Look Who’s Talking

Child Friendly Edmonton engaged children to find out what kind of city they want to grow up in

A colourful series of pictures from young artists across the city was on display last November at Edmonton’s City Hall. The occasion was National Child Day, celebrated annually on November 20, and the featured artists were Edmonton children. The pictures depicted vibrant scenes with parks, slides and community gathering spaces that portrayed the type of community these children want to grow up in.

It’s about talking to kids about what they care about. It’s valuing and creating a city built from children’s ideas.
– Ian Smith, Child Friendly Edmonton coordinator

“We wanted to engage in conversation with them and find out what they enjoy in the city, what they want to see more of and what’s important to them,” explains Ian Smith, Child Friendly Edmonton coordinator with the City of Edmonton. The artwork was on display for 10 days at City Hall and is providing valuable input as part of a city initiative to make Edmonton a more child-friendly community.

Launched more than a decade ago, the city’s Child Friendly Edmonton initiative went through a refresh in 2016, refocusing its efforts with a new committee and new sense of dedication. As part of the visioning effort, input was gathered right from the source – Edmonton’s children. During the fall, the Child Friendly Edmonton team toured elementary schools across the city and talked to about 700 children. “We captured their art, drawings, and paintings with blurbs of what a child-friendly city could be like and why they felt that way,” says Smith. “These are filled with important insight from children.”

Child Friendly Edmonton is part of an international effort to recognize children’s rights and give them a voice. The movement has expanded to almost 1,000 cities around the world and is based on the International UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative, which touches on several aspects, including allowing children to express their opinions, influence decisions, grow up in a safe environment, be included in social events, have access to basic health and education services, and places to play.

The international initiative was launched in 1996 to act on the resolution passed during the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements to make cities livable places for everyone. It declared that the well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and good governance.

In addition to gathering feedback from children, the city hosted a series of workshops in November. Leading experts in the field shared best practices on how to create a child-­friendly city, with topics ranging from urban planning and play space design to the importance of play in healthy development, Two of the workshops were part of a series of events to celebrate National Child Day in Edmonton, which is supported by United Way.

“The takeaway from [the workshops] is we heard the best practices from people on how to create a child-friendly city,” Smith says. “We also heard from our stakeholders and we got direction and input for our next steps, and in the next five years what we should focus on and move forward with.” By the end of January, the Child Friendly Edmonton team was aiming to come up with a concrete work plan to carry the initiative into the future.

Councillor Bev Esslinger, who is the council lead on the Child Friendly Edmonton initiative, says one of the areas of focus so far has been on the downtown area.“There has been such a resurgence of growth and interest in downtown. How do we make it more child-friendly?” she asks.

The Child-Friendly Edmonton team has already been experimenting with ideas to get children more engaged in the downtown core. Last summer, as part of its Playful Downtown pilot project, it held several pop-up playgrounds at Churchill Square and the 104th Street farmers’ market. University of Alberta students brought cardboard boxes, paper tubes, paint and other materials and involved children in the experience of building castles and ships throughout the afternoon. Similarly at the outdoor market on Stony Plain Road, they brought in a variety of materials and engaged children in a creative play experience. As a result, at some of these events, families spent more time at the farmers’ markets than usual, enjoyed the entertainment and visited more vendors.

The team is also considering incorporating public art downtown that is more interactive and playable. “We’re looking at what we can do downtown – even in the city square – because we can swim in the summer and skate in the winter, but is there something else we can do?” says Esslinger. Another idea that the team is exploring as a result of the feedback from the workshops is the introduction of natural playgrounds in the city, using trees, rocks, shrubs and other natural materials in a less structured environment than a typical playground.

“We know when cities are built for children, it’s good for everyone. When you see kids engaged in public art or a playground or something they’re really enjoying, other people come along and enjoy watching and feel [like a part of] that community, so if we create communities with kids in mind I think … it’ll bring everybody else out as well,” notes Esslinger.

Perhaps most importantly, Child Friendly Edmonton will continue to engage with children and involve them in a meaningful way. From Smith and his colleagues’ recent experience, it’s clear that children are more than happy to share their ideas.

One particularly colourful picture on display at City Hall featured a sunny day with a waterslide, a park, a purple cat and a coffee shop. The accompanying text described the many amenities that could be included at the waterpark and activities that could be enjoyed.

“The common theme was the kids were open and really engaged in the concept of being asked for their input,” adds Smith. “It was like, ‘I’m having a dialogue with my peers and my teacher and this adult, and my thoughts and ideas matter.’ There was excitement from the children about being asked what they wanted and the concept of visioning. An experience like that creates opportunities for future generations to be interested, engaged and building their cities.

“It’s about talking to kids about what they care about,” says Smith. “It’s valuing and creating a city built from children’s ideas.”

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