Froebel’s use of the word “demands” anticipates that – whether they are free or constrained – children will always challenge adult assumptions and prescriptions. This is not simply because they are “individuating” (the idea from developmental psychology that young people learn to say/embody separation to practice self-assertion), but because they are vitally indicating or demanding alternative and valid possibilities for how the world around them might be structured, and signalling what matters to them.

The child who seems rude and self-willed is often involved in an intense struggle to realise the [greater] good.”

Froebel in Lilley, 1967:51

Each person, each child has a particular gift which will become visible if circumstances are right and freedom for expression… is given.”

Liebschner 1992: 36

Case study

Xi is routinely running through the nursery, struggling to focus on any one activity and bumping into other children. For a while staff have been asking Xi not to run but it isn’t working – in fact, Xi will often run again within seconds of being asked not to.

Some staff wonder if Xi does not have enough boundaries at home and whether they need to impose them more consistently at nursery. Another team member wonders if they can observe any patterns to Xi's movement and decides to stay close by her that afternoon. However, there is no obvious cause as far as they can tell.

Just before home time, they ask Xi if she likes to run when she isn’t at nursery. “I play tig with daddy”, she says. The practitioner asks if Xi would like to play tig tomorrow. Xi nods enthusiastically. The next morning, the staff member asks her colleagues if the garden can be opened first thing to allow them to play tig with Xi. There is a discussion about this departing from their normal routine of circle time – which Xi isn’t able to sit still for – and of the risk that other children will want to go outside too, but the team agree that – as an experiment – circle time can start a little later that day.

When Xi arrives, she is invited to come outside and play tig. She initiates the game again several times throughout the day. When Xi is not playing tig, all the staff notice how much calmer and more focussed she seems. They agree to continue this experiment for the rest of the week. Eventually they decide that circle time doesn’t need to be mandatory, but to have more than one during the day so that children can choose if and when they want to join in. One day Xi decides to join the afternoon circle time and she contributes happily and peacefully throughout, even introducing her friends to a song in Farsi that her grandpa taught her.

For an alternative take on “behaviour policies”, and seeing children’s choices as communication, check out free The Froebel Trust pamphlet, Nurturing Self-Regulation.

When assumptions about children’s attitudes are drawn from their behaviour, then widespread mistakes can be made…

Froebel in Lilley, 1967:51


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