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Watch toddlers take on city streets in new film series

What happens when kids get to explore cities on their own terms?

One-year-old Sylvie walks through Times Square.
Jacob Krupnick

The city is a giant playground for kids, but they don’t get to experience much when they’re strapped into strollers to keep up with the busy pace of adults. That narrative is flipped by filmmaker Jacob Krupnick, who follows toddlers who have just learned to walk as they determine their own paths through the cacophony of busy cities.

For the past year, Krupnick’s been setting one- and two-year-olds loose on city streets, filming the answer to this question: “What happens when kids explore the world on their own terms?” The delightful film series, entitled Young Explorers Club, shows what happens when parents allow their kids to engage with urban spaces without any prompts, directions or guidance.

The first three films in the series take place in various neighborhoods in New York City. For the latest video, Krupnick headed to Atlanta to film on the BeltLine, the former rail right-of-way that’s been turned into a walking and biking trail encircling the city.

Watching kids climb graffiti-covered retaining walls or peer over the edge of a fountain is pure urbanist joy. But it’s also strangely unsettling to see kids running alone in the city.

Krupnick has two young kids—his two-year-old, Ada, will be featured in an upcoming film—so he understands why the idea of a toddler crossing a Manhattan avenue solo might make some parents nervous. But Krupnick says part of the reason he makes the films is to capture the reactions of adults shocked to see a kid ambling along by themselves. “In order to do that, we have to put kids in a situation where they have more freedom than they’d normally have.”

There’s a particularly poignant scene where Sylvie, a toddler in one of the New York City films, seems to be standing alone on a Times Square plaza, but as the camera pans, we suddenly realize she’s surrounded by dozens of steel bollards and NYPD officers. Rather than be reassuring, it’s almost disturbing to see the fortress-like infrastructure and militarization of public space.

While filming his daughter navigating the throngs of people on the Coney Island boardwalk, Krupnick says he captured a similar moment when Ada encounters a child leashed to his mom by one of those toddler-safety harnesses. Both scenes speak to the various definitions of freedom in our cities, where places for people to walk must be surrounded by car-stopping barriers and kids in crowds are literally tethered to their parents.

In this way, the films do provide some larger commentary about American parents and their obsession with safety, says Krupnick, although these fears are unfounded. “This country has become safer in almost every way since our grandparents were kids.” He points to European countries where parents leave their infants to nap on the sidewalk while socializing in a cafe. “It’s totally shocking for an American to see a pram with a four-month-old parked outside and the mom’s inside having a strudel.”

What’s also striking about Krupnick’s tot-sized perspective is seeing how the city is clearly not designed for anyone who’s not an able-bodied adult. Although there are many movements to design age-accessible and even gender-neutral cities, U.S. cities are lagging when it comes to physically transforming to accommodate anything but cars. Watching these kids struggle to clear curbs and race pedestrian countdown clocks, it made me wonder what a U.S. city would look like where it would not be so odd to see a toddler roaming free.