Thinking Together

year: 2021
published by: (web magazine)

Why do we need fiction to create better urban spaces?

Why do we need to publicly discuss how children observe and perceive urban spaces? When we speak about the concept of a caring city, how can we include children’s voices as well as their needs and priorities as a part of city’s public policy?
In a conversation with visual artist and educator Eva Koťátková and artist, ex-squatter, social worker and activist Barbora Bažantová, I was looking for some methods of critical pedagogy with children which can help us to create a safe, inclusive environment for children to think together.

‘Vše může byt na dvoře’1 (Everything can be in the yard) is a fiction story that arose during the workshop Náš dvůr (Our Yard), which took place in the summer of 2021 in the courtyard of the Norma space gallery in Prague. The children who took part in the workshop wrote the story themselves and, together with teachers, directed a live production of the text. The workshop aimed to emphasise alternative scenarios in education using fiction stories and imagination as an important method in the learning process and the role of children’s observation and participation in a better understanding of the urban spaces we are surrounded by.

    I experienced the unexpected fantasy of one courtyard which turned into a shared space for the caring activities of animals and plants. In the play, the courtyard was filled with water, greenery, wilderness, plants, and homes for diverse animals so that the inhabitants of such a courtyard could spend better time together. While we were exploring our courtyard with the children, including other yards around the Podolí neighbourhood, the children noticed that what was missing inside those yards was water. Water is an important element of the ecosystem, creating life and enabling the functioning of human and non-human beings. Therefore, the children proposed to create a magical fountain (she/her) in our yard, which would tell prophecies and gather all the inhabitants of the courtyard together. With the help of their neighbours and friends, the children fulfilled her prophecy and transformed one courtyard into a caring common space. At the end of the play, they were all dancing around the fountain and celebrating her prophecy. From the children’s point of view, it is clear that there is a need for inner yards to be designed in such a way as to provide better possibilities for the support of more our neighbourly relations with the nature, animals, and residents of such residential blocks. Moreover, as the children noticed, the inner yards should also enable the celebration of our social rituals.

    Can this statement be assumed for us, the adults, as well? Do we need more caring courtyards which cultivate our neighbourly relationships, celebrate our rituals, and support our community activities?

    The important method in building trust within our community was an attempt to blur the boundaries between the child and adult that exist simultaneously within the self. That’s why I introduced creating masks and characters during the workshop. It certainly helped us to create better rules of communication between each other. The children felt secure and free to play with us. While we were playing, we were learning and exploring the environment together. During the process of creating masks and characters, I noticed that children immediately identified themselves with talking animals and fictional characters rather than people or residents of our inner yard. Why are children interested in talking animals and plants and not in humans?

Fountain also made a proposition in the script: ‘The animals and plants are our friends and neighbours, so we should ask for their help to repair the courtyard.’ Not just in the children’s world but also in our ‘adult world’ we need to collaborate and support our neighbourly relations with the nature and animals which surround us. Therefore, we should listen and understand the language of those who are invisible, unknown, magical, dangerous, or wild.
    Accordingly, identifying with the talking animals and speculating is, I think, a good way for children to tell the story because it is easier and safer to feel empathy, to understand from another point of view what is happening in reality.

‘For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.’ (Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons’)2

One of my favourite writers is Ursula K. Le Guin. In her essay ‘Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, she writes that fantasy, or imagination, is the most attractive tool for children – not because most children should escape the need for reality, but because their imagination is constantly working to give meaning to reality. Imagination is very often tolerated only as a means of dreaming, not as an instrument of change. But the purpose of imagination in the learning process is to help us to reshape reality and enrich the understanding of our inner and outer worlds.

    When I look back at the story ‘Vše může byt na dvoře’, I wonder: if children, behind their masks, turned the courtyard into a caring common space used for all the residents’ activities, what kind of space would we as adults create together with our neighbours?

    In my practice with children, I notice that they are aware of their surroundings in a broader context, showing a deep and emotional connection with the urban space. That is one reason why I want to emphasize the concept of the caring city, which includes more spaces for children’s observation and participation. If we involve children’s voices in the planning process, more caring spaces can be created. In the process of working with children, I realized that it is very important to create a safe environment for children to think freely. In a conversation with visual artist and educator Eva Koťátková,3 who has been working with children for a long time, I was looking to expand this topic and learn about some of her methods of critical pedagogy with children.

‘A safe environment arises very naturally, but at the same time, it is very important to create a situation for the children in the space so that they can settle into it and do not feel pressure to produce something quickly or to share their outputs. What is more important is the process of thinking together, in which all parties are gaining something. I am always trying to set up the discussion in such a way that the children do not feel that they have to perform a task, to satisfy an assignment, and at the same time I make it clear that I am interested in their stories and visions, that they are inspiring to me and that I am learning from them – that it is a real exchange. When we are opening a discussion on some sensitive topic, I always try to share my experience within a topic in order to create trust within our community. In our communication, I try to encourage their critical thinking and imagination in every way I can. It is important to give them confidence that their voice and opinion matter and that they should try to express their thinking on issues that concern them.’ (Eva Koťátková)

In her practice, Koťátková strives to approach the conception and creation of the exhibition not only as an artist but also as an educator, with the aim to share knowledge with the audience. Often when she is working with curators on the preparation of an exhibition, she tries to compose the program in various formats for various groups of people, with an accompanying educational program, such as when she is working with children. Currently, Koťátková is looking for ways to place her work in a public space rather than in a gallery space, and she is also involved in several projects that combine art with education.

‘Imagination is something we are also exploring within the Futuropolis project: the school of imagination, a three-year pedagogical experiment in which we are trying, together with the participating teachers of a primary school, to introduce the principles of critical pedagogy into the Czech education system. We are testing the principles of critical pedagogy on selected topics, but at the same time, the culture of the pupils is essential for us, so we are supporting pupils to bring topics into school that interest them and that they want to explore and uncover together. We are also concerned with engaging the whole body in the learning process. This can happen by activating all of our senses and by exploring the relationship between the body and the space in which it moves, using senses of touch and hearing, visual sensations, and also intentionally working with emotions in the learning process.’(Eva Koťátková)

As Koťátková says, ‘If we are able to imagine the world differently, we are able to change it.’ But before it comes to imagination, we should first encourage children to feel secure, support their thinking, and show them the possibilities of how they can participate in the changes in their surroundings. Being in a collective, thinking together, and exploring the surroundings, children will develop the ability to perceive the needs of others and look for ways to think positively about experiencing urban spaces and situations within the city. It will help them to build self-confidence and participate in public discussions on issues that concern them.

‘But before diving into the world of fantasy and imagination, we need to go a few steps back, somewhere to the very beginning of thinking about the possibilities of the concepts of integration and inclusion. If we do not start from the bottom, where injuries are most acute and the situation is hopeless, it means that from the beginning we have already decided to exclude certain children.’ (Barbora Bažantová)

    I also spoke with Barbora Bažantová4 about her practice with children where she has been working mainly with children of Roma origin from quite specific backgrounds. An ex-squatter, activist, artist and social worker Bažantová lives in Brno, where she is studying in the Environment Studio at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Brno University of Technology. Her projects often address public space, which actively engages a variety of different communities.

‘The environment in which they grow up is often quite homogeneous, living in excluded areas. Their possibility to get somewhere “out” is limited, both by their parents’ financial situation and by the high level of distrust they feel for the majority society for understandable reasons. The kids I meet are often from incomplete or in some way dysfunctional families, and they have experience that corresponds more to the experience of adults than children; they often face poverty that affects such basic needs as housing or food.’ (Barbora Bažantová)

From an early age, when you are surrounded by racial discrimination and poverty, it is difficult to dive into the world of fantasy and imagination, or even just to try to observe the space you are surrounded by in a different view. In an excluded, impoverished environment, parents and children perceive the boundaries of their space as very clearly defined by a certain neighbourhood, which for them becomes more or less the whole world. The possibility to get ‘out’ of that place is often limited to the bare essentials, when they need to go shopping or visit doctors and pharmacies. So, as Bažantová emphasised, the first important thing in practice with a similar group of children is to learn how to experience things together and interact with each other. As an example of such a work, she mentioned a workshop for Roma and non-Roma children that took place during her residency in House of the Lords of Kunštát in Brno.

‘During the mentioned workshop, we visited the very inspiring natural garden U smrku, which was founded in the Brno region Královo Pole by child psychologist Libuše Mičolová. We walked through the garden and looked at its nooks and crannies, then we laid out a roll of drawing paper in front of the children. While the non-Roma children immediately began to imagine and transfer to paper their rich inner worlds, firmly supported by their parents’ efforts to expand those worlds as much as possible, my little friends from Cejl5 drew only hearts, dolls, and non-smoking signs.’ (Barbora Bažantová)

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