Participatory mapping was undertaken with single-sex groups of grade 5 and grade 8–9 children in KwaZulu-Natal. Relative to grade 5 students, wide gender divergence in access to the public sphere was found at grade 8–9. With puberty, girls' worlds shrink, while boys' expand. At grade 5, female-defined community areas were equal or larger in size than those of males. Community area mapped by urban grade 8–9 girls, however, was only one-third that of male classmates and two-fifths that of grade 5 girls. Conversely, community area mapped by grade 8–9 boys was twice that of grade 5 boys. Similar differences emerged in the rural site. No female group rated a single community space as more than ‘somewhat safe’. Although curtailed spatial access is intended to protect girls, grade 8–9 girls reported most places in their small navigable areas as very unsafe. Expanded geographies of grade 8–9 boys contained a mix of safe and unsafe places. Reducing girls' access to the public sphere does not increase their perceived safety, but may instead limit their access to opportunities for human development. The findings emphasise the need for better violence prevention programming for very young adolescents.