Children's Participation
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Children's Participation

The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care

Roger A. Hart

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eBook - ePub

Children's Participation

The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care

Roger A. Hart

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About This Book

People's relationship to nature is the greatest issue facing the world at the turn of the millennium, and all over the world young people have shown enormous enthusiasm for environmental action. Many countries are radically reassessing both the role of citizens in managing their environment and the rights and responsibilities of children to be involved in shaping their own and their communities' futures.This book, by one of the world's leading authorities on environmental education, is written in the conviction that children can play a valuable and lasting role in sustainable development, if their participation is taken seriously and planned with thought for their developing capabilities and unique strengths. Through direct participation, children can develop a genuine appreciation of democracy and a sense of their own competence and responsibility. The planning, design, monitoring and management of the physical environment is an ideal domain for their participation, in part because their commitment to it is so strong.The book is for planners, educationalists and environmentalists, introducing the theory and the practice of children's participation, and its importance for developing democracy and sustainable communities. It emphasises genuine participation, where children are themselves involved in defining problems and acting as reflective, critical participants in issues affecting their communities. The 'environment' is interpreted broadly to include, for example, the planning of housing areas and the management of playgrounds. Detailed case studies are provided from urban and rural, poor and middle class communities from both the North and South. For teachers, group facilitators and community leaders, it presents organising principles, successful models, practical techniques and resources for involving young people in environmental projects.

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Children of the 1990s have entered the world at a point in history when many nations are radically reassessing their use of natural resources and the role of citizens in managing the environment. At the same time almost all countries of the world have signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), leading them to rethink the extent to which children have the right and responsibility to be involved in shaping their own futures and the futures of their communities.1 I have written this book in the belief that the most sound approach to development lies in the establishment of a citizenry that understands, and cares about, the management of the environment and which can operate in a highly participatory manner in democratic communities. Children’s environmental education needs to be brought into line with the principles and practices of local community participation in all countries and with all communities.
Only through direct participation can children develop a genuine appreciation of democracy and a sense of their own competence and responsibility to participate. The planning, design, monitoring, and management of the physical environment is an ideal domain for the practice of children’s participation; it seems to be clearer for children to see and understand than many social problems. Furthermore, people’s relationship to nature is the greatest issue facing the world at the turn of the century. All over the world, young people are becoming enthusiastically involved in environmental action. Unfortunately, children’s great energies can also be manipulated by the social issue of the moment, and this is often true of the environmental movement, which is replete with examples of children involved in large-scale, highly superficial, shortterm actions to ‘save the earth’. This book is written with the conviction that all children can play a valuable and lasting role, but only if their participation is taken seriously and planned with recognition of their developing competencies and unique strengths. Too many children are naively parroting cliches from someone else’s environmental agenda about environments entirely removed from their own experience. We need children to become highly reflective, even critical, participants in environmental issues in their own communities. We need them to think as well as act locally while also being aware of global issues.


The ‘environmental movement’ that began at the end of the 1960s in North America and Europe remained for more than 25 years a largely middle-class movement of the industrialized countries. Finally it is maturing into a movement with central relevance to all communities, rich and poor, in both hemispheres. With this maturation comes the need for new institutional alliances and new roles for citizens and thus for children. A brief introduction to some of the changes in perspective on the environment that are beginning to occur, particularly in the countries of the ‘South’ or the Third World, is necessary as a background to a full understanding of why community-based sustainable development and children’s involvement in this is so important.2

Transcending ‘Green’ in the Environmental Movement

Following the ecological principle that the entire planet is an interdependent system, we understand that the environment is everything and that we are each part of one another’s environment. For this reason, this book attempts to recognize all types of environmental problems. Unfortunately, the term ‘the environment’, as discussed by the environmental movement and environmental education curricula, is commonly not so broad. The first step, then, in any environmental programme or conversation is to consider how the term environment is being used. The major distinction is between those who speak primarily of the natural environment and natural resources, and those whose emphasis is the built environment. The emphasis of the environmental movement and of most environmental education programmes has been upon the natural environment. Related to this, environmental education in most countries has been seen as the task of educating the public about nature conservation or how to protect the natural environment from damaging human actions. There are, however, other groups of professionals who educate children about, and lead them to be involved in, environmental settings with little or no attention to the natural environment.
In Europe and North America the largest of the environmental education and action groups outside the nature-oriented environmentalists are the urban planners and designers, the community organizers, and a wide diversity of urban activists who have been concerned with improving the built environment for human beings.3 A subgroup of these includes those architects, artists, and others who have been concerned primarily with improving children’s awareness of and concern for the visual properties of the environment, usually the built environment. Similarly, in the developing countries there are thousands of organizations that work with communities, sometimes involving children, on the improvement of people’s living conditions through education and participation, but commonly with little or no relationship to the concerns for the natural environment or the environmental movement. In recent years there have been some excellent books documenting the environmental conditions of poor children and their families and the kinds of programmes needed to address them (Boyden and Holden, 1991; Enew and Milne, 1989; Hardoy et al, 1992; Blanc, 1994; Satterthwaite et al, 1996). In urban areas this work has included many of the environmental concerns of urban activists in the industrialized countries, such as housing and transportation, but with a much greater emphasis on issues of health and nutrition in relation to human survival.
These two major professional groups, one oriented towards the natural environment and the other towards the human environment, have had little to do with each other, yet they are both concerned with the physical environment. The reason for this is largely one of social class. The nature-oriented environmental movement has, until very recently, drawn its members largely from the middle and upper classes. They have not felt that housing, adequate parks, municipal services, opportunities to earn a living, and so on were appropriate questions to be considered by environmentalists or environmental educators. Even in rural areas, where people make their living from the natural environment, the integration of environmental issues with issues of human survival and development – employment, education, health, and nutrition – has begun only recently.
Environmentalists have made the expression ‘only one earth’ a popular clichĂ© and insist that we look at it in its entirety, but most environmental educators remain fixated only on the earth’s green parts. In addition to the class bias discussed above, much of this is a result of the separation of academic fields and professional practice into the natural and the social sciences. While it is of course necessary to focus on particular parts, or ecosystems, of this entirety at different times, this book adopts the perspective that it is not acceptable for environmental awareness programmes to ignore the built or living environments of people, and particularly the poor, even when environmental educators and animators may be quite right in saying that they are addressing critical environmental issues that affect us all, regardless of social class. In the past few years there has been a growth of what is being called the ‘environmental justice’ movement in the United States. This is an important development, for it is bringing social class into the concerns of the environmental movement by investigating and acting upon social inequity in the improvement of environmental quality. Unfortunately, so far this movement is adopting the agenda of the ‘environmental movement’, with its exclusion of housing and the living environments of the poor. Thus the items on the agenda remain the same – for example, air pollution, toxic waste disposal – though now there is a concern with the unfair distribution of environmental contamination in the backyards of the poor. In Latin America a similar movement, called seguridad ecologica (‘ecological safety’), has taken an important step further. Garbage recycling, for example, which was a concern of the middle classes, has now grown in some countries to include not only the improved management of solid waste in low income areas but also the livelihood and working conditions of the garbage recyclers.4 Now that the environmental movement wishes to incorporate all social classes, it is necessary for environmentalists and human development professionals of all kinds to begin to work together so that the total environment becomes the concern of environmental education. For these reasons, the examples of children’s environmental projects in this book include the environments of people as well as whales, housing as well as forests.

The Concept of Sustainable Development

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly called the Bruntland Commission, announced to the world a strategy for the future that they felt would simultaneously offer devel-opment and the eradication of poverty while also rescuing the earth from its perilous path of degradation.5 The strategy, called sustainable development, was defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ For so long the environmental movement had spoken of ‘conservation’ without referring to development. Even the 1970 World Conference on the Environment in Stockholm focused on cleaning up the environment and conserving natural resources with little attention to issues of poverty. The report of the Brundtland Commission led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a momentous event commonly called the Earth Summit.6 This time, the poor nations insisted that the agenda include development as well as the environment. If the countries of the North wanted the South to reduce their destruction of the environment, then the North was going to have to pay. The less industrialized countries were already saddled with enormous debts to the Northern Hemisphere and could not accept another constraint on their ability to address poverty at home. The conference had to address head on the issue of human survival. Economic growth and environmental care would now need to be considered hand in hand.
Unfortunately, the phrase ‘sustainable development’ has already been so used and abused to legitimize all kind of policies and decisions that the reader should not see this phrase as some kind of magic key. It is a useful term but, as with any social construct, children, and youth, should be ready to be critical of it. First, there is a genuine confusion over the meaning of the term sustainable.7 In this book I use the term to imply ‘ecological sustainability’. This preserves the original intention of the Brundtland Commission, who wished to stress that the ecological integrity of the environment must be maintained in order to guarantee its value to future generations. In this sense it is fundamental to any other kind of sustainability: social, cultural, programme, or project sustainability, which are other uses to which the term has already been put. I agree with Hardoy et al. (1993) and Satterthwaite et al (1996) that ‘social sustainability’ and ‘cultural sustainability’ are extremely important contexts for the achievement of ecological sustainability, but that they should not be allowed to confuse the fundamental importance of ecological sustainability in the phrase ‘sustainable development’. Ironically, many people already use the phrase to refer to development, meaning that it is growth (capitalist market expansion), not ecological integrity, that must be sustained!
A second major problem with the concept of sustainable development is that it seems to accept a given definition of nature as being important only inasmuch as it serves human interest. The concept describes ecological sustainability as that which guarantees the needs of future generations of human beings, seemingly giving no recognition to the other possible motivators for people’s care for nature, namely the value of nature itself.8 It would be a mistake for children to be introduced to the concept of sustainable development in such a way that they are encouraged to believe that the sole concern is the utility of the earth’s resources for humankind.
If we cannot continue to use natural resources as we have and we are no longer going to ignore the plight of the poor, then there will need to be radical c...

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