in Canada), I asked him if I could do an independent project that would allow me to combine my interests in developmental psychology and human geography. That was when I came across articles about children’s geographies, and I started reading a book about playground designs, Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping Schoolyards, Gardens, and Playgrounds (Tai et al., 2006). Through this experience, I discovered how studying human geography could allow me to explore all of my interests related to children’s geographies.
Before these experiences, I was setting myself up to study educational psychology, and to develop a career providing assessments and early intervention for children. I liked working with children in their early years of development; however, I felt like there was more that I wanted to understand about children’s lives, and I felt that continuing to study in human geography would allow me to do this. Perhaps, I’ve taken the road less travelled to end up in human geography, but I am happy doing it, I’m never bored, and there is always so much to learn!
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?
I saw doing a PhD as any other research job. Before, I came to UOW I was applying for research assistant jobs at hospitals, and organizations in Canada. They were decent jobs available, but none of them really spoke to my interests. Pursuing a PhD has allowed me to research my specific area of interest, and it has provided me with a lot of opportunities that would have been difficult to come across on my own.
What are you looking forward to most during your PhD journey?
I am really excited for my fieldwork. Going to rock pools and playgrounds with families will be a lot of fun. I think I am a bit spoiled that I get to say ‘going for a swim at a rock pool’ is for research purposes! I am also really interested in hearing about children’s play experiences in Wollongong. Children always have creative stories to tell.
What has been one of your biggest hurdles during your PhD journey?
I think that coming into a human geography program with a psychology background, was a really big shift for me. It is a different way of writing, communicating and doing research. It was a big challenge for me last year, and I think it will continue to be throughout my PhD, but it’s a growing experience. I am getting used to being a story teller, and unravelling what we think we know about the world.
Really though, the biggest personal hurdle is about letting go of control and the feeling of being comfortable with what I know. I can relate to Lance’s comment about learning to be “comfortable with feeling uncomfortable”. So much life happens in these 3-4 years! Projects change, things don’t goes as planned…who knows what could happen in the next couple years? So, I’m just learning to embrace the chaos, and take it a day at a time.
What advice would you give to new PhD students that you’ve found reassuring?
I received a lot of great advice last year when I first started. Thankfully, I think most of it has sunk in. One of my favourites was to ‘Enjoy the Process’, which Leah Gibbs is known for saying to her students. Sometimes I can get caught up in all the work that needs to be done, and all the milestones ahead, that I forget, ‘oh yeah, what I’m actually doing is really cool’, so remember to have some fun!
Kiera’s publications and research interests can be found on her UOW profile page. You can follow Kiera on twitter @KieraKent