Note: This blog post was originally shared on The Bureau of Good Roads.
Leaving it all to the Children
We devote little time to engaging children in the wonders of the built world. We rarely tell them the design stories nor share our vision about how we want to complete our streets. We barely solicit their input on future plans. As adults, we only have temporary custody of the streets, bridges, plazas, waterfronts, and transit systems. Why aren't we preparing children better for when we hand the whole lot over to them? This is the core question that The Bureau of Good Roads works to remedy.
Hello Built World!
My fourth grade teacher in particular opened my eyes to the built world. Mrs. O’Sullivan took all forty-something of us by foot around Dublin to see the Georgian buildings and squares and had us build model replicas. However, I was also a child who biked four miles each way to school from age eleven, this after years of taking the public bus every day across town by myself. While that teacher may have taught me to look at design, her teaching was layered on an already developed level of knowledge about how streets were put together and finding my own way around within that space.
The Decline in Going Outside
Many children now spend long stretches of the day looking at flat screens and much of their free time is indoors. As a cohort, children have steadily lost their right to roam by themselves. They are frequently chauffeured, even for short local trips. They wait for the school bus in idling vehicles, dashing from one climate-controlled environment to another. Outdoor independence and the natural learning that accompanies it, has been displaced.
This 2007 map shows the contraction of freedom over four generations in a British family. At age eight, great-grandad could travel up to six miles without an adult while his great-grandson, at the same age, is allowed a 300-yard radius of freedom. Something similar in terms of children's lives has been happening all over the U.S.
Be Home Before Dinner
Outdoor independent play-freedom has largely become a relic of the past. Lots of children never get to explore streets by foot or ride their bikes on trails with pals. They’re not getting lost and then figuring their way back home again. Consequences include reduced exercising of such skills as wayfinding and observation and intuitive spatial awareness. This is not good news for fields such as engineering, transportation and design. Nor is it good news for general understanding of healthy community design.
We encourage children’s imaginative engagement with magical fantasy worlds and historical places. We teach about the natural environment, undersea worlds, and outer space. Yet it’s rare to find children taking hard-hat tours of construction sites or touring the local transit station or taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the bike share warehouse. By skipping right past our built world and its operation, we act as if it holds little of interest and there aren’t lessons to be learned.
The Lives of Others
If we wanted to, we could readily create interesting lessons and activities to learn about the complexities of daily life. Children could be riding the transit networks and visiting department of transportation officials and conducting audits to see how wheelchair users cross the street. These activities and more are what we do at The Bureau and we host them frame as ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘engineering’ and ‘math’ (or STEM) learning. We should be starting early on these lessons so that children can do informal observational learning as they grow.
Beyond STEM encouragement, there are more basic societal matters at play. Our civic discussions around changes to our built world often don’t go so well. Introduce sensible ideas about bike lanes or traffic calming in the neighborhood and next thing World War III has broken out. Suggest improving safety through proven methods like roundabouts and road diets and the conversation turns into urban legends and ridiculing articles. Folks point fingers at other roads users behavior but rarely consider the role design or operation play in the interaction. For generations we have mostly left explanations about such matters in the hands of the engineers without developing accessible and straightforward lessons for more common usage.
The Road to Happiness
We have a long history of influencing change through children: think smoking, recycling, and seatbelts. The Road to Happiness was a 1924 silent movie funded by the Ford Motor Company. It tells the fictionalized story of a boy who enters a national essay contest about the need to improve the unpaved roads of the time. He wins and is awarded a college scholarship in engineering. He eventually returns to his childhood community as the county engineer and the film ends as he arranges for the paving of the road to his old schoolhouse. The actual Firestone Good Roads essay contest drew over a quarter of a million entries annually from school children. The winner made the national newspapers and went to Washington to meet the president. This was one of the first major U.S. campaigns to engage children and employ them to influence U.S. policy.
High-fives for Design
Modern-day children demand activities with a little more excitement than an essay contest. However, there are endless potentially fun means to create learning and to add a little whimsy to engineering ideas. After all, you’re not teaching them engineering, we mostly just need them to be aware and looking at their everyday world for now. Here kids wait to have their street design drawings signed and sealed at the resident engineers booth. After ‘review’, the ‘engineer' sent most of them back to make revisions. As well as expressing their design ideas, this exercise was teaching a lesson about the role of other's input and iteration in creating a plan. Parents were high-fiving kids when they received that engineering seal on their drawing.
Imagining our Built World
We want to raise children who have some understanding of the workings of what we've built, who are thinking about how it's put together and know inside that they too have a role to play. Let's encourage kids in these realizations by deploying imagination, creativity and a little unexpected playing around with the infrastructure. There are many civic lessons waiting outside our front entrances. Using the streets, parking lots and plazas as a backdrop for projects can help children recognize the roles they could play in it's future. When the future is exciting but has so many unknowns, let’s pull the kids into the discussion.