Child-Friendly Environments

Over the last several years my research on Youth Voice has consistently led me to the doorways of a body of work referred to as “child-friendly environments”. This phrase has been applied to a wide variety of elements in the lives of young people, including the physical, structural and cultural surroundings where children and youth spend their time.

Adjusting the physical apparatus of homes and schools in order to make them more easily accessible to children and youth seems to be the main concentration of many conversations about child-friendly environments. I have seen topics include:

  • Providing a stool for children to stand on in the kitchen.
  • Putting a coat rack at kids’ height by the door so your child can get her own coat and hang it up when she comes in.
  • Creating a reading nook with a beanbag or cozy little chair next to a shelf of his own books (more later on encouraging reading).
  • Hanging art at kids’ eye level throughout the house
  • Placing mirrors at kids’ height so they can see themselves.

These steps are among many that Montessori and others proponent for creating environments that foster independence and worthiness in the eyes of children. Learning environments outside of schools, including museums and libraries, are wrestling with how to create child-friendly environments, too. Ensuring books are physically and intellectually engaging for young people has been a mission of many libraries since the first children’s book sections were created in the early 1900s; the questions today go much further. They include:

  • How can young people make meaning out of a one-way presentation of facts?
  • Where do young people get to apply what they learn in museums?
  • Who do young people turn to in order to learn new facts?
  • Why should libraries or musuems continue to exist in the face of new technologies?

Major themes in this area have been identified as location, the way young people interact with the things to learn, and the way that information is structured to present to young people. There are also a number of other ways a child-friendly environment is created, especially the speech, appearance and interaction young people have with adults. At home this can look like parents being home with their families, providing a safe and supportive environment for children to play, learn, grow, thrive and explore who they are, where they are from and how they interact with the world around them. My own experience has shown me that parenting is one of the most powerful ways to engage Youth Voice in our communities. UNICEF has done a great deal of work in this area, and their work on promoting child-friendly schools warrants applause; others have taken on this area, too. Other places include police departments, hospitals, and entire child-friendly cities. Jackie Naginey Hook, the executive director of Child Friendly Initiative, has talked with me in some depth about her work in State College, Pennsylvania, doing this right now.

The term “child-friendly” is abused, as well, as many marketers and others interpret “child-friendly” as anything that is entertaining, amusing, or otherwise fluffy and fun. This notion of childhood is nothing less than infantalizing, and it stigmatizes the very notion of what it means to be a young human being in the world by not allowing young people to be more or less than a commercialized version of themselves. However, less nafarious but more impactful is the abuse of this term in its daily usage by even the most well-intentioned adults.

This brings me back to how child-friendly environments relate to Youth Voice. Without expanding this post further, let me tease at what I’ll write about later: Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledges the rights of all young people to have a say in anything that affects them. Where does that figure into a world that adults routinely construct for children and youth, without children or youth?

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