Consulting Children in Playground Design: Hart’s Ladder of Participation

[Image from a delightful review of the playgrounds of Paris’ Jardin des Tuileries…note the lack of railings!]

I’m pretty fed up with organizations that bring the children in for a workshop to draw or build their ‘ideal playground’, and then the grown-ups go away and pick items from a catalog.  Better to not consult the children at all than to engage them in superficial pretense just so ‘child-led process!’ can be claimed on a grant application.  If that makes you say ‘ouch’, read on.A topic that came up at London Open for Play (and which is now the subject of discussion over on Tim Gill’s Rethinking Childhood blog and this article at Playlink) is the consultation of children as part of the playground design process.

Because another issue is that it’s genuinely difficult, even with the best of intentions, to get past the twin pressures of the child (a) wanting to please the adults in the room and (b) working from what they already know, which is generally a very traditional equipment-play environment.

Because of that difficulty I think it’s unlikely that new and beautiful play forms, say like Toshiko MacAdam’s crochet networks, could arise from a child consultation.  But would we want to exclude them from the playground art?  Their imagining required her (adult) vision as a designer, along with a long-honed expertise in her artform.   But it is equally important that her vision, by her own telling, was inspired by seeing a child interact with one of her works.

At London Open for Play this past September, I asked the practitioners how many of them were spending time with children, watching them play.   Very few hands were raised, and there were lots of sheepish shrugs.  But a keen, informed observation of children at play is far more useful to designing a playground than bringing a bunch of children in for an artificial workshop experience.   My own instincts about play, though culminating in this blog, were honed years before in playing with hundreds of children of all ages as the daughter of a minister (I started helping with the 5-year olds when I was only 8, and continued to care for whatever kids were a few years younger than me).

If you are trying to involve children in the design and build of a playground, then,  be willing to evaluate whether your process is in fact truly participatory.  A great tool for doing so is is the “Ladder of Participation”, developed by Roger Hart of the Children’s Environments Research Group at  CUNY.   This version was originally written for garden spaces, but mentally change ‘gardens’ to ‘playgrounds’ and you get the idea.  Note especially rung 6:  Tokenism: “The appearance of children’s involvement is there, but in fact, they have had little choice about planning the garden playground project, communication around it, and no time in which to critically reflect and form their own opinions.”  Ouch, again.

Honestly now, where are you on the ladder?

Hart’s Ladder of Participation

(via Cornell’s Garden Based Learning)

8. Manipulation or Deception:

  • Adults consciously use children’s voices to carry their own message about the gardening project.
  • For example, they produce a garden poster, advertisement, or publication with drawings by children, when children aren’t involved in the program planning.
  • Adults may deny their own detailed involvement in meetings, planning, shaping the project because they think it diminishes the effectiveness or impact of the project – they may say that children are genuinely engaged, when engagement constitutes weeding or planting.
  • Adults may design a garden, have kids do a simple planting, then tell the local newspaper that kids designed and built the garden.

7. Decoration:

  • Involves, quite literally, decorating children
  • For example, they may sport garden T-shirts with no involvement in organizing or understanding the program.
  • Adults use children to bolster the program as if the children were understanding participants.
  • For example, adults make children sing garden songs at a harvest festival, and it may even appear that they wrote the song, or that they were involved in organizing the garden or the festival, when in fact they were not.

6. Tokenism:

  • The most challenging and most common among very well-meaning adults.
  • Adults are genuinely concerned about giving children a voice, but haven’t really begun to think carefully about the best approach for this.
  • The appearance of children’s involvement is there, but in fact, they have had little choice about planning the garden project, communication around it, and no time in which to critically reflect and form their own opinions.
  • An example is that adults select charming, articulate youth to talk about the garden in a public venue, but those youth haven’t had ample opportunity to critically reflect or consult with their peers. The key here is symbolic versus actual engagement and involvement.

5. Assigned but informed:

  • Children are assigned to a project and may not initiate the project themselves, but they are fully informed about it (i.e. a school garden project)
  • Children may still have a sense of real ownership of the project.
  • A key aspect of this rung is the degree to which children are engaged in critical reflection. For example, are children just viewed as a free source of help for the garden project, or do they have a chance to reflect on it, consider it, and learn from it?

4. Children are consulted and informed about project:

  • Project designed and run by adults, but the children’s views and opinions are taken seriously
  • A good example is with a survey designed to gather young people’s input into a school garden: children are informed of the purpose, they may be asked to volunteer, and afterward, they are fully informed of the results.

3. Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children:

  • Adults assume nothing about what children want in the landscape.
  • Children are involved to some degree on every part of the process of garden planning, design, and implementation.
  • Children understand issues such as fundraising, garden design, or organization and management
  • Children understand how and why compromises are made, if they are necessary. They may also begin to cultivate a “language” of talking about this with others.

2. Child-initiated and directed projects:

  • Adults notice a youth-led project emerging and allow them to occur in a youth-directed fashion.
  • Hart places this second on the ladder because occasionally young people don’t trust adults enough to seek their input. The caution with this rung is in children carrying out their projects in secret because of fear of adults, or being intimidated by them. An example is a literally secret garden/ landscape that adults are not aware of.

1. Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults:

  • Goal isn’t about “kids’ power.”
  • Young people feel competent and confident enough in their role as community members to understand the need for collaboration and that in asking adults for their input, the project may be strengthened.
  • Lots of trust involved
  • Adults serve as listeners, observers and sounding boards (i.e. they don’t jump in with their own designs on the project, or to organize the project). For example, young people may determine that they want to clean up an old wooded hang out area in their community to create a nature trail. They learn about all aspects of creating such a trail, hold meetings to plan it, but check in with a friend’s parent in local government, several parents, and a teacher with an interest in ecology, for their diverse ways of thinking about certain aspects the project.


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