Evaluation in the Wild: Preschoolers and the Park

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City Planning from a Child’s Viewpoint

City planning from a child’s viewpoint

By Morgan Valley

Most weekday afternoons I receive an email from my daughter’s school documenting daily happenings, along with pictures and quotes from my daughter and her friends. This little glimpse into my daughter’s day in preschool is a highlight in my workday. Recently, I opened the email and was overjoyed to learn that the children spent the day providing feedback and ideas to inform the renovation to our local city park. It was too much -- my daughter, our community park, and evaluation -- my heart! I gushed to everyone I ran into about how wonderful the teachers, school, and city were to conduct this evaluation.

Of course, the City refers to the project as community engagement. I see it as evaluation. It offers both a process for people to inform strategic decisions that affect them, and a space for those making decisions to learn how to improve their work. I continue to gush about the project as an evaluation to anyone who will listen, which brings us here.

A little about the project and what makes it a wonderful example of evaluation

INVOLVING THE END-USER IN DESIGN

This project is a great example of an evaluation that engaged the community members directly impacted by the project to inform its design and implementation. Even better, the way the children provided input aligned with the school’s core tenets.

As Erin put it:

  • Children are capable and competent, and as current citizens, rather than "future citizens", the children’s voices, thoughts, opinions matter now. This project enabled them to share their input and inform their community.
  • In addition to teachers and families, children learn from their environments. Since City Park is so close to the school, the park is a teacher. Allowing children to have a say in that environment is incredibly powerful.
  • Documentation as a way of conveying children's ideas, thoughts, and skills to themselves, to their teachers, to their families, but also to the community at large. By bringing children's drawings and words (ages 2-5) to the workshop, I hoped to change people's thinking about how capable and competent children are.
  • Project-based learning: the curriculum being informed by things that are meaningful to the children, rather than something pre-set. City Park is beloved by the children. Teachers noticed how engaged the children were in the conversations and brainstorming about the future of the park.

My daughter’s teacher, Erin wanted the city to hear the children's ideas and feedback on proposed changes to the park, which neighbors the school, the Early Childhood Center (ECC). She applied to participate in the City Park Community Engaged Design Workshop. This was the first in a series of community forums the City hosted along with Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment that gathered input on the proposed park renovations from people of all ages throughout the community.

When the City accepted Erin’s application, she and other teachers at the ECC shared the City’s plans with the children (aged two through five years old) to solicit their ideas and feedback:

  • Teachers shared the city park map and pictures of the proposed changes.

  • Toddlers looked at the maps and talked about the plans.

  • Preschoolers drew on laminated copies of the maps and built on them with blocks.

  • Teachers pointed out familiar landmarks, like the lake and playground.

Sarah, another wonderful teacher at the ECC, said, “The children were especially interested in the aerial view of city park which may have reminded them of the world maps we have previously explored. I think the children’s favorite part of making the maps was recreating their favorites parts of the pictures for the new city park. They loved dreaming about the new playground especially.”

When it was time for the community workshop, Erin brought the pictures and ideas collected from the children at the school, along with feedback she gathered from the staff and families of children who attend the school.

At the workshop, participants worked in groups to create boards with visions for the future of the park. The team Erin worked in incorporated many of the children, family, and staff ideas including:

  • Pictures children drew of a train and a tree house.

  • A quote from a 3-year-old: “We should plant strawberries in the garden. And tomatoes! Those are the healthiest!”

  • Images of the playground that related to what ECC staff had brainstormed.

  • A suggestion from a parent to place feeders with appropriate food for the waterfowl, so that people don't feed the ducks and geese bread, which can hurt them.

  • A suggestion from staff to have open-ended, natural materials, loose part building, and areas to climb.

“A constant theme during our workshop was that their designs should especially speak to the children of today and tomorrow,” said Brian Dunbar, executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment, who facilitated the workshop.

When participants voted on the ideas they liked best, many thanked Erin for representing children's interests. She felt the children’s ideas and words inspired the other workshop participants' thinking. The vision board with their design ideas was selected by the participants to share with others outside of the workshop.

The city also presented the vision board to the public in an exhibit (see more in the City Park Tomorrow Exhibit gallery) and open houses.

NOTE: The children created this vision board in class, but a different version was created during the workshop and presented by the city.

“The open houses have encouraged citizens of all walks of life to provide their input on designs, features, and transportation schemes, so that city staff could devise a plan that best serves all citizens,” said Brian. “The children’s ideas, and their presence have certainly played a role in inspiring the designs. And reminding each citizen participant that it’s the kid in all of us that loves a great park!” Brian said.

It remains to be seen how much the City will take the children’s feedback into account as it finalizes the park renovation plans this fall. The City Parks Planning and Development department is currently digesting, and responding to community members’ input.  

“I am hopeful that as they continue to move forward with any future changes to the park, they reach out to the public and to children to inform their thinking,” Erin said.

From the City’s perspective, this is just the beginning of trying new ways to engage children in informing its work. Jennifer Torrey, an architect in Park Planning & Development at the City said:

“We have started providing a staffed kid’s corner at our neighborhood meetings for new parks. This allows kids to draw what they would like to see in their neighborhood park. One of our newest neighborhood parks to be built this summer, Sugar Beet Park, has a climbable sugar beet that was temporarily installed at the Museum of Discovery as part of the Once Upon a Playground exhibit. Here, kids have had the opportunity to play on the unique play feature prior to the park’s construction. The bottom line is, we are trying to reach kids in new ways.”

Like me, my daughter happily and frequently shares about participating in the project. She keeps telling everyone, "We are changing the park!" I love that she feels included in this change to our community. I am grateful to her teachers who brought children, family, and staff voices to the leaders at the City.

When community members share information and insights to inform decisions that will affect them -- that’s evaluation at its best.


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Morgan Valley, PhD | Evaluator

Morgan is an academic researcher turned evaluator, skilled in bringing mixed methodologies and advanced data synthesis to clients in way they can understand and use.


Morgan Valley