Teaching Urban Planning to Pre-Schoolers

An experiment involving colorful Legos, big pictures, and "Where Things Are From Near to Far."

8 minute read

February 9, 2016, 6:00 AM PST

By Pete Sullivan

My excitement started to build after I arranged to give a presentation on urban planning at my five-year-old son’s pre-school. I thought, "This will be great, I get to do the classic, here's-what -I do-at-work guest speaking gig in my kid's classroom." Moments later though, the excitement turned to, "Oh no. I just committed to teaching urban planning to pre-schoolers. How does one teach urban planning to pre-schoolers?" Why would I attempt this?

Beyond the thrill of starring in my son's class and the fun of co-planning the event with him, I volunteered to do the presentation to challenge myself to find out how (and whether) urban planning can be taught to very young people. Urban planning is a broad and complex topic, and it wasn’t obvious to me how to engage a pre-school audience. Since he started attending the school, I observed other parents doing special presentations about their professions, and spicing them up with demonstrations like building a mini door frame. This inspired me to blaze confidently forward on the topic of planning, despite not having a solid teaching strategy or fun props (or so I thought—more on that later).

In doing the presentation, I also wanted to fill what I perceive as a big awareness gap. Young children read books and watch videos about doctors, builders, chefs, mechanics, pilots, and businesspeople. But not urban planners. Why?

Is our profession under-represented in young minds because they are too young to understand it?
No, kids know what a neighborhood is.

Is the topic too dull for kids?
No, kids love bikes, trains, playgrounds, and skyscrapers.   
Then why is urban planning so under-celebrated, and why doesn’t it emerge as a field of study prior to the college level? (Planning grad students: consider that for a thesis topic.)

I don't have an answer for these questions, but with this presentation I would try to put urban planning in simple, everyday terms, and pay attention to see what resonates with the kids, and what doesn’t.

The tricky part though, is that urban planning is not easy to put in simple terms. Boiling down an enormously broad profession into a sentence or two takes some thought. Planners trade stories about how often they respond to the question, "What do urban planners do?" In my view, it is a disservice to the listener to attempt to cram everything planners do into a single response. My approach is always to keep it as simple as possible, but interesting enough so the person wants to hear more. Responding with phrases like zoning districts, policy development, and land use compatibility is a great way to lose the audience.

Lately I've been using, "We help communities define their future vision, then make policy recommendations to implement the vision."

"We regulate the use of land in order to make better places."

If that doesn’t click with the listener I’ll add, "I write memos and reports and give presentations to elected officials." (The fact that planners speak regularly in front of large groups suddenly impresses people.)

In preparing for the pre-school presentation, I knew I would need to do define planning in a way that was even more crisp and familiar than either of those examples. But first, I needed to decide which points I wanted to get across in my talk. I decided that my learning objectives were to:

  1. Describe what urban planning is.
  2. Discuss what urban planners do.

For my opening elevator pitch, I developed the following:

Urban planning means making places better by putting the right things in the right place.

It is an urban planner's job to decide which things—like buildings, roads, and parks—should go in which places.

At this point, I had a goal for the presentation, and knew how I would approach it conceptually. But how would I organize and deliver it?

The answer to this question came to me one evening as I was doing some homework on the presentation. We were reading the book, Where Things Are From Near to Far*, which I recently purchased, and had wanted to add to my library (well, my son's library) for a long time, given how few children's books there are on this subject. The teacher in me likes how it uses simple concepts and illustrations, while the planner in me likes how it is based on the rural-urban transect. The dad in me likes that my son now has a book that helps him understand what his daddy does at work all day.

I also liked that the authors emphasize buildings and the built environment, though it is primarily from the perspective of place. To me, this is an important distinction between planning, and related fields like architecture and construction. We care as much about geography as we do about building materials. The concept of place is also something that kids readily understand, so this became the organizing principle for my presentation.  

I opened the presentation with a warm hello and welcome, and then explained the purpose of the talk. I then talked about what urban planning is and what urban planners do, and then read Where Things Are from Near to Far. After the reading, I re-emphasized the concept of place, focusing on four major examples we learn about in the book: Cities, Suburbs, Countryside, and Wilderness. Talking about what is meant by place, and what makes one place different from another, was then followed by a discussion of which things fit better in certain places, and how planners help make those decisions.

Photo collages helped in visualizing cities, suburbs, countryside, and wilderness. (Image by Pete Sullivan) 

Putting urban planning the context of everyday places—and the things we see as we move throughout the day—made the presentation relatable, but I also wanted to make it concrete and visual. So, to illustrate the four place types, I created four collages showing typical scenes from cities (busy streetscapes), suburbs (parks and neighborhoods), countryside (farms and open vistas), and wilderness (mountain lakes and wooded trails). Choosing six photos that communicated a clear, thorough, and balanced representation of each place type was surprisingly challenging. Most of the photos included people interacting with these different environments, and there was a subtle and intentional message: we planners are incredibly obsessed with the quality of the human condition. 

As we talked about the four place types, I passed around the collages and asked the kids what else might go into those places. Something I learned: Kids love things that go. Regardless of the place type, they talked about bicycles, buses, trains and cars.

Four lego scenes were created to support the concept of place, and to make the presentation visual, fun, and relevant for the young audience. Borrowing examples from the book, Where Things Are from Near to Far, the four place types represented in the lego models were City; Suburb; Countryside; and Wilderness.

I also wanted to make the presentation interactive and fun, so my son and I (one of the highlights of this experience) created models of the four place types using Legos. As a topic, urban planning is broader than just the built environment, but we planners often deal with buildings, and the idea of construction is hard-wired into kids from the earliest stage in life. Plus, who doesn’t love Legos?

After looking at the photos we stepped over to the table displaying the models, and my son helped describe each place type and the different types of buildings we made. He built the police station three times bigger than the shopping center, and I made the setbacks for city hall nonconforming. Hey, it’s a planning talk, not a code enforcement talk.

After looking at the models, the presentation transitioned into an activity where the kids become the urban planners and built their own Lego places. This got a lot of traction, and gave teachers a pre-made activity for the rest of the morning.

The thing that surprised me the most about the experience was how attentive the kids were. True, their responses to my questions were all over the map, but that’s ok and to be expected. But they listened, and watched, and wanted to engage. I worried that they would become restless, or suddenly get up and start disassembling my visual aids. Didn’t happen. Maybe because regardless of what you have to say, if you walk into a pre-school class with four pre-built Lego models, every wants to hear more.

I think it also helped that I kept the presentation under 30 minutes. Would they have gotten squirmy if it went longer than 30 minutes? Probably, and so do most adults at professional conferences no matter how good the speaker is.

Also, the theme of place resonated with the kids, especially 'neighborhoods,' which several kids spoke about. Maybe in the future it would be more effective to discuss planning from only the neighborhood scale perspective, and not try to include the entire rural-urban transect. Even though many city kids have probably driven through the country at some point, the countryside and wilderness is something they mainly know from books and movies at this stage in life.

Also, I would not repeat the matching game activity that I squeezed between the photo collage portion of the presentation and Legos portion. The activity involved me holding up individual photos from the collage, and asking the kids which place the photo would best fit into. This slowed down the pace of the presentation dramatically, and it was challenging for the kids to relate the photos back to the four place types. Also, it occurred to me that there isn’t just one right answer for many of them, which opens up a complex conversation about mixed use development. Maybe save that activity for a grade school audience or older.

The overall experience was fun, and unfolded about as I had hoped. What will the kids remember down the road? Maybe just that a guy wearing a vest came in and showed them some Legos. But if their ears perk up in the future when they hear the words, 'urban planning,' and if they think more deeply about the different places they go, then my conclusion is that pre-school is not too young to start talking about urban planning.

[*Editor's disclosure: Where Things Are From Near to Far is published by Planetizen Press, but the author's recommendation is his own.]

Pete Sullivan, AICP, is a Senior Associate with Clarion Associates in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he specializes in land use regulation and comprehensive planning. Pete has worked as a professional planner in the public and private sector, and likes to discuss front line customer service, Robert's rules, and how to arrange seating for a public meeting. Pete attended the University of Washington in Seattle and Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, and still enjoys chatting with urban planning students over coffee. He lives in Durham, North Carolina with his family.

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