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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Bringing children into the design process

Posted on 12 October 2021

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

Our chat focusing on Bringing children into the design process brought together an interesting mix of people exploring the many facets of engaging children and young people in shaping our environment. We began by posing the questions “What value can children add to the design process? and “What can engaging in the design process offer to children?” and this led to a conversation touching on research, policy and practice. With participants who work across sectors bringing together their interest in participatory design with themes of play, child-friendly cities, sustainability, health and wellbeing, there was much to discuss and share.    

Our conversation quickly raised a whole new series of questions that emerged from the work and interests of who we had in our virtual room: 

Key Themes explored

As the discussion progressed, we began to identify a series of frustrating disconnects that seem to be influencing both approaches to and the impact of engaging children in design. Within the context of a young generation that has impressed us with their passion and commitment about many of the global movements, and in particular the climate emergency, we seem unable to harness that force for good into how we shape our built environment. Despite some real progress being made on people’s commitment to more participatory design, we are not yet, on the whole, managing to translate that into meaningfully influencing built outcomes. Finally, we talked about some of the tensions that arise from thinking about and engaging with children in isolation, and the importance of bringing children into an intergenerational conversation. 

Unleashing our enlightened Generation Z to improve design quality

We talked about being impressed by the sense of agency that children and young people have shown as influencers in the last couple of years, whether through social media, school strikes to raise the profile of the climate emergency, or in their contribution to other global movements such as Black Lives Matter. We are seeing them challenge us older generations but to date, this has focused largely on policy and behavioural change around sustainability, rather than on the design of our built environment and its role in saving our planet. We have also made little ground on empowering children to speak out and be more demanding about design that better responds to their needs.

How can we create pathways to activating children as champions, enablers and initiators of design quality?

Converting participation to influence

Some good ground has been made on formal processes for engaging children in decision-making. We spoke of the institutionalisation and regulation of policy and practice through initiatives such as Child-Friendly Cities. However, research emerging now is demonstrating that this process is not necessarily translating into tangible improvements to the livability and usability of places for children.  So where is that disconnect happening, and is that disconnect between participatory processes and genuinely influencing design outcomes a problem that is common to any age group? 

Our conversation touched on the importance of using varied and playful approaches to design engagement, particularly when working with children, and of the importance of growing confidence and unleashing creativity in this space through a journey of discovery. We talked about a variety of tactile tools, sometimes as simple as plasticine and pipe cleaners, we can use to support this and of the potential to use digital technologies such as gaming to both connect with children and activate them as a new kind of expert. We shared some wonderful examples of activating conversations with children. However, we could think of few examples, beyond small projects and initiatives, of where such participation had meaningfully influenced place design, at a neighbourhood, city-wide, regional or national level. 

How can we bridge the divide between engagement activities and meaningfully influencing design decision-making?

Bringing children into intergenerational conversations

One of our participants made the point that when it comes to designing places, what is good for children is, on the whole, good for everyone. We all want playful, healthy, easily navigable places. Yet so often, when we bring children into participatory design processes, we limit their input to talking about dedicated play spaces and playgrounds, and do so while speaking to them in isolation. Very rarely are children brought into intergenerational spaces to talk about how places work and what would improve them. Yes, we can sometimes speak for some of the interests of children that concern us as parents and carers, such as air quality and road safety, but what more might we learn about and improve if we actually invited children into a dialogue about how they experience place on a daily basis? 

In the process of engaging, it is not a straightforward task to create these safe spaces for intergenerational dialogue. The power dynamics at play are one thing, and so are the different methodologies that we can use to engage people in a design conversation. Here we came back to the importance of creating playful, tactile, engaging activities and spaces  to support design engagement, and the need to recognise that heavily facilitated and more informal spaces for discovery and creativity can achieve different and complementary things.  

We left with the sense that our young generation is demonstrating a great sense of agency on so many fronts. We must do more to create pathways to children being active and demanding champions of well-designed places.

You can view our past chat takeaways here.

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