“Good morning boys and girls, my name is Miguel and I am a planner working for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health.”
Those were almost my exact words after Ms. Perez introduced me to my son’s Nicholas third grade class last year. I was there as an APA Ambassador to share what I do with the kids what planning is and what planners do during career day at Alcott Elementary in Riverside, California.
I have had done several similar presentations about this subject with high school students and other audiences, so I was confident about the points I wanted to cover and the activities I prepared for that morning. Although I had never given a presentation at an elementary school class, I knew it was going to be slam-dunk ... until I greeted them.
In the course of the day, I learned three lessons:
1. Every Word Counts
As I opened my mouth and spilled out each word, I immediately knew that I was digging myself into a deep grave that was going to be covered with lots of concepts I had not planned to explain. By dissecting the sentence “I am a planner working for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health” one can see that, in general, to understand its meaning one would have had to have education higher than third graders have.
After saying that I felt the urge of explaining what the county is — a meaning that bifurcates into government and geographical boundaries. Did I know for sure that kids knew what government is? Did I know that they could differentiate between federal, state, regional and local governments? Of course not. After dancing around these ideas, somehow I was able to compress all that into a few simple sentences that they were able to grasp.
To my fortune, however, the day before, Dr. Ron Loveridge (former City of Riverside mayor and grandfather of one of the students) was the special guest and talked about, guess what? Government!
Lesson learned: One should not make assumptions about what kids know or do not know. Select carefully your words and be prepared to explain in very simply ways the complexities of planning and every single interrelated aspect, to the extent possible.
2. Kids Just Want to Have Fun
The initial part of the session involved showing a Google Earth exploration, which kids enjoyed. We spent about 30 minutes flying over the neighborhoods around the school and other distant places.
The real fun began, however, when we rearranged the classroom setting by creating an empty space in the middle where everyone had an opportunity to be a part of a pretend urban-design team. We used butcher paper to represent the land and colorful construction paper to represent building for different uses. The chaos created released a magical atmosphere of play in which everyone was happy. There was movement, dialogue, laughter and lots of curiosity emanating from both, the audience surrounding the space and the performers designing and arranging their ideal community.
Lesson learned: In general, kids love to play together and be a part of collective activities. Incorporating opportunities in which kids feel like they are playing, the learning process of planning becomes a fun game. We should remember that at the end of the day, planning is like a game in which everyone is chasing after something: an entitlement, creating a bike lane, building a community garden, etc. — this analogy can help planners develop fun methods for community members to learn an engage in planning processes.
3. Everyone Has an Opinion
Throughout the day, there were many instances available for the kids to speak up and participate. Although I knew that everyone had something to say, usually just a few of the kids would volunteer to express an opinion or ask a question.
In order to level off the conversation and to ensure that everyone was engaged, all students had an opportunity to vote on the various designs they imagined. Kids would raise their hand with great excitement and would keep it up until they were certain that their vote had been counted.
Lesson Learned: Even the most quiet and reserved student has an idea and an opinion, that may be brilliant or not be, but fostering and providing opportunities for expressing ideas as part of teaching planning is paramount. Planning processes are rooted in a system of idea exchange and dialogue codified in plans.
This opportunity for me to bring planning to a third grade classroom was possible through my involvement with the American Planning Association’s Ambassador Program, which currently has 100 volunteers conduction activities like this one throughout the nation.
To learn more about the APA Ambassadors program visit www.planning.org/ambassadors/ and follow #APAAmbassadors.
Images: Illustrations were created by the author at memeful.com.
About the Author
Miguel Vazquez is a planner for the County of Riverside (California) Department of Public Health.