«Children are a sensitive environmental indicator of our cities»

Francesco Tonucci

Philosopher, educational psychologist and illustrator (under the pseudonym Frato). Born in Fano, Italy, in 1940. He received the Education Merit Award 2011 and, since 1966, he has been a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council (CNR). Since 1991 he has developed and led «The Children’s City » international project, which proposes changes in cities, seeing children as a parameter for the environment and sustainability. Francesco Tonucci, internationally renowned, currently coordinates a network of approximately 200 cities in Italy, Spain and Latin America.

Bizkaia Maitea: Among the main differences between how the child population lives today and that 50-60 years ago, for example, which would you highlight?

Francesco Tonucci: Our project, «the Children’s City», addresses two main work areas: children’s participation in the governance of the city and their autonomy of movement. These two areas represent two of the most important changes that, in my opinion, today’s children should recover compared to those 50-60 years ago. Then nobody even thought they could contribute to decisions and changes in public life. Children were valued for what they were bound to become; children were the «future» citizens. Therefore, they had to listen to and respect adults, learn to be like them as soon as possible. On the other hand, nobody questioned that it was perfectly normal that a child, after having something to eat or doing their homework could (should) go out and play with their friends, obviously, respecting some limits related to time, space and behaviour.

Today, science has evidenced the importance of early years in life and, the 1889 Convention on Children’s Rights of 1989 has recognised that we are citizens since we are born and that children have the right to express their opinions whenever a decision that affects them is made (art. 12). Moreover, their autonomy of movement, at least in our Mediterranean countries, has been reduced almost to nothing. A recent study tells us that the number of Italian primary children who go to school unaccompanied by an adult is no higher than 7%!

We can therefore say that with regard to these two aspects, children’s situation has been reversed.

BM: Is this a gain or a loss? Or what have they gained and what have they lost?

FT: We should say that, considering these two changes, the first is a gain and the second is a loss. But, unfortunately, it is not even so because children’s importance and value has only been formally and theoretically recognised. It has not been yet introduced in the behaviour of the family, school and the city whereas the second change, the loss of autonomy, is being suffered by children in our countries and paying an even higher price.

If children cannot go out alone, they cannot play, and if they cannot play, they cannot «grow». Play is certainly the experience that has the greatest bearing on their development in the early years of life to lay the foundations on which the school, the family and society will build up their knowledge and skills.

If a child cannot go out alone and play with their friends, they cannot unload their physical energy. Paediatricians’ great concern about child overweight and obesity is strongly correlated with this sudden change in children’s habits.

If a child cannot go out alone, they cannot experience the thrill of risk, they cannot satisfy their curiosity and their needs to transgress.

This will give rise to a stronger desire and need that will only be met in adolescence, but at a greater risk. Bullying experiences, vandalism, alcohol and drug abuse, motorcycle and car accidents, youth suicides should probably be regarded as logical consequences of educational errors in the childhood stage rather than adolescent dramas.

However, the disappearance of children from the public spaces of the city also has a high cost for the city itself: a city without children is worse, uglier, unhealthier, less safe. The children who move around on their own force us to take care of them, to rebuild a friendly environment and, therefore, to create much safer conditions than those defended by the police and telecameras.

BM: As for adults, how has this change in city model influenced us? Is it a gain or loss? or what have we gained or what have we lost?

FT: Victoria, a 10-year-old girl from the Children’s Council in Rosario, in Argentina said: « Grown-ups are to blame for everything. We should put limits to grown-ups». And she can’t be more right. When cities were rebuilt after the Second World War, it was decided (adults decided) to rebuild them tailored to male adult workers.

They wanted them to be more adapted to the needs of their cars than those of their children. In these cities «for adults», non-adults, non-males and non-workers suffer and finally disappear. Obviously, in these conditions, we also, as adults, live badly. It is interesting to see how the proposals for change from children are often similar and consistent with the proposals from scientists (urban planners, sociologists, psychologists and paediatricians).

BM: If the most important development in a person’s life takes place in early childhood, how do you think those who «enjoy» childhood today will be as adults?

FT: As I said before, there is a big risk. If, during their early years, children cannot experience adventure, discovery and free play, then these gaps can hardly be recovered in later stages. This is why we think that a democratic city must ensure enough freedom and autonomy to all its citizens.

BM: How can we, today, start to design a better future who, as adults, are capable and responsible for making decisions? How can we make true the idea that «children should have a city and the city should have children»?

FT: The real aim of our project is to make it possible for children to go out alone to meet their friends and share with them the experience of free play in places of their choice (and not in parks designed for them). But to recover this autonomy, we propose that this competence is recovered through experience «we go to school alone». We propose that, from the age of six, children should be able to go to school with their friends. This experience has already been lost in our cities, but it is possible to recover it if we have a commitment from schools and local administrations, and the support from shopkeepers and elderly people and paediatricians.

It is a difficult experience because we must overcome the fear of families but, indeed, it is possible and very satisfying for all players.

BM: Could it be that children themselves and the extent to which their autonomy improves are the best thermometer of sustainability and the future that we may be building?

FT: I have thought of children a sensitive environmental indicator of cities for a long time. Just as swallows and fireflies are considered environmental indicators (if they disappear, it means that the environment is polluted), the presence of children moving and running freely around the public spaces in a city is an indicator of the health of the city itself. If they are there, it is a healthy city; if they are not, it is a sick city.

BM: Do we know how to listen to those small people (in age), or we feel as «arrogant» (distrustful) that we only see them as little people who «do not know how to do things»?

FT: As I said before, unfortunately, children’s competence has not been recognised yet, as it is still basically unknown and, obviously, unfulfilled, although it is included in article 12 of the Convention I mentioned before, which will be 25 years in November this year. At the prestigious United Nations headquarters, all adults worldwide promised all the children of the world that no decision affecting them would be made without asking their opinion. A great promise and a great lie, because there is no sign of it either at home, or in school habits, or in the organisation of the city. And this is a law of the Spanish State as, in 1990, it ratified this Convention, so it became part of its general legislation and, therefore, it was binding and enforceable.

BM: What would be the responsibility and role played by schools and families, if we want to be able to interpret the specific reality affecting children and help to bring the change you referred to before?
Francesco Tonucci with this great lost friend Mario Lodi.

FT: Mario Lodi, the greatest contemporary Italian teacher and a great friend, died a few months ago. All his life he has defended that schools should be a school of democracy, the Constitution should be their constant reference, even more than textbooks. But democracy is not taught in books; it is taught by living it and putting it into practice in class every day, experiencing cooperation, solidarity, supporting the most disadvantaged. It is learnt by refusing to reward the privileged and punishing the least fortunate; by recognising that there are different starting points and, therefore, the paths and targets should also be different. It is very important that in this key educational work, the family supports the school by giving up attitudes that are so common today as defending your children, bearing in mind those classmates who are weaker, foreigners or disabled.

BM: From your wide experience, could you give us a practical case where the solution to a social problem has been channelled through your children’s presence?

FT: I would like all managers in Spain to go to Pontevedra. Ten years ago, its Mayor attended a lecture I gave there. He accepted my proposals and decided to include a number of priorities in his administrative policies, placing children (pedestrians and bicycles) at the top, followed by public transport and only then private cars. Today Pontevedra is a different city from the rest because everybody can move while respecting the priority of the smallest and the weakest. It is a city that is more beautiful, healthier, safer and happier also because it is full of children. This is a clear example to say that this project is possible and children can show us a new path.

BM: And talking about examples, do you think that Frato’s irony has helped to provoke reflection on the educational system? What place does humour have in education?

FT: Frato has been able or lucky to enter, with its often harsh and incisive satire, a closed world that is unwilling to welcome criticism such as that of schools. The question is right, cartoons alone cannot bring about change but they can provoke an emotion, awareness, make readers say: «That’s true, that happens to me too!» At this point, the public is divided: some put down the cartoon angry and offended, accusing the author of alleged incompetence while others are moved and will seek adequate tools to bring change.

BM: Could Frato treat those who visit Bizkaia Maitea pages to some of his cartoons by referring to some of the reflections shared in this interview?

FT: I think this cartoon is a good synthesis of our project, as it contains a strong message: children playing in the street make the road safe. Of course, they may be disturbing, as they prevent us from using public spaces for our convenience, for our cars, but, in turn, they return health, beauty, safety and calm to our cities.

«La città dei Bambini» (The city of children)

The aim of this new philosophy of city management is apparently irrelevant and simple: to enable children to go out alone again, do not condemn them to sit in front of the television for hours all afternoon, do not take them hastily from one school to another, allow them to meet new friends again and, by playing together, discover things. What does this mean for the city? Simply, that the city must change fully and completely albeit gradually.

Rethinking the city, wanting to see it differently, adapted to all people, even to children, is an urgent need; it is not a question of stepping back in time in search of a rural or neighbourhood romanticism of the 40s, but of preparing a different future, not only controlled by business production. A future where there is the desire and possibility of thinking about welfare and solidarity. It is of that future that children are a symbol, a challenge and a guarantee.

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