Parks, Landscape & Urban Design

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Child's play

By pwpro posted 05-02-2014 09:02


Engaging with end-users when developing community infrastructure is good practice, but is often overlooked when the end-user is a child. Now, a pilot program in South Australia is aiming to change that.

By Gemma Black

In early 2013, Campbelltown City Council in South Australia held a meeting to discuss a $300,000 children’s maze proposed for a play space adjacent to the local library, in Anderson Court Reserve.

Because of its proximity to the library, staff came up with the notion of incorporating a storybook theme. “There was a general consensus that it was an excellent idea,” says Tracy Johnstone, Manager of Community Services and Social Development. “However it was at that point that I thought, actually, we aren’t the ones who are going to use the maze. We need to talk to the people who will be,” she adds.

Child friendly cities

Johnstone’s realisation wasn’t exactly an epiphany: Campbelltown is one of three councils participating in the Child Friendly Cities (CFC) pilot program with UNICEF Australia and the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development (DECD), aimed at encouraging the involvement of children in their communities.

To that end, the council staff did something a little out of the ordinary – they visited the nearest preschool to ask a group of four years olds what they thought. “Our landscape architect panicked when we suggested it,” Johnstone jokes. “She said, do I really have to talk to the children? I said, yes you do!”

The mouths of babes

As members of society, children are still learning the ropes for becoming active agents in their communities, and in turn the adults around them are tasked with representing and implementing their rights and needs. But children are citizens nonetheless, and even with the best intentions it can be easy for adults to forget what it was like to be a child – and it can be just as easy to forget the simple solution: ask them.

The purpose of the three-year pilot program, launched by the DECD in 2013, is to develop a model for implementing CFC in South Australia.

CFC is a global initiative that “started with the idea that the well-being of children is impacted by a healthy habitat, a democratic society and good governance,” explains Tara Broughan, UNICEF Australia’s Child Rights Specialist.

Launched back in 1996, “CFC was also attempting to address the rapid increase in urbanisation, particularly in developing countries that had seen a lack of development in infrastructure and services to support children,” she adds.

The pilot councils involved include Campbelltown City Council, Town of Gawler and City of Onkaparinga, all of which have spent the past year engaging with local schools and preschools, collecting information and data to be collated by the DECD, which will then produce a report with suggestions for implementing the findings over the following two years.

“In the same way we accommodate the needs of people living with different abilities or cultures, we need to find better ways of considering children throughout our communities, and not limit them to a few designated spaces,” says Broughan.

Changing direction

When the Campbelltown City Council representatives, including Johnstone, two additional staff from her department, and landscape architect, Janine Fong, visited the preschool at the Campbelltown Community Learning Centre, they started by building a virtual maze to help the children first understand the concept, before initiating a conversation.

“What was really interesting was that the storybook theme that resonated with the adults had almost no relevance for the children – they didn’t get it,” says Johnstone. “On the other hand, the kids talked nonstop about natural play elements. They liked wood and stone and water, and animals came up over and over again, particularly native animals, like koalas and lizards.”

Johnstone says she was surprised by how confident the children were in their opinions. “They knew their stuff,” she says. “They knew what they wanted, and if you suggested something they didn’t like, they’d tell you.” In addition to the natural elements and animal theme, the children liked signage, and found it hilarious when the signs pointed them in the wrong direction, says Johnstone. They also liked to crawl through hidey-holes and to climb up high.

As a result of the collaboration, Campbelltown’s landscape architect went back to the drawing board and produced a new design for the maze that would again be reviewed by the preschoolers.

The experience provided valuable lessons that can now be carried forward in other council projects, says Johnstone. “For every team across council, when they’re planning or designing or developing anything, part of it should involve looking at it through the lens of children; looking at what it might mean for a child to use it or participate. And when we’re not sure, we should ask them,” she says.

According to Broughan at UNICEF, the result seen across all participating councils is that, through their involvement, the children gain a sense of ownership and pride for the new infrastructure or asset. “What a great outcome for the whole community,” she says.

Community spirit

Town of Gawler is 40km north of Campbelltown with a catchment region of about 90,000, including a slightly higher proportion of young people than the state average. An interesting outcome of the pilot program there, says Youth Development Officer Ebony Steadman, has been the discovery of the children’s community-mindedness.

“They want a park or playground that isn’t just for little kids, and it’s not just a skate park for teenagers,” Steadman says. “They might want a scooter pass for their little brother, but some other cool things they can show off on to their little brother, and then a place for grandma to sit while she’s watching them. “That inclusivity surprised me a bit, I thought they’d be a little bit more concerned about what they want, but obviously they’re very much thinking from a community perspective,” she says.

Town of Gawler held a celebration day in October 2013 in which the participating children – about 200 of them – displayed projects, paintings and drawings they’d been worked on as part of the project, handing them over to the council CEO and Deputy Mayor.

Steadman also says that the pilot project offered a timely opportunity to involve young people in the planned upgrade of a local park, Reid Reserve. “We’re looking at new approaches as a Council,“ she says. ”Creating opportunities for town planners to come along and chat to the kids, or meet young people onsite so they can see and hear first-hand from the kids what they want, which has been brilliant. Our planners are listening and have already incorporated children’s ideas into their designs.”

On the southern fringe of Adelaide, in the City of Onkaparinga, team leader at the council’s Woodcroft Library, Bridget Coulter, says she hopes Onkaparinga’s involvement in the pilot program will remind people to listen to children and take their ideas seriously.

“We’ve always acknowledged and sought feedback from adults in the community, but I don’t think a lot of work has been done in the past on giving children a voice,” says Coulter, who also has a background in Early Childhood Education.

As part of the program in Onkaparinga, a local childcare centre took the kids out into their community to photograph what they did and didn’t like, with the resulting photos taken to a council meeting for review.

Coulter said her main role on the project would be to act as a conduit between children and teachers involved in the project and the relevant councillors, to ensure practical outcomes are achieved. As part of the program, Coulter is also seeking funding to improve the child-friendliness of the library’s parenting room; starting with installing child-sized basins, she says.

“My goal is for children to be taken for seriously, as the future of our communities,” says Coulter. “If you sit down and talk with them, they do have a good understanding of what would make a difference in their lives – and sometimes they ask for things that adults haven’t even thought about yet!”


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1 comment


19-02-2014 10:38

Nice post.
When we engaged the community in 2012 about the renewal of a local Reserve we developed a board game and played with kids at a local school allowing them to role play, budget and plan options for the reserve and playspace. By including a landscape architect and playspace planner in the class they were able to see and hear what the kids liked and disliked. With another more iconic playground in our area we visited a few schools and playgroups and used images of equipment the old and potential new equipment etc to discuss the highs and low of playground use. We were interested to hear how with different age groups the types of adventure play needs changed.