Playful Democracy: how kids and young people' can refresh our perceptions of power and voice


Interesting Medium piece from Melanie Rayment, a design thinker. She asks how children's and young people's play (and adults' engagement with that play) might refresh the ways we think about how we do democracy.

Some extracts:

Have we yet reached a point where we recognise children and young people as the experts in their own lives? Children appear to be citizen researchers on a quest (unknown or known); developing a hypothesis, testing and iterating as they prototype on a macro and micro level. How can we continue to evolve these views so that children have greater agency in shaping their cities and nations?...

Play as an inclusive, action-based language, can enable us to understand deep emotions, diverse perspectives, and create new frames. It is through play that we witness children as inherently novel; less stifled by the systems that control our adult lives, and the way in which they imagine scenarios with fewer boundaries than we can dream. They are creative in the way they shape the direct world around them, to be joyful, useful and bring imaginative views to life....

We should ask if our collective imagination for alternative futures is genuinely democratic and diverse? Do policies that aim to address societal issues, imagine new social systems, and economic markets only seek to inform our younger generation?

Children and young people have a unique perspective to give, and an ability to blend the physical and digital spheres with imaginative new visions. They are driven by ‘what if,’ and less inhibited by legacy systems, and frames of reference that appear to hold us back from the critical action required.

More here.

Melanie's argument is reminiscent of the US psychologist Peter Gray's work on play and democracy - see below: 

We value democracy. As citizens, we want our children to grow up holding and abiding by democratic values. We know that democracy is not easy. Democracy implies freedom, but it also implies responsibility. The balance between the two is delicate and takes wisdom that can only be gained through practice.

People in a democracy are free, yet they must follow rules, cooperate with others, respect differences among individuals, and recognize that their own needs and rights are no more valuable than are those of every other person. How do children acquire such values and learn to live by them?

One thing we can be certain of is that children do not acquire such values in schools, at least not in the schools that most people know. People acquire values by actually experiencing those values, in real life settings, and seeing that they work. In schools children experience dictatorship, not democracy.

Children are required by law to be in school, and while there they must follow rules that they have no voice in creating. They may be required to memorize something about democratic values as part of a civics lesson, but they do not experience those values, so the lesson may seem cynical. They may, if they are lucky, experience compassion from kind teachers, but that is benevolent dictatorship, not democracy.

Children cannot acquire democratic values through activities run autocratically by adults. They can and do, however, experience and acquire such values in free play with other children. That is a setting where they are treated as equals, where they must have a say in what goes on, and where they must respect the rights of others if they wish to be included.

In previous essays I have argued that play is nature’s way of promoting children’s reasoning (12/04/08) and physical skills (01/01/09). Now I argue that play is also nature’s way of teaching children how to get along with one another democratically.

Gray's argument continues here.

(The capacity of young people to cut through old political arguments is no better demonstrated recently, of course, than in the advocacy of the Parkland kids after their massacre. And they're not alone in history.)