One of the key constituencies for this plaza are families. While we spend plenty of time talking with parents and adults about what makes a place "family-friendly," there's no substitute for kids' unique perspectives. In January, as part of a series of place-making workshops facilitated by the Project for Public Spaces, we worked with a local dad to coordinate a workshop explicitly for kids (full writeup here). Their ideas were delightful, and their contributions shifted the conversation about what family-friendly really looks like.
I came out of the workshop with a mixture of joy and unease. What should we do with the ideas the kids had generated? How does their participation, which is expressed in a somewhat haphazard and spontaneous fashion, integrate with that of adults? I'm not suggesting that the kids are less valuable as participants than their parents--or even less realistic in their impulses and desires--but that our whole adult approach to collaborative processes doesn't easily absorb youthful exuberance.
Kids frequently suffer from tokenism. We given them a gold star for participating and then sweep their drawings under the rug. Children are easy to applaud, and easy to ignore.
This grappling led me to a fascinating "ladder of participation" about kids' engagement in environmental design written by Dr. Roger Hart of Cornell (1992 paper). While Dr. Hart is focused on the design of public gardens, his overall message is broad: there is participation, and there is tokenism. He's explicit about different project structures and their implications, listing five levels of participation and three of non-participation. Here's a synopsis:
1. Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults:
- Goal isn’t about “kids’ power.”
- Young people feel competent and confident enough in their role as community members to understand the need for collaboration and that in asking adults for their input, the project may be strengthened.
- Lots of trust involved
- Adults serve as listeners, observers and sounding boards (i.e. they don’t jump in with their own designs on the project, or to organize the project). For example, young people may determine that they want to clean up an old wooded hang out area in their community to create a nature trail. They learn about all aspects of creating such a trail, hold meetings to plan it, but check in with a friend’s parent in local government, several parents, and a teacher with an interest in ecology, for their diverse ways of thinking about certain aspects the project.
2. Child-initiated and directed projects:
- Adults notice a youth-led project emerging and allow them to occur in a youth-directed fashion.
- Hart places this second on the ladder because occasionally young people don’t trust adults enough to seek their input. The caution with this rung is in children carrying out their projects in secret because of fear of adults, or being intimidated by them. An example is a literally secret garden/ landscape that adults are not aware of.
3. Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children:
- Adults assume nothing about what children want in the landscape.
- Children are involved to some degree on every part of the process of garden planning, design, and implementation.
- Children understand issues such as fundraising, garden design, or organization and management
- Children understand how and why compromises are made, if they are necessary. They may also begin to cultivate a “language” of talking about this with others.
4. Children are consulted and informed about project:
- Project designed and run by adults, but the children’s views and opinions are taken seriously.
- A good example is with a survey designed to gather young people’s input into a school garden: children are informed of the purpose, they may be asked to volunteer, and afterward, they are fully informed of the results.
5. Assigned but informed:
- Children are assigned to a project and may not initiate the project themselves, but they are fully informed about it (i.e. a school garden project)
- Children may still have a sense of real ownership of the project.
- A key aspect of this rung is the degree to which children are engaged in critical reflection. For example, are children just viewed as a free source of help for the garden project, or do they have a chance to reflect on it, consider it, and learn from it?
- The most challenging and most common among very well-meaning adults.
- Adults are genuinely concerned about giving children a voice, but haven’t really begun to think carefully about the best approach for this.
- The appearance of children’s involvement is there, but in fact, they have had little choice about planning the garden project, communication around it, and no time in which to critically reflect and form their own opinions.
- An example is that adults select charming, articulate youth to talk about the garden in a public venue, but those youth haven’t had ample opportunity to critically reflect or consult with their peers. The key here is symbolic versus actual engagement and involvement.
- Involves, quite literally, decorating children
- For example, they may sport garden T-shirts with no involvement in organizing or understanding the program.
- Adults use children to bolster the program as if the children were understanding participants.
- For example, adults make children sing garden songs at a harvest festival, and it may even appear that they wrote the song, or that they were involved in organizing the garden or the festival, when in fact they were not.
8. Manipulation or Deception:
- Adults consciously use children’s voices to carry their own message about the gardening project.
- For example, they produce a garden poster, advertisement, or publication with drawings by children, when children aren’t involved in the program planning.
- Adults may deny their own detailed involvement in meetings, planning, shaping the project because they think it diminishes the effectiveness or impact of the project – they may say that children are genuinely engaged, when engagement constitutes weeding or planting.
- Adults may design a garden, have kids do a simple planting, then tell the local newspaper that kids designed and built the garden.
Reading this ladder reminded me how easy it is to fall into the "non-participation" part of the ladder when working with any amateur participants, but especially with children. The explicit nature of the examples on levels six through eight (especially "decoration") may also be helpful in identifying times that we are treating adults as non-participants in more understated ways. We may not dress them up and make them sing songs about our projects, but sometimes, we might as well.
In the case of my project, level four is probably what is appropriate. We are engaged in active collaboration with so many stakeholders for this plaza, and kids are important but secondary contributors to the process. But more broadly, I can look at this and think about what we DON'T want to be doing--with any of our participants. Thank you, Roger Hart, for reminding me of the range of participatory opportunities and non-opportunities a project can provide... and how disastrous it can be when our words and our actions are misaligned. Let's make sure not to decorate our projects with false participation where real collaboration is possible.