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Black Mothers' Perceptions about Urban Neighborhood Safety and Outdoor Play for their Preadolescent Daughters

Using narratives of single low-income Black mothers with preadolescent children in a high-crime neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, this study aims (1) to understand if and how neighborhood safety influences mothers' decisions about allowing their daughters to play outdoors and (2) to identify what neighborhood changes would need to occur to alter their perceptions about safety. Mothers reported that unpredictable violence, related to drug and gang activity of neighbors, and the absence of safe play areas in their neighborhood led them to sequester their daughters indoors. Hostile neighborhood conditions contributed to children's physical inactivity and put girls at risk for obesity.

Neighborhood violence, physical inactivity, Black girls, perceptions of safety

In the U.S., nearly 30% of adolescent Black girls are obese.1 Nationally, Black girls have the fastest growing rate of obesity, and their rates are higher than White adolescent girls and Black boys.1 According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Black girls, in comparison with White girls, are almost twice as likely to experience obesity during childhood (16.3% vs. 8.9%). From 1988 to 2006, adolescent obesity among Black girls has consistently increased (16.3% to 29.8%) and the percentage increase for obesity during these years has been higher among Black adolescent girls than any other racial/ethnic group.2 Several factors are thought to contribute to their disproportionately high prevalence of obesity. A central explanation is the fact that many Black youth grow up in impoverished households headed by single mothers2 -7 and reside in high-crime neighborhoods8 -10 with limited opportunities for safe outdoor play and physical activity.11 -13 These arguments may explain why, despite the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation that youth engage in at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity, only one in four preadolescent Black girls obtains this recommended amount of activity.14 [End Page 206]

A variety of neighborhood factors have been associated with youths' low physical activity levels.15 ,16 Several epidemiologic studies suggest that mothers' perceptions of neighborhood safety may be one such factor.17 -20 But limited data have been collected about the specific nature of mothers' safety concerns for their daughters and the mechanisms linking these concerns to reduced levels of youths' physical activity,21 -28 making it difficult to plan interventions to address this situation. For example, in finding that physical activity levels of fourth-grade students were higher among those students reporting more problems with neighborhood hazards, researchers have suggested that future studies assess the relationship between parental fear of violence and children's physical activity.18 ,29 Understanding mothers' neighborhood safety concerns is especially important for improving the health and well-being of this vulnerable population of Black girls living in low-income, urban neighborhoods.29 ,30 Mothers' concerns may affect their daughters' outdoor play time, physical activity levels, and their risk for obesity.

Documenting the experiences of an urban neighborhood with recorded high levels of criminal violence, we used qualitative methods to understand from low-income Black mothers if and how their perceptions of neighborhood safety influenced decision-making about their preadolescent daughters' outdoor play. Using their reports, we identified what neighborhood changes would be needed to alter their current perceptions about their daughters' safety and play. Although there have been many studies of the relationship between perceptions of neighborhood safety and child physical activity, the current study expands the existing literature on the perceptions of public housing mothers regarding neighborhood safety and outdoor play, and provides potential solutions to these identified problems.



Between January and July 2010, we conducted individual interviews and focus groups with single, Black mothers living with their 9-13 year old daughters in the Georgia King Village (hereafter, the Village), a low-income housing development in the West Ward neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. We first conducted 18 individual interviews to understand mothers' perceptions of neighborhood safety and how these perceptions might influence their daughters' outdoor play. After identifying that neighborhood safety was a barrier to outdoor play, we conducted two focus groups with mothers to confirm these findings. In the individual interviews and focus groups, we asked mothers about possible solutions to the problem of neighborhood safety. Mothers who participated in the study provided written consent and received a $40 gift card to a large retail store, easily accessible by public transportation. Study protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board of City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


The Village—the research site—contains 422 housing units comprised of townhouses (three, four, or five bedrooms) with adjoining and enclosed backyards and two 18-story towers (one- or two-bedroom apartments). Of the almost one thousand residents (n=956), over 80% receive a public housing subsidy; the majority of households are headed by single, Black mothers. More than half the residents at the Village are children (n=456); almost a third of these children are between 9-13 years [End Page 207] old (n=130). The socioeconomic conditions of families at the Village are similar to the Newark population as a whole. Almost 30% percent of Newark's residents live below the U.S. poverty threshold.31 Like Newark, the West Ward neighborhood and the Village have long been challenged by poverty and violence. Mayor Cory Booker has launched several efforts aimed at reducing violence in Newark neighborhoods, particularly in the Fairmount Area where the Village is located. In 2009, the Newark police reported seven aggravated assaults, 13 robberies, six shootings, and 11 auto thefts at the Village.32 Later that year, the Mayor and the owners of the property responded by bringing a community policing program to the Village. There was some reported reduction in crime, but after only eight months the initiative ended. In 2007, four college students were killed by execution-style shootings that were part of a gang initiation in a large public park in the West Ward. From 2009 to 2010, murder, rape, robbery, assault and auto-thefts in the West Ward increased (by 36%, 50%, 12%, 14%, and 9%, respectively).32

Subject recruitment

Mothers were eligible for the study if they were Black, unmarried, had a daughter between 9 and 13 years of age, and had resided in the West Ward of Newark for at least one year. The management staff of the Village identified eligible mothers, and staff members helped to arrange meetings at the Village with each of these mothers. The first author explained the study in detail and enrolled participants.

Interviews and focus groups

Thirty-two mothers participated—18 in individual interviews, eight in the first focus group and six in the second. The interviews and the focus groups were conducted by the first author who has extensive experience conducting qualitative interviews. Interviews and focus groups were held at the Village in a private room of the central administration office. On average, the interview and focus group sessions lasted 75 minutes and 120 minutes, respectively. Demographic information about the subjects was collected during the individual interviews and a brief questionnaire was used to collect this information in the focus groups. Interviews and focus groups were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim.

For the individual interviews, we used a semi-structured protocol with closed- and open-ended questions that covered six domains: personal and family characteristics, history of personal and neighborhood violence, mother-daughter relationship, information about the daughter, perceptions of neighborhood, and solutions to neighborhood safety. The individual interview revealed great consistency in the mother's responses to safety issues. While we gathered some information on mothers' recommendations for solutions to safety concerns in the individual interviews, we wanted additional information and detail as this is a new area of inquiry. Questions regarding recommendations were among the last set of questions on the protocol, and many of the responses were brief. To cross-check the responses we received in the individual interviews about safety and to explore in greater depth mothers' recommendations, we held two focus groups. The focus groups each comprised a distinct set of mothers. Their responses served to confirm the extent to which mothers in the Village shared similar perceptions of safety. In addition, this new group of mothers provided additional details to the initial set of responses regarding recommendations for safety. Because of the group setting during the focus groups, we did not probe participants to discuss specific personal issues. In individual interviews mothers talked at length about intimate relationships with their daughters; during focus groups we focused on broader themes to produce [End Page 208] a concentrated amount of information on the areas of interests. This report focuses on three domains: neighborhood conditions, daughters' activities, and solutions to neighborhood safety (Box 1).

Data analysis

To facilitate the data analysis, the transcripts from the interviews and focus groups were transferred into Atlas.ti 5.5, Scientific Software Development, GmbH (Berlin, Germany), a qualitative data management program. This report presents themes that address the following three topics: 1) What are mothers' perceptions of

Boxed Text.

Box 1.  Sample Questions Used in Three Domains

[End Page 209]

neighborhood safety? 2) How do mothers' neighborhood safety perceptions influence their daughters' outdoor play? and 3) What suggestions do mothers have to improve neighborhood safety?


Participant characteristics

The 32 participating mothers ranged in age from 23 to 52 years (Mean = 36). Fifteen were born in Newark and had always lived in the city. Fourteen had lived in the Village for five years or more. Twenty-four had completed high school, and 15 of these had attended some college. All mothers received some form of federal assistance, most commonly health insurance coverage for their children through the Medicaid program. Ten reported being employed either part- or full-time.

Perceptions of neighborhood safety and daughters' outdoor play

Mothers reported that their perceptions of neighborhood safety strongly influenced how much outdoor play their daughters had. Of the 32 mothers, 31 (94%) reported that they did not let their daughters participate in any outdoor play in their neighborhood during the school year. Three key themes were present in the reasons mothers provided for restricting their daughters' outdoor play (Box 2).

Neighborhood violence is unpredictable

The perception that neighborhood violence

Boxed Text.

Box 2.  Major Themes and Supporting Quotations About Neighborhood Safety and Outdoor Play

[End Page 210]

was unpredictable had a particularly strong influence on mothers' decisions not to allow their daughters to play outside. One mother remarked, "You don't know when you walk out your door who is in the hallway. What to expect when you are leaving out your door." Echoing this sentiment, a second mother explained, "You always hear on the news about something happening here or there. It is always too close to home. [End Page 211] A girl got shot on 22nd St. just sitting on her porch. Bullets go flying. A little baby got shot. I don't do the porch thing that much."

Most mothers required their daughters to spend their out-of-school time indoors because of the fear that their daughters would become victims of neighborhood violence. Mothers felt that limiting outdoor play was essential to keeping their daughters alive; survival was a higher priority than being physically active. As one mother stated,

I don't feel that it's safe. There's stolen cars up and down the street and most of the kids that steal the cars is the boys that live on the block, and I just wouldn't want to one day come home or come outside, and it's my daughter laying on the sidewalk because she done got hit by a 12-year-old boy that was driving a stolen car. So to avoid all that I just wouldn't let her outside.

Neighbors contribute to the lack of safety

Mothers were distrustful of the young men in their neighborhood because they perceived them as delinquent. One mother observed, "You've got the young boys with sagging pants, the girls out there cussing and underwear showing; they're dealing their drugs. I'll call the cops . . . But I'm like—you know, you actually have a neighborhood held hostage. . . ." Another mother, describing her wariness of the neighbors, said "It is a place where it's like subsidized living, you know, so most of the people that live in these buildings are probably gang affiliated or deal drugs or something."

Safe play means leaving the neighborhood

For outdoor play, some mothers took their daughters to parks or relatives' homes that were not in the Village or West Ward. One mother explained, "I take her to a family's house or something like that, but I don't let her play actually in the playground [at the Village]." Some mothers sent their daughters [End Page 212] great distances to allow safe outdoor play. In the summertime, children were often sent to live with relatives in the Southeastern U.S. or in the local suburbs.

Solutions to the problem of neighborhood safety

We solicited ideas from mothers about what would need to change in the neighborhood for them to feel safe enough to let their daughters play outdoors. Three themes emerged (Box 3).

Boxed Text.

Box 3.  Major Themes and Supporting Quotations About Solutions to the Problem of Neighborhood Safety

[End Page 213]

More armed security presence

Mothers desired greater protection from more armed personnel in and around the neighborhood to help ensure the physical safety of their daughters. One participant's comment reflected most mothers' desires: "I think they need [more police and security guards] and mainly in the summertime because we have people coming from all over . . ." While some mothers noted efforts to increase security, there was a general consensus that more security guards were still needed. One mother stated, "They [security guards] walk the beat up and down. It makes me feel a little safer. If you ain't got no ID, trust and believe you are going to jail. They are taking you away. They are always getting somebody over there. . . ." Nearly all mothers asked for "more police." One mother specifically linked the solution of increasing armed security guards to reducing the fear of gang violence, stating that she wanted armed guards "to get these drug dealers and these gang bangers off the street. It would be so much better, so peaceful."

More neighborhood recreational spaces for children

Many mothers desired more recreational spaces and structured activities in the neighborhood for children. One mother asked rhetorically, "Do I feel as though there's enough activities for children to be involved in after school or during school that parents can rely on?" Another asked: [End Page 214]

Why don't they have anything for their kids to do? They should have some programs for kids, [but] they don't, and they [are] tearing down the basketball court that gave the kids activity. Basketball is a way to lose weight, get some exercise, and they tearing that down. It's nothing for them to do in here at all.

Many mothers reported that organized neighborhood activities for their daughters were rare and that it was necessary for them to take their daughters outside the neighborhood to access such activities. One mother stated, "They [children] have places to go, but for people that don't want their kids traveling a distance without them, that's kind of hard to get there. But when you live in a community, why don't this community have something for the kids to do?" While mothers generally felt unsafe in the neighborhood, many agreed that with more guards they would feel safer taking their children to community and recreational centers where supervision was assured.

Homes with private yards

Mothers longed for the sense of security that might come with having a private house and yard, allowing their daughters to play outside with limited maternal supervision. One mother said, "The only thing that I would change [about the current environment] to feel really safe . . . to make me let my granddaughter or my nieces and them go outside [would be to] move into a private home with a back yard."

There was much discussion in the focus groups about living in a detached single-family house with a yard, and many participants connected this idea with imagery of life in the Southeastern U.S. Reminiscing about her past, one mother explained the differences in the play environment between the Village and the Southeastern U.S.

I lived down South, so yeah I was always outside. But it was different because where we lived at, my aunt had like a house and you would be out in the back. . . . My mother's mother had a house and that was fine. Whenever we were down in the summertime we would always be outside playing.

To these mothers, the Southeastern U.S. represented the opportunity to have a home. This idealized image of home was a residence surrounded by abundant outdoor space in a safe and socially cohesive community. In one mother's words, "In the South you don't see people hanging outside in the streets all day long. You don't see the drug dealers. It's very close-knit . . . everybody is very family-like down there. If you want to let your kid go out and go play, there's nothing there to harm them. Everything is really nice."


In this study, we learned that fears about unpredictable violence, largely related to drug and gang activity of neighbors, led nearly every mother to restrict her daughter's outdoor play. Mothers needed to travel outside their neighborhood to find safe play areas for their daughters. Mothers suggested that they would feel better about their daughters' safety in the neighborhood, if there were more armed security guards and organized recreational spaces and activities for daughters. Mothers sought the ideal of homes with enclosed and non-adjoining backyards where their daughters could play safely without adult supervision. These findings suggest that mothers are making a [End Page 215] difficult choice between two important matters in their daughters' health—physical safety and the opportunity to be physically active outdoors.

Many epidemiologic studies have examined the relationship between neighborhood safety and physical activity and/or obesity in children and youth.21 ,23 -25 ,33 -36 However, not all of these studies suggest that low levels of perceived safety are associated with reduced levels of physical activity.18 The inconsistent findings may be due to varying ages, geographic locations of the study subjects, and measurement of the construct neighborhood safety. However, the general consensus is that a reduced amount of time spent outdoors is the primary mechanism that links low levels of perceived safety to low levels of physical activity in children, although this mechanism is infrequently stated in epidemiologic studies. To our knowledge, there has been only one epidemiologic study that examined the association between mothers' perceptions of neighborhood safety and their children's outdoor play time; this study, involving preschool-aged children, found no significant association between perceived safety and outdoor play.37

Our study demonstrates the value of qualitative methods in obtaining data to complement epidemiologic studies. We have shown that in a high-crime urban neighborhood, mothers report keeping their daughters inside to protect them from being victims of drug and gang-related violence. We were also able to understand mothers' perspectives about what would need to change in their neighborhood so that they would feel safe enough to allow their daughters to play outdoors. Developing interventions to increase the physical activity levels of youth, especially those at high risk for inactivity and obesity, requires understanding the specific aspects of neighborhood safety that might be acting as barriers and the solutions, from those affected, about how to overcome the barriers.

Our study had limitations shared by many qualitative studies. Our results cannot be generalized. We cannot be sure that our findings extend to Black boys, non-Black females, other high-crime neighborhoods, or even to all mothers in this neighborhood. Having used a purposive sampling strategy, we cannot exclude the possibility that the mothers in our study were more concerned about safety than the average mother in the Village. Although mothers reported restricting their daughters' outdoor activity, we did not corroborate that information by interviewing daughters, nor did we directly assess the daughters' physical activity levels or weight.

We obtained information that might guide future studies. The mothers we interviewed were specific and unanimous in their safety concerns with a focus on their daughters being innocent victims of random gang- and drug-related violence perpetrated by their own neighbors. Future epidemiologic studies, especially those involving urban youth living in high-crime neighborhoods, might focus on establishing the causal linkages between these specific maternal safety fears and measures of outdoor playtime, physical activity, and obesity. Mothers felt threatened by their own neighbors, and a deeper exploration of mothers' fears may contribute to a better understanding of how to make mothers feel safe. For example, future qualitative work should consider how mothers' fears are shaped by intra-racial hostility, especially between genders, and by mothers' own histories of neighborhood violence.

Mothers were pragmatic and idealistic about dealing with the competing goals of keeping their daughters safe and providing them opportunities to be active outdoors. Their solutions were straightforward—keep their daughters indoors and leave the [End Page 216] neighborhood to find safe outdoor play. For some mothers, finding safe outdoor play areas meant sending their daughters away in the summertime to live with relatives in another state. These distant sites, some in the southeastern U.S., appeared to serve as the basis for their idealistic vision of a safer neighborhood in which they would happily let their daughters outdoors to play. Mothers also spoke of opportunities for developing trust and informal bonds that foster feelings of safety.38 ,39 The vision of a neighborhood with high levels of social capital contrasted with existing fears—violent and untrustworthy neighbors who were gang members and drug dealers—and immediate solutions—more armed security guards. The more practical, immediate solution of supervised youth activities contrasted with the ideal of their preadolescent girls playing safely outdoors without adult supervision.

What might explain the co-occurring pragmatism and idealism of mothers—the contrasting solutions of "armed guards and private yards" and of wanting "Georgia King Village to be Georgia"? One explanation may be that mothers first need to feel safe with their neighbors before they can establish any trust with them. After mothers are assured of basic safety from violent crime, they may permit their daughters outside to recreational spaces and programs where they can be physically active. At that point, it would be possible that these neighborhood spaces and programs for children could be a catalyst for increasing social capital among the mothers, as has been shown elsewhere.40 ,41

Janice Johnson Dias and Robert C. Whitaker  

Janice Johnson Dias is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Graduate Faculty of Criminal Justice in the Department of Sociology at City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Robert Whitaker is Professor of Public Health and Pediatrics at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Please address correspondence to Janice Johnson Dias, John Jay College of CriminalJustice, Department of Sociology, 5th Floor, 899 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10019; (212) 484-1310;jjohnson-dias@jjay.cuny.edu.


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