Reflections: roles of adults in design processes involving children

Considering the role of the child as process designer demands a thorough reflection on the implications for the role of the adults who are involved in the design process. Makheava et al [24] state that staying attentive to the situation and being flexible about balancing structures and freedoms is important in design processes involving children. Design researchers need to stay agile in the process and deal with uncertainties by depending on their tacit knowledge (cf. Schön’s [29] reflection-in-action). While several typologies have been developed to discuss the roles of children and designers or design researchers in PD processes, the roles of adult stakeholders – such as teachers, parents or, in our case, youth workers – have remained underexplored; there is not a specific, well-defined set of roles that is widely referred to in the literature (Benton & Johnson, 2015; Barendregt et al, 2018).

In the literature that does exists on adult roles in design processes involving children, the role of the adult is typically discussed in terms of facilitating the children’s role or collaborating with the child-participants in the design process (Benton, 2013). Both Molin-Juustila et al (2015) and Benton and Johnson (2015) have acknowledged the importance of other influential participants besides the children. The latter (Benton & Johnson, 2015) have identified five roles that adults can play when doing design with children which special educational needs, being facilitators, motivators, care-givers, proxies, and co-designers and design partners. The model of Benton and Johnson (2015) has been complemented with the roles of playmate and friend (Dreessen & Schepers, 2018), while Barendregt et al (2018) foreground the role of teaching staff when doing PD with children in special education.

Our findings from the ‘Junior Team 2018 – Stiemerbeekvallei’ case study has shown that the involved adults took on responsibilities and tasks that corresponded to roles described by existing literature. For instance, for the first design session the two involved youth workers prepared a game for the children to get to know each other, involving a bag of candy and a colour-coded set of questions concerning hobbies, family, and other personal information. Herein, the youth workers clearly took on the roles of facilitators, as proposed by e.g. Benton & Johnson (2015). They also participated in the design process as design partners (e.g. engaging in co-design with the children to work out their ideas), caregivers (e.g. making sure the children navigated through traffic safely during the bike tour) and playmates (e.g. through joining the children in a game of soccer). We also observed how the children as process designers searched for ways to take up these responsibilities typically linked to adult roles (e.g. preparing interviews for the play-outside-day). In this way, the role of process designer not only opens up the understanding of children’s roles but also foregrounds that certain adult-roles could be applicable or interchangeable to child-participants. Thus, we hypothesize that through engaging the children in a PD process in the form of process designer, new roles for adult participants might emerge; more research is needed into this.


Barendregt, W., Börjesson, P., Eriksson, E., Torgersson, O., Bekker, T., & Skovbjerg, H. M.: Modelling the roles of designers and teaching staff when doing participatory design with children in special education. Proceedings of the 15th Participatory Design Conference: Full Papers-Volume 1, p. 9 (2018)

Benton, L.: Participatory Design and Autism: Supporting the participation, contribution and collaboration of children with ASD during the technology design process. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Bath, United Kingdom (2013)

Benton, L., Johnson, H.: Widening participation in technology design: A review of the involvement of children with special educational needs and disabilities. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 3, p. 23-40 (2015)

Dreessen, K., Schepers, S.: The roles of adult-participants in the back-and frontstage work of participatory design processes involving children. Proceedings of the 15th Participatory Design Conference: Full Papers-Volume 1. ACM (2018)

Molin-Juustila, T., Kinnula, M., Iivari, N., Kuure, L., Halkola, E.: Multiple voices in ICT design with children – a nexus analytical enquiry. Behaviour & Information Technology 34, 11, pp. 1079–1091 (2015)

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