October 23, 2017

Annelies Vaneycken. Beyond the Line: Design for Participation in the Light of Children’s Culture

by Z33

Children and their culture of play and curiosity form good allies in disorganising the world: disrupting routines by which public space is fixed, rethinking the rules on which the city is based, and interpreting public space in new ways.

Text Annelies Vaneycken


Playful Rules 1, Park de Forest (Brussels, Belgium), August 2014

We walk and hop along a light-brownish gravel path, down a hilly park somewhere in the south of Brussels. The sharp stones make cracking sounds under our shoes; it translates the vibrant energy present in our group. One child makes a small sprint, others follow, and I – the unfit designer – start running behind them. The group of children unites again when they stand still in front of a white line 2 painted onto the firm blades of grass. I take time to catch my breath. The children start walking on the line, one after the other, and again… I follow. Our walking bodies start shaping into a ‘line’, moving through the park. This human line, creating a new temporary path, contrasts with the planned network of pathways in the park. Following the white line, we re-shape our group formation; the former organic cluster of children results in a smooth line – the children seem to be quieter now. The line takes us uphill towards a shrub, where it continues over and beyond. This obstacle allows me to re-introduce the aim of our walk, which the children seem to have forgotten in their enthusiasm.

I had asked the child-group to guide me through their local park and show me their favourite places. Being a local myself, I am curious to know what favourite places the children will show me and if these will be similar to my own. I am overwhelmed by the plurality of their answers and possibilities. Everyone seems to have such a place, but their individual stories become lost in simultaneous narration. I feel we need some structure here, and I assume this to be part of the adult’s role. I will have to interrupt the buzz of words, and then comes the difficult part: I will need to point at one child and give them the privilege of starting. I know the choice will never be the right one and other children will be unhappy and impatient for their turn. I try to come up with a good argument why a particular child has the right to go first. Should it be the youngest one? Should it be a girl? Should it be the newcomer?

It is Félix in his over-enthusiastic act – jumping in the air, screaming loudly, waving his arms – that breaches my pondering and takes the lead. Once I confirm his eagerness, he runs – screaming – down the hill. The other children do not moan, neither do they complain. They immediately imitate his spontaneous expression of victory. There is no time for me to think; my feet respond by running down the hill behind them.

I find the group in front of an isolated shrub. I wonder what is so special about this European yew tree. To me, it looks like an ordinary shrub one can find in any other Belgian city park. Besides, this is not a place but rather a thing. My disappointment ebbs when Félix unexpectedly disappears into the leaves of the shrub. Unsurprised by his magical move, most of the children follow him inside the shrub. Accompanied by two more children, I remain baffled outside the shrub… waiting for their return. The insiders invite me to join, “Héééé, where are you? Come inside!”. While responding “But… I am too tall to fit inside the shrub”, my body presses itself into the hole appropriated by the children as an entrance to their shrub. To my surprise, I come into a large cavity that forms the inside of the shrub. A group of seven children, and my squatting self, surrounded by a thick sheath of branches and green leaves. This green wall isolates us from the rest of the park; we are invisible for other park visitors. Inside the shrub, the park also becomes invisible to us, but still, the muffled sounds that permeate through the porous green coat give us a feeling of trust and connectedness: we know where we are and if we wanted to, we could return to the big world very quickly. The isolation offered by the shrub transforms it from a thing into a place, one that is exclusive for us. It became our place and this feeling of commonality initiates a closer bounding of our group.

After the discovery of the shrub, the children show me other secret places that were previously unknown to me; an astonishing revelation for a daily user of the park who assumed to know the park inside out. The children show me a hidden place with an unexpected large pit, only accessible via a treacherous journey through stinging nettles. The two owners of the pit have appropriated the place by giving it a name, The Hermit’s Pit, referring to the fact that both children believe that a hermit lives there whenever they are not present. Most of the time the children just sit at the bottom of the pit — about one meter deep — but the pit also serves as a storage place for the large branches they find around the park. Finally, the children take me to a steep hill, tucked away on the east side of the park. A place I have visited before by using the landscaped path that winds safely along the mountain hill to insure a safe and easy return to the foot of the hill. This time, the children take me via invented tracks that go beyond the formal path. Their adventurous downhill descents help me re-experience the site in new and playful ways.

Why collaborate with children?

Cities are living organisms. They are subject to constant change due to their interaction with citizens and being intertwined with social, political, and economical factors. In order to deal with change and the growing complexity of current and future Western cities in a more social sustainable way, we need to include all parties involved in the making processes, including marginalised publics such as children 3. For the design of public space, within this fundamentally and ideally democratic project, the challenge is to include all citizens in the production and development of public space, and to broaden and deepen processes of decision-making in terms of participation. The role of the designer here is not only concerned with how to design the materiality of public space, but also concerned with how to design opportunities for including those marginalised publics in the public sphere.

Designers and artists typically perform the role of questioning and critiquing established values through their work. Children and their culture of play and curiosity form good allies in disorganising the world: disrupting routines by which public space is fixed, rethinking the rules on which the city is based, and interpreting public space in new ways. In this research project, I use my design practice – such as the Playful Rules experience described above – to inquire how children’s culture and play can contribute to the rethinking of adults’ performativity. Here children are seen as valuable actors that unpack and challenge norms, roles and behaviour in a city, contributing to a playful mind-set that imagines new perspectives and possibilities.


What we can learn from children (on ambiguity)

The children walking over a white line in an open grass field…
The children uncovering a path in a thicket of stinging nettles…
The children creating adventurous downhill descents on a steep hill…
The children residing in a pit…
The children unwinding in a cavity inside a shrub…

… are all examples of how children as individuals and groups create their own paths that go beyond planned paths and sometimes beyond ‘accessible’ zones. Their activities in the park also teach us how they find, create and appropriate their own spaces – public or hidden places. In turn, from their stories I learned how the children create imaginary worlds that allow them to attribute new meanings to these places. Our collaborative explorations in the park taught me how children find, appropriate and create different kinds of paths and places beyond the formal. These ‘child spaces’ (self-chosen, self-invented and self-directed) reveal how the children negate planned spaces and the controlled (expected and accepted) behaviours and roles that are culturally and socially ascribed to those places. This is a disobedience that does not only disorganise prescribed and pre-scripted roles and behaviours, but also produces new values and space for re-interpretation. Here we may not only understand the role of a/the ‘dis-organiser’ as rebellious, but also as constructive: being the ‘re-organiser’. Children’s play, understood as an ongoing cycle of destruction and construction, operates in a state of constant becoming, as an open project, engaging them as pro-active co-authors (self-invented and self-directed) in the process of (meaning) making.

The painted line as line, the painted line as path…
The shrub as shrub, as place to repose, the shrub as a hiding place…
The pit as pit, as dwelling for an absent hermit, as storage place for found branches…

… tell us about the plurality of meanings that children attach to spaces. New interpretations that are generated through children’s play do not exclude previous ones, but allow co-existence. The ambiguity of children’s meaning-making of space challenges designers and adults to approach public space as being multi-layered as well as co-constructed by many authors. Opening up the production and development of public space for a diversity of voices also calls for including marginalised publics and contributing to processes of democracy. In addition, and following Chantal Mouffe (2007), such dissent-driven agonistic spaces also create a state of uncertainty that makes us question social, political, and culturally entrenched values, meanings, and roles, and hence invite us to perform the role of critiquing.

How we can learn from children (on children and participatory design: role playing)

The original methods for participatory design developed in 1970s’ Scandinavia for dealing with small scale (work) communities require evaluation and adjustment when working on issues that concern society and public space, both consisting of larger and more diverse communities (Bannon & Ehn, 2012). Issues of inequality arise and become exposed when assembling a large number of different actors for collaboration; they demand a rethinking of power structures, such as position and balance between traditional power actors (government) and participating actors (citizens), as well as between different groups of citizens.

Roger Caillois’ (1961) ‘play-continuum’, ranging from rule-bound ‘ludus’ to spontaneous uncontrolled ‘paidia’, may help us unpack power positions in participatory design processes. What type of play or what type (and level) of participation can take place in predominantly controlled processes and what can we learn from children’s disobedience and pro-active re-interpretation of roles as a means to counter hegemonic structures?


The children leading the designer-researcher through the park…

The designer-researcher re-introducing the aim of the walk, which the children seem to have forgotten in their enthusiasm…
The child (Félix) breaching the designer-researcher’s pondering and taking the lead…
There is no time for the designer-researcher to think; her feet respond by running down the hill behind the children…

… clarify how children were interacting with the design framework and goal I had predefined, and how they sought for ways to initiate their own ideas. Their pro-active stance engaged me, the designer, to perform the role of ‘the ignorant schoolmaster’ (Rancière, 1991), to dismiss my own knowledge and open up to understanding the specificity of the knowledge and the activity already at work within each of the children. To see – and work with – the children as equal knowledge contributors blurred the boundaries between the roles of specialist and amateur and made me value them as ‘emancipated spectators’ (Rancière, 2009), able to generate their own meaning-making. In addition, the children’s playful strategies made me reconfigure the original goal by opening up the design process for directions, ideas and ‘rules’ that were initiated by the children themselves, thus enabling them to act as ‘spect-actors’ (Boal, 1979) and bring about change in their own situation.

The children’s input in the Playful Rules design process questions and shifts traditional roles between the ‘adult-designer’ and ‘child-participants’, and between adults and children in general. These types of collaboration are opposite to traditional pedagogical models where children typically learn from adults, and suggest reversing roles so that adults learn from children. Following Wall’s (2010) ideas of ‘childism’, I argue for adults and designers to focus on children’s experiences as a prism for unpacking public space; to learn from ‘children’s culture’ rather than using ‘adult culture’ as a standard norm through which society and public space are seen and developed; and finally to approach children’s culture as the rich diversity it is, rather than as a uniform group. This calls for a design in the light of children’s culture; how design contributes to the process of including children and, in turn, how contemporary participatory design processes that work on societal issues, like the production and development of public spaces, may learn from children’s participation.

Inverted Line, Johanneberg (Gothenburg, Sweden), February 2016

More than two years later ‘the line’ returns in Sweden, as an inverted variation. I am walking to work on a dull winter morning. Both eyes fixed on the ground, staring at the repetition of my walking feet. While reorienting my gaze, a line somewhere beside me catches my attention. A bike had passed the snow-covered lawn besides the path and left a mark in the shape of a grass-green line, uncovered in the white snow. This ‘inverted line’ immediately brings back memories of the white painted line in the Park de Forest in Brussels and to the children walking and hopping the line. The memory of the children’s play make my feet leave the clean dry path and follow the inverted line by shuffling my shoes playfully through the thick layer of snow. I continue my walk, as I continue my explorations searching for new paths. •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

Bannon, L. J., & Ehn, P. 2012. Design: Design matters in participatory design. In Simonsen, J., & Robertsen, T. (Eds.) Routledge international handbook of participatory design (pp. 37-63). New York: Routledge.
Boal, A. 1979. The theatre of the oppressed. London: Pluto Press.
Caillois, R. 1961. Man, play, and games. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.
Mouffe, C. 2007. Artistic activism and agonistic spaces. Art & Research 1(2). Retrieved May 16, 2016.
Rancière, J. 2009. The emancipated spectator. London: Verso Books.
Rancière, J. 1991. The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Wall, J. 2010. Ethics in light of childhood. Washington: Georgetown University Press.


Annelies Vaneycken is a PhD candidate in Design at HDK Academy of Design and Craft at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and a Research Fellow in the EU Marie Curie project TRADERS. Her practice-based research project explores the role of (role) play in reconfiguring participatory design towards designing for children’s critical consciousness and emancipation. Vaneycken holds a Master in Graphic Design obtained at Sint-Lukas Brussels in Belgium, and a Master in Design / New Media obtained at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam in The Netherlands. In her self-initiated practice she designs alternative narratives, aiming to disrupt conventional perspectives and attitudes towards marginalised groups in society.