Contemporary Early Learning and Childcare policies routinely remind us about the importance of listening to “children’s voices”. One definition of participation is:

the degree to which the voice, contribution and agency of the child is acknowledged in their many relationships”

(Moosa-Mitha 2005).

We think of “voice” here as including all the expressions of children, both verbal and non-verbal. This is echoed in the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which are soon to be legally-binding in Scotland:

Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right applies at all times”

(UNCRC Article 12).

Both of these quotes emphasise that children’s participation is not just limited to what they might say, or to one or two narrow arenas – but everything that their lives, choices and perhaps even their silences and acts of non-participation express. Realising the Ambition requires us to become skilled at listening in this way, continuously:

We should recognise that children’s voices are communicated through much more than simply verbal means, no matter the age of the child. Therefore listening to young children should involve careful observation of movement and gesture alongside what they simply may say in order to give the child’s voice true context and meaning.”

(Scottish Government, 2020: 70)

Case study

John sees some children taking their shoes off in the nursery garden and worries that they may get hurt. He considers telling them to put their shoes back on, but decides this would violate their agency. Instead he goes closer to observe them and check the ground for any dangers. He sees that they are happy and calm, and he suspects that having their shoes off, while not part of any game, is somehow contributing to their sense of ease and depth of play. He asks one child how it feels to have the bare earth under their feet. “Squishy,” she says, smiling. John says “Is there anything on the ground that might hurt your feet today, without your shoes on?”. “You need to look out for sharp things!” says a child. “Let’s look out for sharp things”, says another.

Some of the children pause their play to investigate, with John nearby, trusting their skill and appreciating the care they show for each other as they search. Other barefoot children are continuing to play happily, and John is glad they haven’t been interrupted. Soon the garden floor is “okayed”, and the children searching for sharp things have begun to collect and compare small stones they have found in the process.

John reflects that the children had good reason to take off their shoes and were able to take care of themselves. He wonders if checking the garden floor for sharp things will become something they do together more regularly, or if this could be a job for one of the adults each morning so that the children can be free to make this choice without any unnecessary interruption.

- Where do you see children’s participation occurring in this case study?
- What would you have done in John’s situation?
- Is there anything you would take further with colleagues to promote even more freedom (with guidance) for children in similar situations?

Children’s Participation, A Toolkit – Table of Contents

1. What is participation     2. Limits of participation    3. Children’s resistances    4. Children’s right to shape the world    5. New worlds     6. A co-learning community     7. A new kind of citizenship     8. Resources