Projects such as the “City of Children” show how co-production of knowledge workshops involving children can lead to the acquisition of a fresh sensitivity and competence by city/town administrators and technicians.
In April 15th-18th we conducted two participatory workshops in Basseroles Elementary School. The objective of the workshops was to provide the opportunity for Sant Miquel de Balenya children to implement their ideas for improving their community. Through an experience of collective participation, primary school children developed real projects ideas to improve their home town, understanding and resolving situations that affect them. The whole process made them realize how their own ideas could improve the reality around them.
Profile of the 2st Focus Group
This activity was promoted by Ersilia Foundation (www.ersilia.org) with the aim of testing innovative teaching methods. The activity had the support and supervision of Basseroles school teachers, and the enthusiastic participation of 55 children. The group was composed by teachers and students from 3rd to 6th grade, around 55 people participated.
The Balenyà of Children. Students from Basseroles Primary School imagine how the town can be improved!
A town where children and the elderly are comfortable is a town with a good quality of life, where everyone can live well. Children are the best guarantee of the needs of all citizens. A child friendly village is a town for all, as writes Francesco Tonucci, Italian pedagogue, in his book “The City of Children”. On the other hand, allowing children to participate in improving towns and cities enhances their self-esteem, and autonomy.
Children should be asked and listened. One way to do it well is following the process called co-creation, where intuitions, observation, generating emotionally significant ideas are reinforced. In the process, children gain empathy for their community, search and select creative solutions in a group, rehearse or prototype their ideas and ultimately reflect on the process of co-creation they have lived. This process is bases on the principle of learning by doing, therefore encourages experimentation.
On Friday April 15, in accordance with the Basseroles School faculty, and with the active participation of teachers, we organized two creative workshops, a workshop with students from 3rd and 4th grade and another workshop with students from 5th and 6th grades. Both workshops were structured in five stages (Feel, Imagine, Act, Reflect and Share), from the identification of a challenge to the generation of many ideas to imagine possible solutions, prototyping and communication of proposals for improving their town.
Feel! (First stage)
We encourage students to think in their community, mentally observe the people, and their lives, the physical infrastructure and spaces, social traditions and culture, and asked themselves: What bothers me? What would I like to see changed? The process was simple, they thought something, they wrote it, they said aloud and put it on the board.
Once we had information, we asked students to come out to the board to order the post-its, gathering the observations that, in their opinion, had more in common. Then we talked about how they could express synthetically what each of those groups contained. So, they did it and identified the following:
Children from 3rd and 4th grades:
- On the street there is no security because the cars go fast and do not respect traffic signs
- The playing space for children is not enough, nor safe
- Many grandparents do not watch when crossing the street
- Dog owners are not responsible for their pets, they do not pick up the poop and carry them unlaced
- There are not enough services in the town
- Many humans mistreat nature, the forest is dirty
- The streets are dirty
- During summer this town it’s sweltering hot!
Children from 5th and 6th grades
- We want to ride our scooters but cars do not respect the signals
- There are few artistic and sports activities for us
- There is little care for fauna and flora in this town
- Not everyone is well respected!
- This town doesn’t have enough shops and services
Then we ask children to vote for the one situation that they would like to see changed.
We used a two-round system for voting. In the first round we ask children to vote the three issues that matter most for them. In the first round of votes, students in 5th and 6th vote more for the problem that cars do not respect the traffic signals. But in a second round everything turned upside down and they decided that they wanted to find solutions for the lack of leisure (sport & artistic) activities in the village.
In the voting session held in 3rd and 4th grade two challenges emerged: to take more care of nature and to encourage dog owners to take responsibility for them.
Imagine! (second stage)
We invited student to imagine what they could do to improve the lack of artistic and sporting activities, to take better care for nature and to get dog owners to take responsibility about their pets.
Since the best way to find good ideas is to generate together a lot of them, they had a brainstorm. On a large sheet of paper we began to jot down ideas. We encouraged them to take bold, imaginative ideas, without judging any proposals and building on others’ ideas.
Many ideas came out, some to them very good. For example, 5th and 6th grade students wanted to make a youth club, with activities designed for them and by them. “Our headquarters could be in the wasteland close to the football field, we can start by camping this summer”; “We can organize adventure activities in the Muntanyeta, so to keep an eye on everyone, to take care of the forest”; “We can make a space for dogs, so we can control where they poop”; “We can organise a day without cars and assemble a bike and scooter circuit, during the town summer fest.”
Students in 3rd and 4th Grade opted to develop an awareness campaign: “we will make informative posters that serve us as costumes,” “we could be the policemen of nature”, “we can design special fines”, “we can do a play about the problem of dogs in this town, acting as owners and dogs”.
Do! (Make a prototype, “first issue” of an idea)
On Monday April 18 we organized groups for each of the activities they proposed as a solution. It was fun to work together making a first prototype or visual example of their ideas. Making prototypes helped them to better define what they wanted and to better explain their wishes.
At the end of the day, students in 3rd and 4th graders made the theatrical performance and both groups showed prototypes of how they wanted to see their town changed. Currently, all prototypes are exposed at school.
To be meaningful this educational activity, children who have participated in the project should be able to carry out some of their ideas for improving their community and so to believe they can produce significant changes in it.
The most valuable lessons start with a real action for change, so 3rd and 4th grade students will soon go out to identify the places in the village where nature should be better care and students in 5th and 6th grade will present their proposals to the town mayor, with the idea that some activities could be implemented in the town summer festival this year.
The benefits of involving children in educational activities like this are many. From the individual point of view, a direct benefit is that it helps the personal development and improves self-esteem, while boosting critical thinking, creativity, knowledge and, ultimately, the possibility of claiming one’s rights in a reasonable manner. It also facilitates communication and exercise skills as the expression of feelings and ideas through dialogue and collaboration with others.
But the list is long when it comes to the collective benefits: promotes good group climate, helps to manage conflicts, fosters empathy toward others and in a more concrete level, can even generate excitement in the school. We must also add that participation facilitates a positive vision of childhood, making it visible by giving them voice and presence in society.
In relation to urban planning, the children, who are conscious of their own needs and desires, are capable of expressing original and effective ideas for town improvement. As we have seen, change for a child is not a rational cultural choice based on an aesthetic or environmental analysis, but a primary need.
Most of the proposals made were related to many aspects of urban life. Looking at the ones described above, if we examine them carefully, turn them over to capable technicians and town planners, asking them to take them into consideration and to satisfy the needs represented by them, perhaps the town would rapidly undergo a true transformation to the benefit of all their citizens. We would have a town in which everyone could move around on their own and meet together. It would be a town in which lots of people travel around on foot, by bicycle or scooters, a town where its administration and neighbours take care of public spaces and urban nature, making the town healthier, cleaner and more attractive. A safer town, not because it is defended by the police, and telecameras, but by people who ‘occupy’ it, who live in it. And all this starting from the children.
 City of Children project was originally established in Fanno, Italy and since 2006 it has been coordinated by the Italian National Research Council Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies. More than 100 Italian and international cities have signed up for the project, making up the “cities of children” network, with Rome as the main city. www.lacittadeibambini.org