Engaging children for their future

Hard to reach or maybe we just need to work harder to reach them?

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Children have traditionally been placed in the too hard basket when it comes to community engagement. Organisations and professionals generally find engaging with children too time consuming, too resource driven and just too much effort. But in an age where a global pandemic has changed the way we think about not only our distant future (think about all those councils currently doing strategic plans for 2030, 2040 and beyond) but our immediate future, then children should be at the forefront of being involved in the decision making processes, centred on things that will affect their lives longer than those actually carrying out the engagement process and making the final decision.

Why… because…

‘Children and young people have a unique perspective to give, and an ability to blend the physical and digital spheres with imaginative new visions. They are driven by ‘what if,’ and less inhibited by legacy systems, and frames of reference that appear to hold us from critical action required. Let us unlock this knowledge, so we can truly utilise a collective imagination for social change.’ Playful Democracy, Melanie Rayment on Medium

THEN AND NOW

But if you look back through history, as with anything in the world of community engagement, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel as there are many examples that with a little tweaking can ensure that children can successfully be engaged in helping make decisions that will ultimately affect their future. For example, I heard that in 1970s Vancouver they ‘Created a new zoning code that was intended to keep more families in the city… Vancouver saw… that more families wanted to stay in the city because parents wanted shorter community times and for stay at home parents it meant a much more sociable and easier life’ (Self Driving Kids — the War on Cars podcast).
But this was certainly about planning around the adults, the parents, and making their life easier yet ‘child friendly’. But there is nothing about whether children were asked or engaged about this. However even with Vancouver leading the way in planning over 40 years ago, cities around the world have still become car orientated and children have become less independent. Cities generally also remain ‘expensive’ for families with children to live in because planning has suited the professional adult wage earner and never considered or engaged children about what they want.

Now, however, it has come back around again. Child-friendly urban planning is described as an emerging field, one which recognises the fundamental importance of the built environment as a whole in helping to shape a child’s development and prospects. “If you could experience a city from the height of 95cm — the height of a 3-year-old — what would you change?” This is the question posed to city leaders, planners, architects, and innovators across the globe as Urban95, a €30million initiative by the Bernard van Leer Foundation that aims to improve urban spaces for young children. But again you have to question the engagement level especially with children, as I found no evidence of them being asked. The planning here is about urban planners thinking as or experiencing as a child, not engaging and asking them directly.

USE THEIR PERSPECTIVE

So now, ask yourself — if you could experience a project from the perspective of a 3 year old what would you change?

  • Think about their height
  • Think about their awareness
  • Think about their needs
  • Think about their views on life

But… do this without inhibition… hard right.

So instead why not ask them?

Do we need to start thinking not just from the perspective of the adults in a community but from the children themselves. No. What better way to get the perspective of a child than to ask a child and engage them in the community engagement process.

ENGAGING SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN (+ YOUNGER)

There are thousands of things you can do to engage children in a process and make it inviting to them. Depending mainly on age and ability, yes you will need to spend a little more time in planning, maybe even with children in the room, but it shouldn’t be a burden on either resources or effort as there are already great examples out there and things in your toolkits you use now that you can use with them. Here is a quick list of ways you can engage with children using what is already available:

  1. Gamification — things like card games, board games and digital games (iCivics is a personal fave) can all be adapted to help with planning, decision making and ideation.
  2. Pictures — pictures speak a thousand words and children can often express better when linked to looking at an image/symbol they can buy in to/recognise.
  3. Maps — whether drawing their own community, placing pins on a map of a building or using something like google maps to identify areas of concern — maps are both visual and personal when it comes to conversation.
  4. Stories — growing up you hear stories as a child about how the community used to be and in storytelling as a child you can also create ideation for the future.
  5. Adoption — anyone who follows me will know I have written about this subject a few times with my Adopt a Councillor blogs. But beyond that children can be engaged by adopting things like geographic places to care for i.e. train stations, playground etc or even other people in the community to increase connection, build relationships and learn/teach through intergenerational connection i.e. elderly or business professionals.

As we celebrate another Global Community Engagement Day (28 January) and as we are still riding out the Covid-19 pandemic we need to work harder to reach those we often fail to engage either through bad planning or lack of effort. Especially those who we want to benefit from future decisions and those we want to stay and enjoy, in what I hope they themselves have been involved in making come true. Our children. So for 2021’s Global Community Engagement Day, share how you are and will engage children in your future work. After all…

‘Children are a brilliant source of imaginative ideas and are annoyingly good at pointing out things you have glaringly missed when planning and developing concepts. So ask them. ‘don’t be afraid to give up control; treat young people as… you know, people.’

Callum Prior — Community Engagement Practitioner & Placemaker

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