Participatory processes with children: A reflective theoretical framework
This paper was written for the Master course in Building and Urban Design in Development of the DPU at the University College of London. Despite the simplicity of some of the reflections contained here, we decided to publish them in order to keep trace of our learning process, which is, and will always be, an unfinished work open to critiques and further ruminations.
In the past few years, the municipality of Bologna gave birth to many initiatives aimed to include children (the term is used in this paper to apply to anyone up to the age of 18 years, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) in the debate about the city, leading to a growing interest from schools, private foundations and associations in participatory practices involving those “new” actors.
Recognizing the importance of such voices in the decision-making process around spatial issues can have countless benefits, provided that their participation is real. Working with children is in fact a very delicate issue, and “too often, projects that claim to promote young people’s participation are, on closer inspection, adult-controlled projects” (Driskell, 2002, p.40), where children “are told what to do or manipulated”, maybe unintentionally, “into acting in support of adult-defined objectives” (ibid.).
Having noticed the widespread production of toolkits edited by educators, architects and NGOs about how to engage with children in participatory processes in practical terms, suggesting games and activities to encourage their involvement, this essay wants to be a reflective preface for the aforementioned publications, questioning the risks and the potentialities of involving children in participatory processes. The aim is to frame these activities theoretically, helping to look at such toolkits with a critical eye, acknowledging that setting up a game, even if it can be a good way to interact with children, is not enough to achieve real participation. Pitfalls such as consensus, misunderstanding, extraction, and distortion cannot be challenged simply by adopting a playful attitude but, as in any case of participation, questioning positionality and power relations is essential in order to tackle these risks.
Participation is not a technical tool, it is a political process in which decisions are shared and co-created; it can be conflictual, tyrannical, consensual, but it always deals with power relations. When involving children, in addition to the power imbalance that often exists among the practitioner and the community, we also have to carefully consider the one that exists on a structural level between the adult and the child. Adults in all societies have power over children, confining the latter in a position of vulnerability. During participation this could be translated in children s fear to freely speak their mind and, in case of need, to contradict adult’s statements. Such power dynamics might therefore lead to hidden forms of consensus and manipulation.
Even if vulnerability has for long time been conceptualised, especially in humanitarian literature, as a fixed, intrinsic, and passive condition, in a framing that could only perpetuate unequal power relations, feminist critical theory, which has broadly problematised such concept, can help us reframing it and overtake this heritage (Sender, 2018).
In “Vulnerability and Resistance”, Butler argues that “vulnerability does not have a purely ontological status, but it emerges as a part of social relations which are historically and socially specific” (cited in Sender, 2018, p.9).
Braidotti, insists on the inter-relational nature of vulnerability, describing it as “a condition of an embodied, embedded, relational and nonunified subjectivity, which is ‘bent on becoming’ rather than existing as a static being” (ibid). According to her, “vulnerability is a manifestation of the subject’s inter-relationality with others and the world around her, which is the condition that enables an ethical ‘opening up’ to others and the co-creation of alternative societal futures” (ibid, p. 14).
As a consequence, children’s vulnerability can be seen not necessarily as a negative condition, but also as an availability or exposure to positive and protective influences. Adults, by building supportive relations with children, can therefore transform their vulnerability into an “empowering connection with others” (ibid, p.21).
In order to do that, it is fundamental to challenge the common perception of children as immature subjects, to be taught and disciplined, naive to make decisions and to be protected from responsibilities.
We have to recognise that children “are not merely passive recipients, entitled to adult protective care. Rather, they are subjects of rights entitled to be involved, in accordance with their evolving capacities, in decisions that affect them and to exercise growing responsibility for those decisions they are competent to take for themselves”, paraphrasing the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Lansdown, 2011, p.5).
This recognition will never be effective if we don’t eradicate the idea that children’s knowledge and opinion are inferior and less relevant than adults’ ones. Children’s knowledge, in the way it is commonly perceived, is an example of Foucault’s definition of “subjugated knowledges”, namely those knowledges that “have been disqualified as inadequate to the task or insufficiently elaborated; naïve knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity” (Foucault, 1980, p.81).
Considering children’s knowledge as a subjugable one, is what let their proposals not being given serious consideration in case they do not fit in with adult’s ideas and agendas, which “of course” are more suitable and more important. In a more subtle way, it is also what makes their opinion being used by adults just to be inspired, to learn more about a topic that will be lately developed without any further interaction with children, leaving them with no actual decision making power, or even the real opportunity to express their opinion in a meaningful way, turning participation into extraction.
Haraway’s theorisation of situated knowledge can help us throughout the process of recognising that young people’s knowledge is valuable and reliable too. According to her, what has for long time been accepted as objective, universal, scientific knowledge, was considered as such because of the power of the subject who produced it. On the contrary, knowledge has always been subjective and partial. Subjective in this case doesn’t have to be intended as relative but situated. While “relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally” and “the equality of positioning is a denial of responsibility” (Haraway, 1988, p.584), the alternative to it is “partial, locatable, critical knowledge sustaining the possibility of webs of connections” (ibid.). The “passionate detachment” we need to enact in order to dismantle the inherited bias about knowledge “requires more than acknowledged and self-critical partiality. We are also bound to seek perspective from those points of view, which can never be known in advance, that promise something quite extraordinary, that is, knowledge potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of domination” (ibid., p.585).
Children’ s point of view can be part of these perspectives Haraway refers to. As broadly illustrated by Rasmussen (2004), children in fact possess a vital knowledge that is often invisible to our eyes. In his article “Places for children – children’s places”, he observes that when asked to point out places that they find important and meaningful, children do barely never relate to those “special” places that architects designed for them.
On the contrary, they describe unexpected places, such as a specific tree, a bush, a pile, places they create by themselves while playing, using their imagination, places that they know, they build the rules of and to which special meaning is attributed. “A key difference between ‘children’s places’ and ‘places for children’ is that while adults can point out and identify ‘places for children’, only children can show and tell about ‘children’s places’” (Rasmussen, 2004, p.165), only them possess that particular knowledge. “The concept of ‘children’s places’ is also closely related to the idea of children as actors and cocreators of their lives and creates respect for the attribution of meaning by children to the specific sites that they pick out, use, create and define” (ibid., p.166-162).
Recognising children as active subjects, “cocreators of their lives”, is an important step to let their knowledge emerge and to make room for a new perspective in the spatial debate. Children’s involvement in planning and design through participatory processes “is a fundamental right of citizenship” (Hart, 1992, p.5) they must be granted of and, in addition, “it is also a means through which other rights can be realized” (Lansdown, 2011, p.6).
In this regard, it could be pointed out that it is not children’s duty to fight for their rights and that, on the other hand, they have the right to a carefree childhood, a sacred period in which they should be let enjoy time and be protected from the worries and responsibilities of the adult world. This concern, although fostered in good faith by a protective attitude, is one of the reasons why for a long time children were left with no voice. In addition, letting all the decisions concerning them being made by adults is not a guarantee of light-heartedness. Quite the opposite it can lead to their childhood being spoilt by decisions that degrade the places that are important and meaningful to them. Through their participation, they can be able to save such places (Driskell, 2002).
Moreover, allowing children to participate doesn’t mean to shoulder them with our responsibilities, but on the contrary it’s an opportunity for them to learn while flanking adults and being involved in meaningful project with them. We can’t expect children turning 18 and suddenly become responsible, participating adult citizens. “An understanding of democratic participation and the confidence and competence to participate can only be acquired gradually through practice; it cannot be taught as an abstraction” (Hart, 1992, p. 5), that’s why they should be given gradually increasing opportunities to participate in significant projects with adults and be exposed to the skills and responsibilities involved (ibid.).“Children need to learn that with the rights of citizenship come responsibilities. In order to learn these responsibilities children need to engage in collaborative activities with other persons including those who are older and more experienced than themselves. It is for this reason that children’s participation in community projects is so important” (ibid., p. 7).
If at school civic education is taught by offering a fixed set of belief, running the risk to leave youth alienated and open to manipulation, and the practice of democratic principles is limited to the election of class representatives as a necessity to establish stability, “through genuine participation in projects, which involve solutions to real problems, young people develop the skills of critical reflection and comparison of perspectives which are essential to the self-determination of political beliefs” (Hart, 1992, p. 36).
The research of real solutions inevitably implies dialogue, cooperation and negotiation with others; from discussion children learn the right of others to have their own different voices and, having the opportunity for establishing rules in a comparative way, through relationships of mutual respect without being subject to authority, as it spontaneously happens during games, they are helped to develop autonomy (Hart, 1992).
Children learning to take the perspective of other persons, to be autonomous and able to make their own decision, acquiring new skills and building self esteem might seem benefits for the children themselves only, but they are actually benefits for the society as a whole, which are going to be reflected on the quality of spaces.
This reflection is likely to happen only if children are given the opportunity to really interact in the design of space. For this reason, referring back to the toolkits I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I would like to underline the importance to involve kids in activities that are not simply consultive. Focus groups and interviews are important to listen to them and to learn about their needs but listening only is not enough. It is also essential to give them the tools and the information to be co-creators of space. Children think differently from adults, “they don’t think about constrains, they think about possibilities” (Mintzer, 2017) opening for new perspectives on space involving fun, play, movement, beauty and nature (ibid.). It has been pointed out that their contribution in the design of space, without specifically referring to playgrounds or schools but broadly speaking, can lead to more appropriate and informed responses to communities exigences and to the creation of urban environments that are more humane since, in many cases, their exigences also respond to more inclusive spaces, and their need of contact with nature and open spaces for play is something we could all benefit from (ibid.). “The city friendly to children, is a city friendly to all” (ibid.).
We cannot build a child-friendly city without dialoguing with children and involve them in the decision making and in the design process. In order to do that, as I have illustrated in the first part of this essay, some theoretical considerations need to be done. Building on the previous reflections and approaching the conclusion I would like to pinpoint some basic requirements to keep in mind while involving children in participatory processes.
There are different kinds of children’s engagement in participation that have been broadly described in literature building on Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of participation (see for example Hart, 1992; Driskell, 2002 and Lansdown, 2001). Shared decision-making, the top of the ladder, is the ultimate goal, maximising children’s power to make decisions and affect change.
Nevertheless, “there can be time when other forms of participation are more relevant or valuable” (Driskell, 2002, p.42), moreover some projects can imply different forms of participation in different moments of the process or the level assumed at the beginning can evolve to enable children to take more control as they acquire confidence and skills. “The form of participation that is most appropriate at any point in time will be based on the specific circumstances of the project” (ibid.). What is important, in any case and at any level, is to guarantee transparent and informative participation. Children must understand what the initiative is about and feel aware about the nature and the scope of their involvement which must be voluntary (Lansdown, 2011); children who are reluctant to participate have to be free to make their choice and everyone can cease involvement at any stage. For this reason, organising participatory processes as part of school activities must always be assessed critically. In this environment dynamics of consent and conditioning linked to power relations with professors and fear of evaluation might in fact be exacerbated.
“Environments and working methods should be adapted to children’s capacities” (ibid., p.28) recognising that children are not a homogeneous group and that equality of opportunity to participate must be provided to all. Fun and enjoyable participation can help children feel confident and able to contribute their views. In participation, especially with children, listening is crucial. We need to listen “with our eyes as well as our ears” (Forester, 1989, p.110), interrogating gestures, expressions, and postures, being attentive. “If we listen so that we respond with sensitivity and care, our actions may be freeing, empowering others rather than mechanically generating feedback” (ibid., p.108). Failing to listen we fail to learn, and we can do it in different ways.
When working with children we fail listening especially because we don’t share a way of speaking together, we are captive of different language styles or we do not recognise the context of what we hear and so we may misinterpret and misunderstood (Forester, 1989). Too often participative processes deal with “disagreement”, to say it with Rancière’s words: “a specific circumstance in which one of the interlocutors hear and doesn’t hear at the same time what the other is saying. Cases of disagreement are those in which [...] the interlocutors understand and do not understand the same thing, in the same terms [...] because while clearly understanding what the other is saying, he does not see the object the other is speaking about; or even, because he understand and must understand, he sees and wants to show another object with the same term, a different reason in the same argument. [...] Disagreement does not concern only words, but more in general, the situation itself in which are placed those who are speaking” (Rancière, 2007, p. 19 -21, translated from Italian to English by the author).
We can control this tendence by involving children in all the steps of the project, informing them about how their views have been interpreted and used, providing them with feedbacks on how their participation has influenced any outcomes and creating the opportunity for them to challenge and influence the analysis of the findings.
Moreover, they should be given the possibility to participate in evaluation procedures and follow-up activities. By reflecting on what worked well, as well as what could be improved, both in terms of the process and its outcomes, they both raise their level of awareness and can help improve the process (Lansdown, 2011).
Developing standards and tools with which to measure child participation does not simply help to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the initiatives, but it could also contribute to define the legislative and policy environment needed to promote their right to participation (ibid.). “If children’s participation is to be sustained, replicated, resourced and institutionalised into the wider communities in which children live, it is necessary to begin to construct methods of measuring what is being done and how it is impacting on children’s lives.
Only by doing so, and demonstrating its efficacy, will it be possible to argue the case for continuing investment in strategies to promote participation, and indeed, to build and share understanding of what constitutes effective participation” (ibid., p.9).
Children’s involvement in the debate about the city is an important step toward a more inclusive urban space, but also a way to build inter-generational bounds, a sense of belonging, responsibility, and commitment to action. “Children learn to become competent, caring citizens through involvement with competent, caring adults” (Hart, 1992, p. 5), working together in the design of future trajectories. This essay did not mean to point out that children’s opinion has more weight or validity than anyone else’s, but to recognise the importance of children’s voice not simply as future citizens but also as the citizens they are today. Making space for their perspective while giving value to their knowledge is a way to translate in practice what Rancière defined as political activity: “political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise, it makes understood a discourse what was once only heard as noise” (Rancière, 1999, p.30).
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