Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Questioning "Child-Friendly" Environments

All of the readers of this blog likely rank as "well-meaning," in the sense that none of us wish ill in our work with young people. Now, its true that I hold some people in contempt of violating that trust, either consciously or unconsciously. Rather than being as bold as I was last week, I want to step tepidly in the following pool. By doing this I am simply attempting to create a dialog, rather than launch an attack; I regard people practitioners and proponents of child-friendly environments as allies, and nothing less.

Yesterday I introduced the topic of Child-Friendly Environments, these conscientious attempts at creating physical spaces and social places where young people are acknowledged as the full-fledged humans they are, with distinct needs and desires that are valuable in creating positive, healthy, and supportive opportunities for their growth. This work is going on in cities and nations around the world. Today I want to introduce the flip side of that coin.

In my study of this topic I have discovered a continuous undertone that implies that children, particularly the youngest ones, are incapable of rendering their own judgment about their environments. Its this sentiment that drives many parents and childcare providers to develop "cutesy" rooms where child psychologist-approved colors, shapes, sizes, heights and activities create a safe, nurturing space that allows "kids to be kids." The dilemma of this approach is that inherent in it may render the opinions, ideas, knowledge and actions of children as nil. In this way creating child-friendly environments may deaden Youth Voice.

Its for that reason that I would challenge any well-meaning adult ally to young people to consider creating "child-friendly" environments that move beyond Internet censorship or healthy snacks, whether or not those are valid elements. Instead, I want to encourage all of us - myself included - to adopt a wider-reaching set of principles designed to guide all elements of our societies. The United Nations suggests child-friendly environments:
  1. Reflect and realize the rights of every child;
  2. See and understand the whole child, in a broad context;
  3. Is child-centered;
  4. Is gender-sensitive and girl-friendly;
  5. Promotes quality learning outcome;
  6. Provides education based on the reality of children’s lives;
  7. Is flexible and responds to diversity;
  8. Acts to ensure inclusion, respect, and equality of opportunity for all children;
  9. Promotes mental and physical health;
  10. Enhances teacher capacity, morale, commitment, and status;
  11. Is family focused, and;
  12. Is community-based.
This is a reasonable start. I would emphasize the first element, that of children's rights, among which the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child includes Youth Voice. Only by taking such an assertive stance can we move past the adultism inherent in much of the development and implementation of child-friendly environments, particularly as I've known them in the U.S. and Canada. There is a logical connection between this work and that of today's youth advocate: let's create the space to collaborate.