The Children’s City-a project between arts and education

A children’s city is a reflection of a real city and of its urban fabric. The dynamics of real urban life thus influence the way in which children play in the children’s city and make use of its spaces. Depending on the underlying concepts of education, the chosen format of the event (duration, rules, location), as well as regional particularities and cultural surroundings, a play city can look and work quite differently.

The “game” is based on the general agreement between adults and children that everyone will “play” city life. The space that is created for this purpose becomes the play board for an undefined number of players, who don’t have to know each other before the event or have to arrive at a particular time to participate in the game. In order to start the game without lengthy introductions and a pre-defined start time for each player, some basic rules are established to ensure the game’s enduring dynamic. However, every rule can be amended at any time if a sufficient number of players agree to do so.

The children’s city can be seen as an aesthetic product –one may like it or not– as well as a complex arrangement of symbolic meanings, which the participants have to decipher through their active involvement in the game.
The children’s city may be a pre-designed space, but its structure, arrangement of materials, media equipment and objects as well as the set up of its different scenarios renders a purely aesthetic perception difficult. Rather, this space invites children and young people to engage proactively in its co-production and further development.
Whoever enters the play city necessarily becomes part of urban life within it, whether as an active participant or as an observer. Tourists and urban flâneurs in the city are tolerated and temporary visa are granted for such visitors, mainly to accompanying adults, specially invited guests and those who are interested in the project for professional reasons. They are not allowed to actively interfere with the game, but become a part of the city just like those children strolling through the play city when they are not at work or when they are on a particular mission that they have decided on themselves.

In this sense, the play city is a “social sculpture”, as understood and defined by Joseph Beuys. Contrary to a formal, aesthetically reasoned understanding of the arts, Beuys’s concept incorporates human activity, which allows for social structures to emerge through thought and language in a continuous creative process.
The task of the arts, according to Beuys, is to make people conscious of this very process. This enables all members of society to reconsider and replace outdated and obsolete social practices.

With this comes a conceptualization of culture as a dynamic process, constantly alterable and always negotiable, depending on social, technological and economic changes: the actors of this process are humans who are willing to negotiate and act.

The play-city as an arts education project

The discussion of Beuys’s broader conceptualization of arts and culture is relevant because most cultural education projects focus both in their content and method specifically on one art form. In many cases, the learning experience is then reduced to the particular, formally aesthetic mode of expression of this art form and its embeddedness in a real-life context is left aside. This can lead to a neglect of the emancipatory content of the arts in education, and can engender a misplaced emphasis on questions of design, effect and quality. In addition, this exclusive orientation of educational projects towards specific arts forms can impede the development and experimental testing of cultural forms of expression that are specific to children.

In order to avoid this limitation, the children’s city as a project of arts education needs to ask itself how its goals can be related meaningfully to the economic, political and cultural realities young people confront repeatedly throughout their upbringing. The pre-condition is that the concept of culture as a distinct unity, fixed in time and integrated into a harmonic whole, is repudiated.

One objective of the children’s city’s learning environment is thus to offer young people various ways of access and points of contact that fit with their personal experiences; another is to encourage children and youth to engage in experiences of strangeness and divergence and to cherish these experiences as something exciting. Only through this tension can processes of negotiation over meanings emerge. The goal would be to enable children and youth to build up a reflexive distance to familiar cultural patterns allowing them to question their particular habitus.

Learning environments that allow for this to happen are not easy to create and are never without contradictions.

The children’s city as re-enactment of a real urban fabric

The fact that the children’s city mirrors the real city, with all its institutions and organizational patterns, not only defines the content of the game, but also provides roles for the participants. Economy, politics, administration, work and daily life, media, science and cultural production are structuring pillars of the game and out of its systems arise job descriptions, impetus for activity and opportunities of interaction. In this respect, the arrangement of the play city is highly plausible and is also easily comprehensible for children (as will be explored in detail in the following).

The play city is structured by streets and squares, alongside which key institutions like the town hall, restaurant, workshops, bank, theatre, advertising company, newspaper, television, garbage collection service, university, carpenter’s shop, taxi garage and many others are set out. The different areas of the play city are dramaturgically arranged according to their relations with each other. They are equipped with materials, tools and machinery necessary for their functions, and their activities are made public through display windows, counters, wide doors and gates that allow those who would like to participate to observe.

The aesthetic production of the city with sceneries, gridded façades, painted house walls, advertising and information billboards etc. offers the participants a stimulating urban space that has an effect similar to theatre or festive decorations, nourishing imagination and motivation. The permanent alteration of the city scape through the children themselves allows them to hold the conviction that the city is effectively theirs. Subtle changes in the urban fabric are for instance made through public announcements, computer-made advertising for children’s products or services, posters painted by hand or printed for a company or for the election of the city council, publicized statistics or indications on house walls. But the participants also actively co-produce urban space when they build their own houses, plan their own transport ways or open new shops and businesses.

The presence of adult experts and professionals in many institutions and areas of the children’s city triggers a similar fascination and force of attraction amongst the young participants. These adults’ knowledge alongside their various manual and artistic techniques and special tools and machinery give children the sense that they are participating in the real world and that they are taken seriously.

This moving cosmos of the children’s city enables different people, young and old, to interact, and all technical details aside, requires the negotiation of social relations, different sensitivities and emotionally charged behavior. This comprises great challenges that all participants have to tackle. Children handle these challenging negotiations differently and come up with diverging solutions and arrangements for themselves and others. This heterogeneity is one of the key goals of the children’s city, as it seeks to create an open learning environment without pre-determined learning outcomes.

All institutions and businesses within the children’s city have a reception or a counter that is staffed by children who are responsible for external contacts, job applications, cooperation with other institutions, the receipt of new tasks and many other things. Due to these relationships, natural opportunities for interaction, information exchange and conversations arise, allowing for the development of new social networks.

Friendships, working groups and communities can be formed around specific initiatives or can emerge accidentally from collective endeavors or unplanned opportunities: the latter can include work-related contacts, neighborhood relations, appointments, cooperation in joint projects, overlapping friend circles and internal group constellations.

What turns a play city into a city?

Research in urban sociology has demonstrated that the overall number of human relationships increases with the size of the city. For instance, the contacts a Londoner maintains to other people are about double those of an inhabitant of Cambridge. Other indicators, both positive and negative, increase with population size: productivity, patent registration, the circulation of ideas and the number of creative undertakings, but also crime and the instance of disease (Ratti Carlo, 2014).

In big cities, people not only walk faster, as has been proven in various studies, they also find it easier to make new friends, find like-minded people, move between friend circles and build up more, if non-permanent, relationships. These diverse interpersonal encounters entail a constant alteration of networks and groups based on common interests, which in turn leads to the nurturing of a greater set of contacts (ibid).

In some ways, the play city can be described in a similar manner. The participants largely do not know each other, apart from friends who arrive at the event together. In the beginning, most of the children are strangers, just like the adult staff members. In the morning, as soon as the event opens, the children move towards their preferred entry point into the structures of the city. The ones who have already participated have a clear advantage, as they are familiar with the different routes, strategic points of access and processes. New arrivals need information, orientation and search for ways to improve their overview of the situation.

Once all of the different roles and positions in the city have been occupied by children and youth, reaching from the registry office to the reception areas in different institutions, the game begins: the cycle of continuously accumulating interactions and encounters is set in motion and the flywheel of its infinite exchange processes is turning faster and faster to the point of it becoming incomprehensible to the outside observer in its totality.

The development of these complex types of relationships explains why a children’s city must be of a certain size, including as many participants as possible while remaining manageable. This is imperative if a differentiated and complex public life is to be developed in which constant negotiations can take place. Only on this basis can the tensions needed for maintaining the dynamics of playing city emerge.

The key conditions for this are:

  • Occasions for continuous negotiation processes in smaller circles (workshops, studios) as well as larger circles (citizen gatherings, conferences) that are either independently decided upon or externally induced;
  • A broad range of participants in terms of age, gender, origin, socio-economic background;
  • A blend of complex individual situations and an overall level of complexity;
  • A high-level authenticity in terms of the variety in materials provided, as well as the attractiveness of the tools, machinery and media devices;
  • A broad mix of different professions and areas of expertise on the part of adult staff members;
  • A linking between sensory-artistic activities and media-based, digital forms of expression; a connection of these activities with both current events in the children’s city and topics of the adult world;
  • Planned events within the overall game that are specific to the urban environment and might trigger irritation and surprise, while remaining realistic.

The diverse and rich urban life that emerges from such complex arrangements is in no way fully predictable or projectable and the only certainty that remains is that everyone learns with and from one another.

Processes of negotiation: contacts, business, private matters

The erected cityscape provides the basis for a game that unfolds on different levels. For this to happen, no adult guidance is required – the dynamics evolve automatically. Children already know in different ways and to varying degrees how a city and processes within it work. Below, you will find a set of examples of how children engage with the city’s different institutions and which processes of negotiation are necessary for these interactions:

– Additional required orientation structures are managed independently by the children, including an information office, guided city tours and the training of info-scouts; – The building yard needs two canvas roofs for its look-out tower. These are ordered from the tailor’s shop on the basis of a preliminary calculation; – The kitchen is in urgent need of new kitchen towels. Two members of the kitchen staff find appropriate towels in the department store and negotiate the price; – In the children’s city architecture office, a jury composed of the city council and the academy of fine arts discusses the best design proposal for a new monument on the central market square; – In the town hall, a welcome reception for the children’s delegation from India is organized, who have come as foreign diplomats to the children’s city and enrich the city life with their own program during one week; – In the court of justice, a public hearing takes place: the photo studio is accused of tax evasion as it has failed to declare its revenues and deduct the obligatory municipal taxes; – Etc.…

One could enumerate an infinite amount of situations that prompt children and youth to engage in business with one another and to establish varied relationships. Such situations can provoke confrontations that must be resolved or can trigger collective action such as a strike of garbage collectors, protests against the kitchen staff because of inadequate food quality or high prices, or filing charges of false report against the children city’s newspaper. The opening of an exhibition in the academy of fine arts, or the inauguration of new bus lines in the city will lead to collective efforts and new forms of public interaction.

In addition, it is crucial not to overlook the innumerable work-related conversations, business negotiations (should you open your own business or not?), and private discussions between individual children. These can include speeches of children applying for public office (as a member of the city council, judge at the high court, etc.), queries to businesses for special orders, discussions between work colleagues with different opinions, formal complaints submitted to the town hall and the presentation of personal opinions in the weekly open council. All of these interactions are part of the complex and manifold negotiation processes that form the heart of the children’s city’s learning environment.

The concept of the play city is based on the entanglement of highly differentiated institutions, organizations and businesses that develop an ever-greater amount of interaction as the game goes on over the duration of the event.

The play city is the sheet on which all of these activities and negotiations unfold and come to cumulate to a continuous cultural practice. As all agreements within the children’s city are only of temporary validity, they encourage creative and inventive forces that testify to the participant’s desire to co-produce the “social sculpture” of the play city, to maintain it in time and to develop it further.