Urbanar[t]: a learning experience to bring the city and urbanism to children

In Peru, since the first major waves of rural-urban migration in the 1930s, an informal and community-based “model” of urban expansion has dominated the country’s cities. This self-built style has resulted in an unstable, crude, and unfinished built environment that puts city dwellers, including children, at risk. This difficult reality has served as the backdrop and justification for a series of workshops for children on urbanism under the project name Urbanar[t]. The aim of the initiative is to introduce concepts of urbanism using a creative methodology, in which children identify the characteristics of their environment and learn to evaluate and take care of the city they live in.


Desde la década de 1930, con la llegada de migraciones hacia las más importantes urbes peruanas, se estableció un “modelo” de asentamiento caracterizado por la informalidad y la autoconstrucción, que se ha constituido en un escenario vulnerable, precario e inacabado que afecta a la población y con ello a la niñez. Esta realidad inquietante abre la posibilidad de compartir conocimientos relacionados a la ciudad desde Urbanar[t]: Taller de Urbanismo Infantil, una iniciativa que muestra conceptos y criterios generales desde una metodología lúdica, observando las características e identidad del contexto, un pretexto para educar, valorizar y cuidar el entorno próximo que es la ciudad.


Peru covers a diverse geography of coasts, highlands, and tropical forests, and while settlements can be found across all of these wonderful ecosystems, Peruvians mainly live in cities. According to Peru’s institute for national statistics (INEI 2018), 79.3% of the population lives in urban areas, and 20.7% in the countryside. This high number of city dwellers becomes a cause for concern when the informal and unplanned development of Peru’s cities and the subsequent risks for their inhabitants is taken into account (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

City living and childhood in the city. Source: The author.


The situation in Peruvian cities has led Project “Llaxta Wawa Peru” to ask the question of why urbanism is not included in formal and informal education curricula for children living in cities. This concern has been incorporated into one of the Project’s main research objectives in which it has run urbanism workshops for children under its Urbanar[t] initiative. The workshops use different concepts of urbanism to gain a better understanding of children’s knowledge, experience, and opinion in relation to the city, always mindful that the conditions of Peruvian cities present a complex and difficult environment for children’s growth and development. The main goal of the initiative is to promote urbanism as a potential field of education, demonstrating its usefulness as a tool to support the development of cognitive, attitudinal, and procedural skills in children. A secondary goal was to find alternative solutions to the problems present in Peruvian cities.

This article summarizes the structure and dynamics of the workshops, which start from an understanding of the reality of the city, which is then used as the basis of the workshop activities drawn from different fields. The city neighborhood, as a valuable space for learning, was used as the principal unit of analysis. The article also presents the teaching methodology used, and finally, it explores the potential of the experiences gained in the workshops made possible by the wider community, the education authorities, and public and private institutions that have worked together on behalf of the children.

We hope that the experience of Urbanar[t] will inspire other professionals to embark on work with children on issues of urbanism. We believe that the project has the potential to function in different contexts and realities. As a long-term mission, we want to add more ambitious objectives to the initiative in order to lay the foundations for optimism, wellness, and change for children as well as other social groups living in different urban contexts.

Llaxta Wawa Peru. Urbanism and Children’s Architecture

From its founding in 2005, the Llaxta Wawa Peru project has had many varied and productive experiences working with children in different contexts across the country. Its mission is to promote the teaching of architecture and urbanism, as sciences which are often sidelined, and whose educational potential is generally ignored.

The project’s activities engage in work on three fronts: the first is the running of inclusive activities and intervention in communities with the aim of educating the population from childhood onwards on the benefits of urban planning. The second is to produce knowledge on the connections between childhood, architecture, and urbanism, which has been disseminated through academic events, articles in different media, and the author’s master’s thesis (Master candidate), titled “The city, the neighborhood and the home. Imaginaries of childhood in the settlement of Leticia and the urbanization of El Porvenir”. And the third is the running of urbanism and architecture workshops for children, a citizen education and training strategy that aims to overcome the predicaments facing Peruvian cities.

The Urbanar[t] initiative has established an ambitious and committed vision that it wishes to transmit to its main beneficiaries, children who live in a country that has drastic levels of informality in all areas of life. One of the effects of this informality is the devaluation of different urban settings due to an ignorance of city planning, urbanism, and architecture. By giving access to this information, the project seeks to improve the quality of life of the population, and foster a sense of optimism and hope in the children who participate in the project. This mission affords the organization motivation to continue its work.

Urbanar[t]: the city and urbanism for children

Cities represent one of the biggest challenges for society in the twenty-first century. The unstoppable and uncontrolled growth of cities are creating complex problems that need to be solved in order to overcome the physical and spatial barriers and social conflicts that affect urban populations, especially children, who are experiencing disruption to their current and future lives.

In order to solve these problems, we must close the gaps that exist in our knowledge of cities and urbanism, and new tools must be developed and more spaces created for collaboration between institutions, communities, and urbanism or architecture professionals.

Urbanar[t]: Urbanism Workshops for Children were set up in order to address some of these challenges and effect change, understanding that these problems present a great opportunity to work for the transformation of the city through a continuing process of participation with children in activities taking place across the country (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.

The city must address the needs of children. District of San Martín de Porres, Lima. Source: The author.


The child’s city

Peru’s urban areas have a complex and interesting history that has developed in stages from pre-Colombian times to the Republic. However, the cities embody many social problems that are still pressing today. One such problem is the informal settlements that comprise many city neighborhoods and epitomize the precarious conditions in which many children live, the result of exclusionary and aggressive urban development.

According to Wiley Ludeña Urquizo (2004), the current circumstances of the Peruvian city have been shaped through the work of three actors: the State, the private sector and the informal, self-built sector. The latter has been the predominant force in urban development and expansion since the first major waves of rural-urban migration started in the 1930s. This model of city construction that pays no heed to building regulations has remained the dominant model.

The self-built city has arisen due to a lack of access to housing, and has resulted in an urban environment that is constantly changing and precarious and vulnerable living conditions. Inhabitants of urban areas experience constant friction in an environment that is both elusive and aggressive (Calderón 2016).

The distribution of Peru’s population across its territory shows a distinct unbalance. The coastal strip covers just 12% of the country, yet it is home to 58.8% of the population. The highlands cover 28% of the territory, and host 27% of the population, while Peru’s tropical forests are wide natural spaces that cover 60% of the country, and are home to just 14.2% of the population. Peru’s cities have developed in this context of uneven population density (INEI 2018).

According to Cámara Peruana de la Construcción (2020), 68.5% of housing in Lima was informally built, a statistic that also conveys the unstoppable process of the city’s expansion through the illegal occupation of land. In a study by Álvaro Espinoza and Ricardo Fort (2020) for the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), they highlight that over 90% of urban expansion in Peru in the last two decades has been undertaken informally.

It is also important to take into consideration that, according to INEI data (2018), that 20.4% of Peru’s population are children. Over 6.7 million Peruvian children suffer from health issues like malnutrition, and child labor is still an issue in cities like Lima. Furthermore, children’s normal growth and development is limited by a lack of housing and primary services.

The city no longer has inhabitants, people no longer inhabit its streets, its spaces: the center has become a place for shopping, for performance, rather than life: the outskirts, on the other hand, is where we are supposed to live, but really, we only sleep there. The city has lost its vitality. The city has become something like the forest of fairytales (Tonucci 2006, 5).

This dynamic of informality belies a host of complex problems, such as transport chaos, less public spaces, and a crude urban aesthetic among many others, all of which affect children living in cities. These problems are obvious features of Lima and other cities in Peru which developed out of the illegal occupation of lands which were then built on in a chaotic and disorganized fashion. These self-built neighborhoods are also often unfinished and these qualities have produced a present-day scenario that sees citizens living in aggressive and exclusionary environments in which they feel rejected and apathetic (Matos Mar 1986).

It is important to note that the informal urban environment and its effects on children and childhood have been acknowledged, and efforts to work with children on improving their experience of the city have been embarked upon by a variety of Peruvian collectives and organizations, such as La Escuela Espacial, Chiquiarquitectos, Trazo Verde, Urko, Crea+, Ania, Arkitecto Escolar, Amor y Servicio, Aula, Aynimundo, Anidare, Cite Urb, Iniciativa Libre, Aquí Jugamos Todos, among others. All of these initiatives share the conviction that the participation of children in urban development is important.

The neighborhood as a space for learning

The workshops start by exploring the knowledge that the children have of their city, and the different ideas and expectations that they have for the environment in which they are being raised. They were then asked to analyze possible activities and make their own proposals to improve city life for children, especially those in Lima (see Figure 3).

Figure 3.

The city represented by a child. Drawing by Nathaly Zúñiga P.. Source: the author.


These activities revealed that children saw their neighborhood as the place in which they felt most comfortable in the city, as they could interact and maintain relationships with friends, local residents, and other members of the community. Fernanda Torres (2014, 306) emphasizes that “although a place, in this case the neighborhood, can become a space in which the identity formation of social subjects are intertwined, this does not necessarily mean that there is a community with a high degree of personal intimacy deriving from co-habitation. Thinking in this way can lead to a certain fetishizing of the space”.

The identification of the three actors involved in developing the city (Ludeña Urquizo 2012) has helped Urbanar[t] understand the notion of the neighborhood better. The children too already have a certain understanding of the neighborhood, and so the initiatives have embraced the neighborhood as the location for the workshops, and also as the level at which ideas from urbanism can be applied in the activities (see Figure 4).

Figure 4.

The neighborhood imagined and represented by a child. Source: The author.


Urbanar[t]: a creative methodology for children to understand their city better

Urbanar[t]’s first experience working with children was its running of the Creative Children’s Art Workshop, an initiative to increase the population’s access to art, with innovative activities across the country in which participants could try their hand at drawing, painting, and sculpture.

From this experience we had started to understand that there was a need for children to engage with urbanism in a fun way, as children witness and come into contact with different urban realities, and these experiences are molded by their own personal situations. We came to realize that urbanism, as a science, was not widely known, nor was its valuable educational scope appreciated.

For these reasons, Urbanar[t] decided to design activities for children that support creative and imaginative development, and strengthen their personal and social capacities to improve their skills, mind, and body (Steiner s.f., 18).

The aim of the workshops is to encourage children to understand and learn about the city from their own perspective, especially in terms of the city’s infrastructure, dynamics, and the particular Peruvian urban identity that has emerged through the different stages of the country’s history.

Following Pallasma’s (2006) recommendations, the workshops impart manual activities in which the children construct two- and three-dimensional creations that convey their knowledge of their neighborhood, district, province, and metropolis. This strategy was employed to aid the child’s mental development, with the idea that when they are drawing, painting, cutting paper, and assembling the different elements, they are processing their thoughts and comprehending their environment. It also allows children to practice psychomotor skills, expressing their view of the city and the meaning in their daily life through arts and crafts (see Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Urbanar[t]: Urbanism Workshops for Children, children participating in the activity at I.E. 2036 María Auxiliadora, Independencia district, Lima. Source: The author.


The urbanism workshops have the following objectives:

  • Effect change in areas with a problematic built environment and social conflicts that affect children living in the city.

  • Share knowledge on how the city can become a space for whole-child development.

  • Impart interactive activities on urbanism and its concepts, recognizing these as tools for education and civic training.

  • Encourage the participation of different actors, social groups, and institutions to improve quality of life in cities, as part of a continuing social project working with the population from early-years childhood and beyond.

Urbanar[t]: creative methodology to analyze the city

The workshop uses a qualitative methodology of urban analysis appropriate for the different realities across the country, inspired by the work undertaken by children. It is structured to support the exploratory, descriptive, and analytic scope of the activities and to incentivize each child’s ongoing process of reflection (Hernández, Fernández & Baptista 2010).

The process of Urbanar[t]: Urbanism workshops for children

Urbanism can complement the formation of cognitive skills through the creation of knowledge on urban concepts, and creative work in producing drawings and layouts. It can also influence attitudes in the way that the child’s identity is expressed through the creative and imaginative results of each activity (Zabala & Arnau, 2007).

  • Presentation. The science of urbanism is presented as a pedagogical and educational tool to enrich educational curricula and improve outcomes. Its importance and benefit for children is communicated to the adults present (teachers, parents, or the community in general).

  • Workshop plan. Each session has a duration of two hours and is guided by recreational strategies that impart theoretical, artistic, and creative concepts in an entertaining way. The neighborhood is used as a way of representing the city and introducing urbanism concepts.

  • Workshop activities. The children are invited to make drawings in which they communicate their observations of the urban environment, the district, and the province. They are invited to make value judgements and appraise the place in which they live.

  • Conclusions. Based on their drawings, the children build a model of their neighborhood with simple materials such as paper and cardboard.

The dynamics of Urbanar[t]: Urbanism workshops for children

Urbanar[t] seeks social involvement through the promotion of citizen participation in dynamics that go beyond the workshops (López 2008):

  • Children. The group of children who are the main beneficiaries of the workshop are part of a wider community. Their participation in the methodology of educational games and strategies affords them knowledge of the city and urbanism concepts.

  • Parents. Permission is always sought from parents for children to participate in the proposed activities.

  • Community. Children have the potential to influence the general population to seek to fulfil their needs and requirements and improve their quality of life by employing the ideas proposed by children. For this purpose, there has been a continual creation of community groups in each population that has worked with the project.

  • School. The project has used schools as its main working space, thanks to the permission of school authorities. The participation of teachers in the workshop will further reproduce its effects.

  • Volunteers. Each workshop tries to involve university students and other people interested in the topic of cities and urbanism. These individuals disseminate the project because they often invite the team to run workshops in other places.

  • City. The workshops are always run in a strategic place which is host to a specific problematic. The workshops seek to effect change in the social context and built environment through the knowledge the children take away from the sessions.

  • Institutions. The project has shared its results with private and public institutions (businesses and district municipalities) to raise awareness of urbanism education and the participation of children in city planning and development.

Structure of Urbanar[t]: Urbanism workshops for children

The workshop has three phases to aid children in processing their own experience of the city. Each phase seeks to explore their ideas in sequence through artistic representation:

Exploratory phase. For the workshop to take place, first an appropriate space must be found:

  • Coordination with a public or private institution that shares the aims of the workshop. Permission from children’s families is sought for their participation and also for photos and videos to be taken in the workshop.

  • Child participants and their social group are identified in the area of intervention, and participants are selected by age and education level. The workshop mostly works with children of between seven and eleven years old who are currently enrolled in primary school.

  • Call for participants and volunteers (architecture students) through social networks or marketing in the places of intervention.

Descriptive phase. The workshops use games to build confidence, present the ideas to be built on in the workshop and get children to start describing the environment in a positive and negative way:

  • Workshop introduced by the institution.

  • Urbanar[t] city recognition game. Children are asked to identify characteristics of different places in the country. Pedagogic resources such as images, drawings, plans, and layouts are used to teach basic concepts of the city and urbanism.

Analytic phase. The neighborhood is the space under discussion. According to their own analysis, each child talks about the features of their neighborhood and the scope and limits of these. The team tailors each workshop and its activities to the place in which it is taking place, based on prior interaction with the location and its population. “This opposition between territory/rest of the world introduces important categories for a communicational exploration of the territory: the notions of limits and borders, both linguistic and visual: the map, the diagram and how they are reconstructed within the territorial subjects…” (Silva 2006, 27).

  • The elaboration of drawings drives imaginative and creative development, as well as honing summarizing and orientation skills. This exercise also fosters a sense of belonging to a place, as it obliges children to frame the limits of territory they recognize from their own experience (see Figure 6).

  • Building activity. Through the construction of a three-dimensional model, the children represent their vision and considerations for the urban reality, communicating the conditions in the neighborhood and projecting their ideas for the future of the city (see Figure 7).

  • Presentation of the results. Individually, each child presents their drawing and 3D model of the neighborhood. As a group, the children have claimed a piece of the city as their own, with their different opinions assimilated into artistic objects (see Figure 8).

Figure 6.

A child’s idea of the city. Source: The author.

Figure 7.

Constructing and communicating the idea in three dimensions. Workshop at the Faculty of Architecture, Urbanism, and Arts at the National University of Engineering. Source: The author.

Figure 8.

Urbanar[t]: Urbanism Workshops for Children, an idea of the city in three dimensions. Source: The author.



  • In Peru, cities have grown through expansion enacted by three different sectors: the State, private enterprise, and the dominance of an informal “urban model” that has aggressively disrupted reality and shaped the built environment through illegal occupation of land. This situation has framed the vision of Urbanar[t] in its conviction that the city and urbanism are important topics to address with children.

  • Many Peruvian cities are located in beautiful settings, but due to informality there have problems which have dragged on for years. There are many initiatives that have sprung up in response to this situation and there are great opportunities to engage in direct action, something that Urbanar[t] is doing in order to effect change through the participation of children.

  • The experiences that have come out of the workshops are constantly being evaluated and reflected on by both the project organizers and the beneficiaries. The children and their communities can now use urbanism as a recreational and educational tool to understand different city environments.

  • Urbanar[t] has shown that urbanism can be employed as an exploratory, descriptive, and analytical methodology to support the development of attitudinal, procedural, and cognitive skills. This science has been progressed by the continual work of different actors and through its dissemination, the project aspires to make a country-wide impact through the proposal of programs and policies on behalf of children.



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