How to Engage Children in City Building

Children need freedom and opportunities to play and use their imagination. For this reason, they thrive in cities and walkable communities - places where they are not shuttled around in cars and isolated in oversized suburban homes surrounded by highways and big box stores. But, it is rare to come across examples of cities where the youngest citizens are actively engaged in urban planning and design. 

8-80 Cities, an organization focused on building inclusive communities, conducted a research project to look for successful examples in their recently published  Building Better Cities with Young Children and Families. The organization collected 21 case studies from 16 different countries over the last 50 years in order to compile strategies and principles for engaging families and caregivers with young children. 

Their main finding was not surprising - the wellbeing of children has not been the cornerstone of any significant urban planning policy and cities aren’t doing enough to engage children in city building. According to it’s research, even cities with the most sophisticated approaches to community engagement have fallen short. 

“We were unable to find a single city in the world that applied a holistic, integrated approach to engaging young children, their caregivers, and/or pregnant women in the city building process.”


Many aspects of city life impact the wellbeing of children. It goes beyond our parks, schools and community centres to include cultural events, housing, public health, and even local employment. To ensure that the voices of young children and caregivers are represented in cities and communities, the report has several tips for engaging children. I have outlined my favourite findings here (paraphrasing information from the report) :

1. Partner with Trusted Organizations

Local community organizations act as an excellent bridge to children and caregivers. These organizations can provide space to host engagement events, incorporate engagement activities into their regular programming, and/or help recruit participants. An example of this type of partnership is at Vancouver’s River District Community Centre, where the developer, WesGroup, works closely with South Vancouver Family Place to engage families by offering family drop-in programs and children’s activities at the Centre. 

2. Reach families in their home and during other routine activities

Families are a busy unit, with many competing priorities. “Going to them” involves finding opportunities to engage with families in spaces they normally frequent, or even in their own homes. This could include engaging children at local parks, community centres, and family attractions.

3. Create opportunities for learning and engagement in the built environment

Children are constantly learning and absorbing new information. There are many ways to incorporate children’s learning and engagement in the city’s built environment. Whether it’s an educational matching game at a bus stop, a poster prompting a young child to make specific observations about their surroundings, or a library in a laundromat, all spaces can be designed to engage children in learning on-the-go.

4. Capture children’s understanding of their environment

This involves allowing children to use different forms of expression to interpret their environment. For example:

Child-led tours - When children lead tours, we get a glimpse into how they view spaces untainted by adults’ perspective. When adults lead tours for children, they imprint their viewpoint on children, removing a child’s opportunity to understand the spatial environment from their own perspective. 

Kids mapping exercises - When children create maps, they are creating a 2-D representation of how they interpret their physical environment. They are

curators of the map and what they emphasize or exclude speaks volumes about their perceptions and preferences. The maps are a valuable resource for understanding how children perceive a given environment.

Photos/visual media - Open-ended mediums like drawing, building, and taking pictures give children room to take ownership over the process and the issues they wish to frame.


5. Use storytelling and role playing

Storytelling is one of the earliest activities parents and caregivers use with children. It exposes children to new ideas outside their everyday world. They develop emotions and feelings, such as empathy or fear, by understanding and relating to the roles characters play. Storytelling can help them grasp a given situation and can be applied anywhere, in any context, without any additional materials - which makes it a powerful tool for engagement.

6. Gather information through structured & unstructured play

Structured Play - This is any activity that has a specific learning objective. For example, gamification is a method of structured play that integrates game-like elements into non-game environments to motivate learning and engagement. Since playing games is something children are familiar with, you can structure games to address specific issues. In the context of city-building, design the game around the context or challenge and provide a logical set of prompts to stimulate idea generation and inspire the group to think creatively.

Unstructured Play - This could include toys, props, imagination games, and open-ended art exercises. Unstructured play is an opportunity to let children’s imagination run wild. They create, explore, act, run, jump, tell stories. Creativity during free play brings unique ideas to the engagement exercise. Activities that encourage creative thinking include props such as building blocks and shapes. Another example is open-ended drawing exercises where children freely express their thoughts and control the outcome of the activity. 

7. Analyze children’s behaviour through informed observation

You can gain a wealth of insight about children’s preferences through informed observation. How they interact with others, the toys and tools they reach towards, and their favourite playing spots reveal information about their habits, likes and dislikes. 


At its core, engaging young children and caregivers in city building is about making cities accessible and enjoyable to everyone. According to Tim Gill, a scholar and advocate for child-friendly cities:

“Children are an indicator species for cities. The visible presence of children and youth of different ages and backgrounds, with and without their parents, in numbers, is a sign of the health of human habitats. Just as the presence of salmon in a river is a sign of the health of that habitat. “

Without children, our cities are void of imagination, innocence and vitality. In order for them and the city to thrive, we must allow their voices to be heard and embrace their role as citizens.

Image: *All photos from the  8 80 Cities report, Building Better Cities with Young Children and Families, 

Source: This City Life

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.