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Children as agents of change: building sustainable futures by Jessica Melville-Brown

Posted on 17 November 2021

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I was recently involved in ‘The Glass-House Chats’ series, discussing how we can bring children into the design process. A key aspect we explored was whether we could learn from the young activists part of the climate protests specifically the #FridaysforFuture school strikes. These protests saw school pupils initiating an international movement, committed to addressing the injustices, mass extinctions and environmental damage caused by climate change. Simultaneously they were building global networks, speaking out in public and holding the adults around them to account. Young people have clearly found a sense of agency and a voice in the school strikes. 

As a design researcher, I’m interested in exploring the complexities of collaborative design, the creative encounters, the politics of the workshop and the participants’ and facilitators’ experiences.  I want to examine further what we can learn from the energy and agency that the young activists have harnessed in the protests.

I recently tested out this theory when I ran a workshop with the Year 3 (aged 7-8) students at a Primary School in Braunton, North Devon. My aim was to step back as a researcher and facilitator and let the children lead the workshop. The workshop was looking into plastic waste in the local community, with the aim of understanding; where did the waste come from, how can it be recycled, what / how could the plastic be used differently? Can it be avoided completely?

The students were asked to organise a litter pick with their family, either along the local beaches or around their neighbourhood.   

Figure 1. The waste collected in the beach/neighbourhood clean. 

To form a general structure for the students, I provided a large roll of paper stretching across the school hall floor, plus, pens, pencils, playdough, Lego, string, card, scissors etc. These materials were chosen as an unobtrusive scaffolding technique, to help structure the workshop for the children. But it was their choice regarding how and when to use these materials.

As you can imagine when letting children lead the workshop there was a fair amount of chaos, especially as there was playdough and Lego involved. It took some time for us to find our feet, play around with the materials, whilst perhaps moving away from the aims of the workshop.   

The students went straight for the box of Lego and this was perhaps the perfect ‘icebreaker’ activity for the children to help them engage with the subject. The children started using Lego to design different inventions for how they could tackle waste, working in groups of 2-3 in their small friendship groups. They discussed between themselves what the Inventions could do, as well as using the Lego to play with their models and interact with each other. 

 “..this is a boat that collects plastic waste from the sea, and turns it into eco-bricks” 

 “…this is a plane that draws up electricity, whilst flying and stores it to power homes.”

Fig 2-4. The students’ Lego inventions, tackling the climate crisis.

The students then turned to their plastic waste and together we drew up a series of questions to ‘ask’ the plastic waste they had collected:

Our role as teachers and researchers in the workshop was still as facilitators, but perhaps ‘unobtrusive facilitators’. Understanding when to step in to gently direct the students towards a certain goal or aim.  If we hadn’t instructed the students to focus on the plastic waste, the workshop could have turned simply into a Lego and playdough design session. 

Figure 5. The students mapped out their questions and answers on a communal piece of paper

The students centred their questions around their items and incorporated them into the investigative activity. The students’ levels of writing and reading were reflected in how they engaged with the activities and the questions.  Some students focused on text and writing, using post-it notes and mind mapping which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a more adult workshop, whilst others struggled with writing, explored their ideas through drawings and making (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Students responded using different tools to answer the questions, through drawing, making and writing.
Figure 7: A 3D model examining the plastic bottle
Figure 8 & 9: Students engaged with the activity reflecting on their writing and reading abilities with some focusing on drawing and making to answer the questions.
Figures 10, 11, 12: Students responding through writing and using post-it notes.

To conclude, examining the work created in the workshop and the overall activities chosen by the children, the child-led approach resulted in the children finding their feet within the workshop, testing out their knowledge, sharing stories, ideas and imagining ideas to tackle issues around the climate. The students were able to respond within their own creative abilities, whilst gaining confidence in themselves, using play, creative activities and their preferred learning styles to respond to the task.

As the workshop was happening within the school hall, the students were away from their classroom, so they were perhaps more relaxed, removed from their more curriculum structured schedule. Examining the differences in running a child-led workshop in a classroom setting, a school hall or removed from the school setting entirely, would be interesting to explore further to see the impact upon the students to the set activities.

My own research will continue working with young activists, learning from their activist practices, incorporating group meetings and their usage of different forms of communication. I am alert to moments of serendipity and the emergence of ideas. Observation is an important factor in my research, observation as observance, with care, attention and perseverance. In line with Datson (Figure 12) my approach to observation emphasises the significance of taking time, going at a slow pace, appreciating the cumulative meanings that develop. To practice collaborative design is to design slowly. Taking the time to observe from others around us, to learn and reassess what is important to make the important changes we need to tackle the issues we face today.  

Figures 12 and 13 – Daston, Lorraine. 2010, Observation as a Way of  Life: Time, Attention, Allegory. 


Jessica Melville-Brown is a UK based enamel designer and researcher who specialises in the interchange between research, design, commerce and culture. Developing collaborations with communities, schools, universities, charities and designers to create innovative programs and product collections.