Playful Democracy

Play is integral to our children’s lives, so can it be used as a method to democratise citizen participation? Through play, children develop new social relationships and boundaries, cultivate their identity, learn through action, test their physicality, laugh and find joy. How might we use this method to communicate and co-create new futures, so that we ensure true diversity of thought?

Our view of children’s standing in society has rapidly evolved over the last half a century; this has developed in tandem with our understanding of child rights, empathy, learning, relationships, parenting and social norms. And therefore, we have come to advocate for the ‘voice of the child’, but 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, like my core discipline of Design both, act as a way to bring discovery, problem-solving and creativity to a collective level that can to seed the emergence of transdisciplinary approaches to addressing the complex issues (L.Sanders). 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.

What is worth considering, is child-to-adult and child-to-child inquiry generates different observations, therefore perhaps if we put children in the driving seat of playful research designed by them, for them, we’ll see a new era of citizen engagement come to the fore. Our playful citizens, can craft their environments through play and making, rehearse and analyse scenarios and use stories for the diffusion of knowledge. This as a method I believe can reduce barriers so that we may authentically inform policy development.

True democratic participation is the way we engage all walks of life in decision making, knowledge share and inclusion in social systems and the places we inhabit. In moving towards views of participatory democracy, we must understand the “absolute level of participation and the inequality in participation are both linked to the quality of democratic governance.” Therefore, we must bring policy down out of ivory towers to the everyday context, and create connections with people who understand public value through a lens of their everyday places, social networks, and systems. By doing this, and removing the participation barriers, we turn policy into tangible actions with greater legitimacy.

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 from critical action required. Let us unlock this knowledge, so we can truly utilise a collective imagination for social change.

Written in conversation with Playful Anywhere CIC. We look forward to sharing more thoughts on this topic, and insights drawn from previous projects that use design and play with youth undertaken in the UK and Australia.