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Empowering Children to Design a Better World
Emer Beamer, Founder, Ashoka Fellow
Worldwide there are 2 billion children of school-going age. How can all children learn to design a better world for themselves and the planet? How can we prepare them to prosper in a rapidly changing, technological and global world?
Surprisingly to many adults, when children are asked what change they would like to see in the world, they don’t ask for less homework and more sweets, in fact, they want to cure cancer, remove plastic from the ocean or tackle world hunger. A few examples of what children have come up with during our workshops include:
- Nairobi: a special set of traffic lights to catch drunk drivers;
- Amsterdam, a supermarket robot to teach shoppers how to switch to plant based food, in order to reduce CO2 emissions from meat;
- Kathmandu, a solar powered community fridge to share food with those in need;
- Dar es Salaam, a drone that detects trash in open spaces and lands fills and then sends trucks and people to help clean up.
Our organization has already reached 37,750 children, trained 460 teachers and inspired another 700 educators through introduction workshops. Our method is designed to work with children of all backgrounds and capacities and therefore is inclusive. It focuses on building the inner capacities of all children, regardless of their gender, race, class, skill or learning situation. It recognizes that all children can and want to contribute. In our annual worldwide event, we aim to have half of the participating children from disadvantaged situations. We are convinced that all children benefit from developing skills such as creative thinking, changemaker skills, technological literacy and intercultural awareness.
A few examples of the diversity of the children we work with, includes children growing up in the slums in Nairobi (Mukuru kwa Reuben); refugee children in their first year in the Netherlands, gifted children at The Day a Week School in Amsterdam and children in Shanghai, China who have won the Shanghai Science fair competition. This demonstrates to us the power and possibility of including children, their imaginations and engagement with the world, everywhere.
The Designathon method combines aspects of Design Thinking and Maker Education, both of which are gaining ground in education systems around the world. A designathon is a structured workshop in which children (ages 4 - 12 years) invent, build and present their self-devised solutions to a social or environmental issue around the Sustainable Development Goals. A workshop lasts four to six hours and is facilitated by education professionals. The experience helps children become de develop and apply their creative thinking, changemaker skills, technological literacy and intercultural awareness. The power of the method lies in the combination of scientific knowledge, creative thinking, world problems, collaborating, making things and reflecting.
Global Children's Designathon
While most of our work is through training teachers to run the program in their own classrooms or after school programs, our flagship event is the annual Global Children’s Designathon. During this one day event, children in 40+ cities around the world come together to work in parallel, design innovative concepts and build prototypes for one of the Sustainable Development Goals. During the day children have contact with each other through a live connection. They present their ideas to each other, and at the end of the day to a panel of experts, and a public audience. After each yearly event we collect the best 3 designs from each city, do research on the impact and present the findings at world fora such as the WEF Future Councils.
Research done during the Global Children Designathon in 2018 focussed on the children’s perceived ability to become agents of change. Based on surveys conducted amongst 555 children across 10 cities, supplemented by ethnographer observations in each city, 91% of the children felt more able to make the world a better place after taking part in the GCD. An additional 80% stated that they felt empowered to take specific actions to tackle climate problems as a result of the program. Furthermore 85% of the children felt that the event had a positive impact on their own creativity and that they were invited to develop their own ideas was one of the top three most interesting part of the method for them. In another program, commissioned by the City of Amsterdam to engage children across the city as changemakers on the topic of waste and recycling, in the cities’ evaluation, the teachers reported that the children became active to solve the waste problem in the city and that they saw concrete changes in behaviour in 60% of the children.
By 2023 our aim to have empowered 1 million children, 50% of whom come from disadvantaged circumstances, as designers for a better world..