City of children
Development
Mar 14, 2024

Children’s Dream City: An Exercise in Imagination & Empathy (video)

Young people participating in a social experiment demonstrate how imagination encourages connection, room for growth, and can inspire real social change.

By Templeton Staff with Usina da Imaginação

Imagine a city full of cable cars, trails, and cycle paths instead of streets; community gardens and streets lined with fruit trees; a kinder population with less swearing, and even a park featuring dinosaur fossils to dig! 

These ideas are from the minds of young people in Brazil, participating in workshop exercises designed by Usina da Imaginação. The workshops, which involved children aged 7 to 15, from different socioeconomic realities in Florianópolis-SC, Brazil, took place during the pandemic. 

The social distancing and interruption of routine throughout this time was especially taxing on young people, who need social interaction to develop. But, the disruption also opened up a space for contemplation, say Kurt Shaw and Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva, the co-founding Executive Directors of Usina da Imaginação. The “Dream City” exercise helped young people to engage with their imaginations, each other, and their potential future, in a period of isolation and diminished in-person social contact.

Usina da Imaginação has been accompanying children and families at the margins of society to tell their stories and produce audiovisual media with them for more than 2 decades. The organization also conducts studies, offers communications training, and works with campaigns and advocacy in favor of early childhood, aiming to influence public policy and promote human flourishing. In late 2019, they were awarded a Templeton World Charity Foundation grant to study if and how participatory art and film making would cultivate empathy among children across socio-economic divides.

For this phase of the project, Usina da Imaginação held a series of playful workshops with children that featured narration, models, toys, and a lot of imagination. The team asked the kids to imagine a city where they dream of living, and to describe its features through words, recorded as video interviews, and sculpturally, through the creation of dioramas.

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Young people participating in a social experiment demonstrate how imagination encourages connection, room for growth, and can inspire real social change. Cidade das Crianças (City of Children) / Usina da Imaginação; Watch the video with the above player. (The cc button on the bottom right of the video player reveals English subtitles.)
 

“Why should we listen to children? They have a unique sensitivity. They see things that adults don’t because we have so many demands on us.” - Rita da Silva, Usina da Imaginação

“Why should we listen to children? They have a unique sensitivity. They see things that adults don’t because we have so many demands on us,” says da Silva.

The team asked the young people to imagine encountering, empathizing, and forming connections with children from different social backgrounds in the dream city.

Watch the video with the above player.

“The kids insisted that the city itself needs to change in order to promote these kinds of interactions: not just when adults or schools plan them, but spontaneously in parks and on the street,” says Shaw. “For these children, a good life in the city must take seriously the botanical etymology of flourishing. For them, a kind city full of democratic encounters demands trees and parks, playgrounds with mysterious thickets and dinosaur bones hidden in the sand. They also imagined a city with wild places full of birds, mammals, fish, and flowers. Across social boundaries, children agreed that human flourishing could only happen in the midst of nature’s flowering.”

The children then participated in urban planning workshops and public hearings to develop and promote an amendment to the city constitution to include children’s voices in urban planning decisions. City Council members and cultural leaders from across the political spectrum joined the movement; the mayor himself signed on in a special session of the Children’s Film Festival of Florianópolis.

“The project shows that children’s perspectives offer new methods to promote human flourishing; that their utopian thinking can show the need to find structural and even architectural interventions to promote human — and natural — flourishing,” shares da Silva. “Children’s enthusiasm and hope can inspire real social change, even in the midst of political polarization.”

In addition to the “Children’s Dream City” part of the project, Usina da Imaginação’s work from this grant facilitated numerous paintings and songs with the children, and more than 40 films including interviews, music videos, and 2 pieces of filmed fiction.