Child-Friendly Environments

Over the last several years my research on Youth Voice has consistently led me to the doorways of a body of work referred to as “child-friendly environments”. This phrase has been applied to a wide variety of elements in the lives of young people, including the physical, structural and cultural surroundings where children and youth spend their time.

Adjusting the physical apparatus of homes and schools in order to make them more easily accessible to children and youth seems to be the main concentration of many conversations about child-friendly environments. I have seen topics include:

  • Providing a stool for children to stand on in the kitchen.
  • Putting a coat rack at kids’ height by the door so your child can get her own coat and hang it up when she comes in.
  • Creating a reading nook with a beanbag or cozy little chair next to a shelf of his own books (more later on encouraging reading).
  • Hanging art at kids’ eye level throughout the house
  • Placing mirrors at kids’ height so they can see themselves.

These steps are among many that Montessori and others proponent for creating environments that foster independence and worthiness in the eyes of children. Learning environments outside of schools, including museums and libraries, are wrestling with how to create child-friendly environments, too. Ensuring books are physically and intellectually engaging for young people has been a mission of many libraries since the first children’s book sections were created in the early 1900s; the questions today go much further. They include:

  • How can young people make meaning out of a one-way presentation of facts?
  • Where do young people get to apply what they learn in museums?
  • Who do young people turn to in order to learn new facts?
  • Why should libraries or musuems continue to exist in the face of new technologies?

Major themes in this area have been identified as location, the way young people interact with the things to learn, and the way that information is structured to present to young people. There are also a number of other ways a child-friendly environment is created, especially the speech, appearance and interaction young people have with adults. At home this can look like parents being home with their families, providing a safe and supportive environment for children to play, learn, grow, thrive and explore who they are, where they are from and how they interact with the world around them. My own experience has shown me that parenting is one of the most powerful ways to engage Youth Voice in our communities. UNICEF has done a great deal of work in this area, and their work on promoting child-friendly schools warrants applause; others have taken on this area, too. Other places include police departments, hospitals, and entire child-friendly cities. Jackie Naginey Hook, the executive director of Child Friendly Initiative, has talked with me in some depth about her work in State College, Pennsylvania, doing this right now.

The term “child-friendly” is abused, as well, as many marketers and others interpret “child-friendly” as anything that is entertaining, amusing, or otherwise fluffy and fun. This notion of childhood is nothing less than infantalizing, and it stigmatizes the very notion of what it means to be a young human being in the world by not allowing young people to be more or less than a commercialized version of themselves. However, less nafarious but more impactful is the abuse of this term in its daily usage by even the most well-intentioned adults.

This brings me back to how child-friendly environments relate to Youth Voice. Without expanding this post further, let me tease at what I’ll write about later: Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledges the rights of all young people to have a say in anything that affects them. Where does that figure into a world that adults routinely construct for children and youth, without children or youth?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth Marketing Blogs Tangent #3

In my continuing saga to rid the world of the crass commercialization of youth and the marketing of homogeneity, I would like to bring your attention back to YPulse. As some of you remember from my other forays into this conversation, I’ve got beef with people who sell youth, sell to youth, and promote the manipulation of Youth Voice as a marketing tool. I stand against the commercialization of childhood and youth-dom, and YPulse, along with several other blogs, does this very thing with exacting science and precision analyses. Frankly, I am scared of the power of Anastasia Goodstein, its founder and operator.

Goodstein has shown deft skill at defining and driving youth consumption, particularly as it relates to popular culture and technology usage. She is joined by a small bevy of other bloggers* * * * who do this for a living, and honestly they all have their interesting moments. But Goodstein’s successful marketing of herself as the Carrie Bradshaw of teen marketing is what puts a briar in my britches. Profiteering off mass explotation bothers me – call me particular that way. Perhaps what bothers me most is that it appears that Goodstein got her start from a righteous place: she started her work at Teen Voices, a Boston nonprofit youth media organization. Bleh.

Oh, and let me be clear: this isn’t just about the blogs. Goodstein has a book, as well as several conferences every year. More than a half dozen other other youth marketing conferences* * * apparently want to grow up to be half as influential as Goodstein. Her website is up there, too, ranking 171,334 in total popularity across the Internet. That’s compared to the Best Buy Corporation’s @15 website, which competes with the nonprofit YouthNoise, and ranks in at just over 10,389,000 in popularity. These say nothing of the beer-promoting websites Goodstein also promotes on her youth marketing blog* *. Classy.

Admittedly, there is a lot to learn from what the Youth Voice marketers have done, as well as their analyses. DK, a thorough social marketing maestro from the UK who routinely brings his expertise stateside, is one of the people in this area I watch closest. I readily credit his Mediasnackers with teaching me a great deal about my own work, even if – or especially because – he is a marketing expert. The difference between his work and Goodstein’s, though, is that from DK I get the sense that there is a genuine commitment to actually bettering the lives of young people through better marketing. With Goodstein, not so much. I get that it is about bettering the lives of the marketers involved, rather than the people they’re targeting.

Let’s remember why Youth Voice matters – because it comes from young people and benefits all of us. In this same way I would challenge many youth marketers to remember why their work matters – because it benefits more than them individually. As Dr. King implored us, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Let’s keep that in mind no matter what our angle is.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

New Youth Voice Toolkit!

Announcing a new resource for Youth Voice activists and practitioners around the world: The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit! The Toolkit includes:

  • Youth Voice Glossary
  • Assumptions about Youth Voice
  • Principles of Youth Voice
  • Keys to Youth Voice
  • Cycle of Youth Voice
  • Guidelines for Youth Voice
  • Honoring Youth Voice
  • Youth-Adult Relationships Sprectrum
  • Cycle of Youth Voice
  • Discrimination Against Youth Voice
  • Myths About Youth Voice
  • Youth Voice Assessments

There is also an extensive collection of resources and other tools. Explore it at

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

More on the Prevention Summit

I forgot to mention that these last two days I’ve been at the Washington Prevention Summit. The Summit, held annually for a long time, is a gathering of youth and adults who participate in alcohol and other drug prevention activities across the state. There is a hodgepodge of communities represented among the 700 participants here, including urban, rural, suburban and exurban youth who are hispanic, American Indian, black and white, with the wide majority of them being low and middle income youth. These are the “anti-” groups, standing against so mny things with built on largely prejudicial and biased data analyses * * *, dated slogans, utterly hip marketing campaigns *, and fun, well-meaning but hollow and ineffectual activities. Ah, such its so nice to attend a good conference every now and then.

In the name of transparency, let me be forthright and tell you that I’ve participated and facilitated these activities before. This is what 19 years of youth work has given me: the perspective to be able to say that, indeed, I’ve done wrong by young people. I’ve messed up. Alas, here I am to publicly genuflect, make sincere amends and propose a new way forward. My earlier post is one way. Another is the eight years I’ve spent advocating specifically for youth engagement throughout society, including schools. I have even keynoted at this very conference, where last year I keynoted [pdf] on meaningful youth involvement.

That’s why I’m excited that this year there are a variety of workshops that span a range of issues that matter to me, and that I think may change the face of this field. “How to work with those pesky adults,” “Using media to work with youth,” and my “Make it meaningful” workshop stand next to more traditional topics like, “Kickin’ ash,” “Marijuana truths,” and “Destination graduation.” I won’t claim this as a 100% success – but its hard not to see it as a step forward.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

A World Without Youth Issues

I have been conscious of presidential elections since 1992, when Bill Clinton was making his first run for president and I was a junior in high school. That year was the first time I heard of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit hooked up closely to MTV, where I heard their message. Its not that my house had MTV – we didn’t – but a lot of my friends did, and that’s where I got the feed. (Since then MTV has expanded their interest into youth activism, all suspect for the consumerist bent, but hey – who else is talking about it?)

Anyway, since then the marketing, aka voter drives, to get youth voters engaged in the electoral process has become much more intensive. This year that 16-year campaign comes to fruition, as media and pollsters show young people are more interested than ever before, more youth are going to vote than ever before, and Obama is going to win by a landslide because of youth voters.

But these sources are downplaying the substance of the so-called “youth vote.” Along with the realization that there is no such thing as one “youth vote,” young people increasingly identify their disenfranchisement within a political system that does not acknowledge the unique needs, perspectives, actions or wisdom of youth.

Politicians try to acknowledge this imbalance by actively speaking to the issues all young people care about, like education and the wars. However, the disjuncture between that rhetoric and the realities faced by children and youth today has to do with politicians’ sources for learning about those issues. Rather than relying on simplistic polls and research summaries by their lackeys, politicians need to listen to young people themselves to learn what they care about and how they care about it and how they think it should change. Only then will the youth vote have any substance.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Democracy Building in the United States

The institutions, culture and public policy that drive our society needs to be transformed so that adults and young people share roles more equitably within government, communities, workplaces, and families. With that assumption firmly intact, the development of new cultural and structural avenues to foster the active participation of children and youth takes a firm light. Such avenues might include the following:

Horizontal, non-authoritarian attitudes between young people and adults. This takes the form of stopping the discrimination against children and youth inherent in adultism. Dismantling oppressive cultures and structures that discriminate against young people is no small charge, with the systematic disenfranchisement facing children and youth thoroughly entrenched in all corners.

Fully-democratic positions for young people throughout society. The institutions we rely on to support and sustain democracy must be made completely accommodating towards children and youth. This extends beyond government, and includes schools, hospitals, nonprofits, policing, etc.

Restructuring of educational opportunities. The introduction, infusion, deepening, reflection and critical examination of democracy is a taught thing that must be reinforced throughout the schooling, working, out-of-school, and other activities all people are engaged in.

These are three massive ideas that have to be thoroughly examined, and unfortunately this little blog isn’t the best place for that to happen. The evolution of young people is simultaneously motivated by and motivating of the advancement of technology throughout society. Wikipedia, videocams, Facebook, cell phones and other sorts of developments are encouraging the development of democracy that is more than participatory; instead, it is owned. An owned democracy – and not one that is owned by corporate overlords, either, although its a slippery slope between popular ownership and corporate ownership. Walking that slippery slope is essential, the nature of our society requires walking that thin line constantly: democracy in an evolving society cannot be enshrined. In that same way, neither are young people static. More than ever, they refuse to sit still or wait. Instead, they’re rapidly moving forward at a pace that we must strive to stay caught up to. Deliberate democracy building must be geared towards youth engagement.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Democratic Education Workshops

At the International Democratic Education Conference in Vancouver last week I had the privilege of facilitating three open space workshops. The three were all exhilarating conversations, filled with questions and criticisms, hope and idealism, and contradictions. The people I met and the dialogues we engaged in will stay with me for a long time.

Following are the descriptions I wrote of those sessions, and links to the conference website. I believe they are mostly true-to-form for each of the workshops. I would love to continue having these dialogues, or to start new versions in different spaces. The internet could be a powerful tool to deliberate on any of this.

Ripple Effects: From Democratic Schools to Democratic Societies

How can democratic schools culture ripple into the larger world?

How can the culture and learning students experience in democratic schools ripple into the larger world? Participants in this workshop will explore powerful new roles for students in communities around the world where they are creating, facilitating and examining democracy in local groups, community organizations, governments, the Internet, and global decision-making avenues.

This workshop will push the boundaries of where democratic schools stop and democratic societies begin. Beginning from the belief that radical democracy is practical, purposeful and necessary in today’s society, participants will explore connections between democratic schooling and the so-called “real world.” Experience and critical examination will be the goal, with community youth councils, youth-led media, participatory youth action research, and the many, many different ways young people are engaging in democracy at the center of the discussion.

Public democratic schools: Baby steps to a revolution

Finding entry points for infusing the principles of democratic education into publicly-financed mainstream schooling.

Participants in this workshop will plumb their own experiences in public schools in order to find entry points, inspiration and ideas for infusing the principles of democratic education into publicly-financed mainstream schooling.

This workshop is for participants who have had experience in public schools who want to change public schools. Rather than focusing on the mistakes of public schools in the last eight years, this workshop will take a wide view by examining where public education has come from over the last 100 years, from John Dewey to present. Participants will share their experiences in public schools and use them to reflect, critique, and propose radical new departures in which students experience learning through democracy.

Democratic mechanisms vs. Democratic culture

Educators create schools with democratic systems that fit their visions for democratic education. But is democratic learning more than that?

Well-meaning educators create schools, and within those walls have student councils, classroom voting and self-evaluations that fit their visions for democratic education. But is democratic learning more than that?

Participants in this workshop will explore the difference between the machinations of democratic schooling and the culture of democratic learning. With an emphasis on critical examination, participants will talk about the purposes and differences between having democratic activities, or mechanisms, and creating and sustaining democratic cultures. Where do the two approaches work together, or does the nature of structured schooling disallow them from co-existing? Where and when does democratic culture in schools fall apart?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Young People as Inevitable

This is post 1 of 5 exploring popular perceptions of young people today.

Over the next few blog entries I’m going to write about what the common motivations are for engaging children and youth. Today I start with seeing young people as inevitable.

There’s this idea out there that somehow young people are inevitable and that’s why we’ve got to listen to them. Everybody was a young person, lots of people are going to make young people, everybody needs to listen to young people.

The problems with this perspective starts with the assumption that young people are just an extension of adults. By sourcing our understanding of children and youth within ourselves, we disassociate ourselves from what is different in them, making it okay to deny who they are in order to make them just like us. This downplays the racial, cultural, social, religious, economic, and other differences between young people and the adults who work with them.

Then, in order to continue to work with the people who are different then us, adults come to see children and youth as sources of entertainment. It becomes okay to mimic the African American youth who hang around the gym after school; it becomes okay to laugh behind the back of a youth who flubs up word usage during a meeting.

In the same way, seeing young people as inevitable makes it okay to reduce their role in society to that of income generator, as demonstrated by the entire field of youth marketing. In this capacity there are dozens of businesses that profiteer from treating youth as a simplistic time of life in which the desires and dreams of an entire market segment can be distilled into sound bites and visuals that appeal to the mass market that was created for distribution. This may be the most cynical and pervasive view of youth today, as countless schools, nonprofits and foundations have adopted businesses’ perspective of youth as consumers, and outcomes as the “bottom line” in their production operations. Its a pretty demeaning reality youth face today.

There are lots of other ways that young people are viewed, to be sure, and I will explore those more in my coming blog entries. I just wanted to open the door with this view, which I fear is most common.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Beautiful people and youth voice

A recent article in the New York Times explores the scientific and anecdotal reality of the effects of beauty on getting hired and advancing in jobs. In what may come as no surprise, it seems that beautiful people with nice hair/teeth/eyes/hands/bodies/smiles/etc., get better jobs and promotions than the rest of us.

While it seems like a superficial consideration, I am intrigued by how this notion affects youth voice. Which young people consistently trend “above” the rest of their peers? Who do we give more chances and provide more supports for? It might be fast and easy to say, “I don’t do that,” but take a moment and mentally scan through the young people you work with or hang around. In my experience I have seen that the beautiful ones, with symmetrical faces or nice hair or whatever, are also the ones who often stand at the front of the crowd.

Who are these youth and how do they get there? Since they appear more self-confident, surely they’re just born to it, right? Probably not. If we accept the notion that the beautiful wheel gets oiled first, then it may be easy to see how these children and youth are nurtured towards the leadership roles that are so frequently associated with youth voice.

A quick exploration of your own practice may lead to some insights, and frankly, I can’t offer any quit solutions, because this isn’t a problem that can be solved by those. We have a society that is bound up in superficial markers that allow and encourage us to choose class presidents, gang leaders and camp counselors based on beauty. While I do believe that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world,” I am not willing to foist this on the shoulders of youth voice alone. But I do believe every person reading this can do something. So what are you going to do?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Interesting News Items

Here’s some interesting news items as I get ready to come back from my late spring hiatus.

“Kids from higher income households just aren’t going into the labor market. They’re looking for things to put on résumés, and working at Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart just isn’t going to help you get into Wake Forest or Stanford. And they just don’t need the cash.” – An economist on the decline in teenage employment.

In other news, the Worcestershire Youth Cabinet in the United Kingdom is trying to convince local adults they aren’t trying to cause trouble – they’re just trying to get heard. There was a youth summit in Canton, Ohio last week where topics included recreation, youth employment, gangs, youth violence, drugs and alcohol, education, families, housing, teen pregnancy, respect, and entertainment and the media. Youth Today has exposed that the US federal government’s call for orgs to get juvenile justice money wasn’t really a competition – they already had their minds made up. My heroes at Future Voters of American are looking to score a HUGE victory in lowering the voting age in New York State. “Ain’t no power like the power of the youth cuz the power of the youth don’t quit.”

Evoke is a new youth-oriented magazine in Canada (but as always, I’ll remain suspicious of their intent to market youth culture to youth). In what may become an unfortunate new trend, Newtownabbey, United Kingdom might end their youth council because of an apparent lack of interest by local youth. Summarizing his 15 years experience analyzing it, sociologist Mike Males has called the American Media “a cesspool of anti-youth misinformation.” Speaking of which, the Nation magazine is hosting a youth writers contest. A new website called “Its Getting Hot In Here” features “dispatches from the youth climate movement” and offers a variety of posts from across the spectrum, including a recent piece exploring biofuels(!).

The UK Youth Parliament is concerned this month about whether voting will be made mandatory and they continue to shine the light on the British media’s phobia against youth. The 2008 CineYouth Festival is on in Chicago and the schedule has been posted. It seems someone has written a (brief) history of the so-called “youth vote” – as if youth vote in a bloc for the same things – but yes, I do get the point. Young people in Jamaica got together in a USAID-funded program to support national development in their country. (It always amazes me to see the US gov’t fund youth involvement and youth voice programs overseas, while spending almost no money on them here in the States.)

Finally, from The New York Times, here’s a former editor for a big gossip website on why she stopped blogging:

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

I will be back shortly – that I know.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!