Teaching Tots What Makes Towns Tick

When Peter Sullivan, an urban planner, volunteered to give a career presentation to a class full of children – pre-kindergarten children – a dilemma suddenly arose in his mind – how do I make urban planning interesting and fun for a room full of kids? In an article he recently wrote on Planetizen.com, Sullivan recounted his experience between excitement and nervousness, along with overcoming the challenge of explaining to tots what it means to be an urban planner.

Peter Sullivan Urban Planning
source: Peter Sullivan

Surely this is a topic that can span generations and cognitive levels, right?

So how did he go about it? The challenge of teaching urban planning to a group of this age was a challenge that Sullivan took rather seriously. Parents with other professions can play a song, build a bird house, or bake a cake to captivate young audiences, but how would he demonstrate urban planning in a simple captivating way?

He contemplated why urban planning isn’t a more well known profession. Surely kids know what a neighborhood is, what a playground, skyscraper, or bike path is – but why don’t they readily know what an urban planner is? Like a chef, a construction worker, or a doctor, urban planners are essential workers in any community.

However, simplifying his profession would be a challenge. Sullivan notes that it is difficult to simplify the tasks of urban planning when discussing them with adults, so how could he simplify it even further for children?

First, he basically said what urban planning is: “Urban planning means making places better by putting the right things in the right places.”

Second, he basically said what urban planners do: “It is an urban planners job to decide which things – like buildings, roads and parks – should go in which places.”


source: Peter Sullivan

Sullivan presented the children with a book called Where Things Are from Near to Far – describing the four types of places: city, suburbs, countryside, and wilderness. After discussing what makes those places unique and what things might go in those places, Sullivan then brought out the heavy hitter: LEGO. Because what kid in their right mind doesn’t like LEGO? Or adult for that matter.

Overall, the presentation was a success. Sullivan critiques his presentation, noting things he would do differently next time and pointing out what worked.

His experience is best recounted by him, and this writer strongly encourages any novice interested in city planning to read his piece, as it is poignant, charming and heartfelt.

Feature image by Michael Jastremski for openphoto.net

Kyle Park Points

is a working father in New York City by way of Sarasota, Florida. He is a public transportation enthusiast, clean air advocate, lifetime recycler and frequent panderer. He also reluctantly tended to his family's compost heap for many formative years. He hopes to one day leave his daughter with a safer, healthier environment than when she was born - which shouldn't be hard since she was born in Queens, New York.