Berlin Lab

How Do We Teach Children About Their Cities?

When I reflect on my elementary and high school education in Canada, I realize with slight horror that I was taught virtually nothing about cities.

I learned, of course, about federal and provincial politics. I never learned how a city government works, however. I was taught the importance of voting in federal and provincial elections, but never was I taught the same in the municipal context. We learned world history, geography, and economics, but not once did we look at a map of our city to learn about, say, it’s infrastructure, planning, or tax system.

I was brought up to be a good global and Canadian citizen. But despite the fact that I, like nearly 50 percent of the world’s children today, grew up in and around cities, I was never taught to also think of myself as a city citizen with civic rights and duties. And the reality is, this same fact applies to most of us.

I only started ruminating on this just before the Lab opened, when I learned that there would be a regular children’s program here once a week. The program, “This City Life: Through the Eyes of Children,” is run by Cameron Stevens, an Australian-born, Berlin-based teacher with a background in the arts. Stevens has worked in various capacities in diverse educational environments; his experience includes managing the education department of Australia’s largest public space (Federation Square in Melbourne).

With “This City Life,” he challenges kids to become critical investigators of the built environment in various ways, and to document their analysis through video and podcast media (check out the video above, the first one to come out of the program, to get a better sense of what it’s all about). In one of his workshops, the kids were given two types of stickers: hearts and frowning faces. They were then asked to stick those stickers all over things in the neighborhood that they liked (a street sign that had been guerilla-modified to be more fun was a popular one) or disliked (garbage, for instance). Then they talked about why they liked or disliked those things.

I found the idea positively brilliant in its poetic simplicity. As Stevens put it to me recently, it’s not that kids don’t know about all the issues going on—they’re just not trained to apply it to the urban fabric, especially not with their own two hands: “Usually, when we talk about environment, it’s about nature, and ecosystems, and ecology, and how we have to use less electricity. Kids know all that stuff now, and it’s really important. But there’s nothing, normally, where kids learn about the built environment in a formal sense. In a more critical sense, that doesn’t exist.” He told me this over coffee at a nearby café, while his own toddler patiently sat next to him, attending to a rainbow-sprinkled cone of stracciatella ice cream.

In his former job with Federation Square, Stevens used to work with kids to make art or video installations in the space. At first, he said, that can seem superficial. “But the idea for me to get across was: you can do something, and people will notice,” he said. “Some sort of impact will come across. So don’t feel like you’re a spectator or you’re a passive receptacle for information, but, rather, that you’re an active participant in the city. It was about involving them in the cultural life of the city at a young age.”

When I think about many of the things that have been happening here at the Lab in Berlin over the past several weeks, with its major focus on hands-on, DIY urbanism, and even many of the workshops that happened in New York (Basurama’s “Trash Safari” comes to mind, for instance), they strike me as almost comically analogous to the way Stevens works with his kids. In some ways, we as adults are also discovering, or re-discovering and exploring, our place within our own urban spaces. As Stevens put it to me, “The idea, long term, is that kids feel like they have some sort of ownership, and that way they also feel like they have some sort of responsibility.”

Maybe if we’d connected differently to our cities at a young age, the need for us to re-learn now wouldn’t be quite so pressing.

I know there are a lot of great urban education programs out there for kids run by external organizations like the American Planning Association and the seriously titled but totally playful Center for Understanding the Built Environment (CUBE), among many others.

But the fact of the matter is that those programs, just like Stevens’s here at the Lab, only reach so many children. So I’m interested in exploring how education about cities could be integrated into more mainstream public education systems. What would this look like? What should be taught, or explored, and how? Are there schools out there already doing this? Is it really as necessary as it seems to me?

Please contribute your thoughts below in the comments section.

  • Teacher off the beaten path

    I wholeheartedly agree that change in needed when it comes to the education of our kids about their own civic and community structures. Why we spend time teaching them about federal and provincial governments and neglect what is far more important to them is a mystery to me.  So, how do we change it? Well, if we leave it to those phantoms who write curriculum we’re most certainly wasting our time.  As a teacher I’m smart enough to know that we have to make change happen on our own….in our classrooms, everyday, in a meaninful and profound way.  I am not suggesting that we don’t strive for systemic change, but it has to start somewhere, and I can’t thnk of a better way than to immerse our kids NOW, TODAY. Think about it.  What is more important than teaching our kids how the government closest to them works and what part they play in it….. so if you find me in my classroom engaged in a hands on lesson about their communities you will know that I am off the path of the curriculum and leading my group down a road much more familiar and important to them.