How Can Play Rebalance Power in Design?

Lessons from the Billion Girls Make-a-thon

By: Courtney Chang and Linda Dounia Rebeiz

Programs for teens are usually designed by a room full of adults. What does it look like for girls to drive that conversation? How would girls’ sexual health solutions change if we followed their visions, aspirations, and know-how? 

We launched the Billion Girls CoLab to design sexual and reproductive health (SRH) solutions in more collaborative, grassroots, and ultimately girl-centric ways—because we believe that girls should have the space and tools to drive the design of the services that affect their lives. 

However, it’s not always easy to shift the way we collaborate. Not all girls feel comfortable opening up about their most private questions or taking the lead in front of adults, and organizations aren’t always set up to harmonize different perspectives and practices. In order to unlock new possibilities for adults to listen to girls and for girls to imagine a different future, we need to work differently. 

Play can be a powerful tool. Picture two people playing. What does their body language look like? Are they seeing eye to eye? Do they look a little awkward? If so, do they care? There are so many unspoken rules when we engage in play: we suspend disbelief, we seamlessly take on new characters, and even lose our self awareness. 

In January, we held a one-day make-a-thon” in Nairobi with program managers, designers, and girls to build a series of prototypes that would address adolescent girl health and wellness. In reflecting on the day, we saw how engaging in play ultimately helped shift power dynamics between girls and adults. This lighthearted approach to making helped the whole group build empathy, explore taboo topics, and imagine a future without constraints. 

Play Incubates Empathy

In some instances, public and school toilet facilities in Kenya are not girl friendly—and the lack of privacy, safety, options for disposal of menstrual products, and running water can keep girls from going to school or work comfortably. One of the biggest reasons is the under representation of women in toilet construction, design, and engineering. So we invited one of the teams to build a prototype that would build empathy for those who don’t menstruate. 

The team transformed a room with wall-to-wall windows into a make believe bathroom, where boys and men could experience public toilets from a girl’s perspective. They called it the Macho Choo, or visible toilet”—a place that lacked bins and running water, and that was completely exposed. People standing outside giggled and pointed as participants inside felt the embarrassment and inconvenience that many girls face when using non girl-friendly latrines. It was a playful prototype for some, but a visceral experience that created a lasting impression on others.

Play creates a safe space to explore taboo topics. 

Early in the day, we had an adult-facilitated brainstorm about sex education that was meet with uncomfortable silence; however, when we transitioned into the prototyping with craft supplies, the tone completely changed. One girl cut a scarlet paper in the shape of a vagina to her group’s delight. Before long, the entire group was cutting colored paper into vaginas of different shapes and sizes for an exhibit in the vagina museum they built and called it House of Nunu, slang for House of Vaginas.” This museum also featured a display of life size contraceptive methods, confessional booths for private questions about sex, exhibits to demystify female pleasure, and a fallopian tube rowboat trip to learn about fertility.

It was evident that girls craved safe spaces and learning moments with a dash of whimsy. As adults facilitating those early sessions, we were dangerously close to taking their initial discomfort as a false assumption that girls wouldn’t want a space like this. Playful making allowed girls to explore notoriously cringe‑y topics with ease, make sense of their experiences, and express what they want on their own terms.

Play frees the imagination to dream beyond constraints.

In response to the question How would you like contraception products to be delivered in the future?’, one team designed the Diva Drone. Their drone service delivered small packages, composed of three layers: the first two layers acted as decoys that protected the privacy of their rightful owner and the last layer held the contraceptive method. This single artifact expressed a clear vision for a future where privacy, safety, and security are in the hands of girls. Here, play offered girls and program designers a blank slate to work from, free from the typical technological constraints or a notion of what is possible today. 

When we play, we silence our inner critics and allow ourselves to imagine a wildly different, seemingly inconceivable reality. Whatever it is that we dream up might not be what we build, but it lays lofty foundations for a more optimistic future. 

At the make-a-thon we realized that playful making puts the motivation and the interest of girls first, and encourages designers and organizations to explore alongside them, fundamentally shifting the power in program design. We’re inspired by the ways in which incorporating play can shape better products, services, and experiences for girls’ health. 

Relive the make-a-thon through this detailed report. 

About the Billion Girls CoLab: At the Billion Girls CoLab, we create the space for girls to imagine their futures and then catalyze a network of actors to bring those visions to life. We are changing the paradigm for who sets the agenda and who drives solution development for adolescent girl health. 

Go Deeper