By closely attuning to and revealing children’s interests, languages and insights – rather than merely acknowledging, managing or re-directing them – practitioners can open up a plethora of pathways, sensed and created by children. Pathways for new knowledge, collective meaning-making and alternative ways of being in the world – that are often far greater in energy and integrity than our own ready-made answers and directives.

In this way Froebel anticipated the invitation of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who offers us, and children, the following invitation:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions…”

Case study

Hamzah invites a group of children out for a walk through the city. It hasn’t been planned long in advance. Hamzah is responding to a child’s request shortly beforehand to go and see the castle following a story they have read together. He knows the group well and trusts their capacity to make safe choices as they walk, stick together and look after each other. He knows they will share this knowledge in embodied ways with the new and younger children that are joining them.

Before they leave, Hamzah’s new colleague tries to get everyone holding hands in pairs outside the nursery door, but several choose not to. Hamzah responds that he is noticing how some children seem to want their free space just now, and wonders aloud “How shall we keep everyone safe while we walk?” One or two children respond directly, but he also sees that some older children are naturally offering their hands to younger ones, while others are thinking hard about how to position themselves so they can see the group and retain their independence at the same time (a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives, Hamzah thinks!). Hamzah is happy for the question to stay “open”, anticipating that they will return to it together as they encounter different situations along their way.

The group sets off, with Hamzah inviting his colleague to join him at the edge of the group and asking “So, which way shall we go?” Some of the children make a decision together to walk via a nearby garden, and other seems happy to follow, but on the way the group takes several detours down small, appealing alleyways… and discover a treasure trove of places and interesting objects they have never seen before. One child complains that they need to get to the castle, but before Hamzah responds another child has drawn them in to look at a statue of a “pirate”. Because Hamzah does not have an end destination in mind, it is easy to go slowly. They enjoy a long conversation with a local shopkeeper about the rain that has fallen outside her shop and the puddles it has made. She tells them her name, and on future walks some children remember her and ask if they can go and say hello.

The children don’t make it to the castle that day. On the way back to nursery they see a group from another setting walking with their adults. “Why are they walking on a lead?” asks Esme. “Why are they wearing those [high-visibility] jackets?”.

The following week in the team meeting the colleague who came with Hamzah asks when they should be “making” children hold hands outside the nursery. An important conversation follows, with real openness to listen and learn from each other, and the team agree several steps they can take together to build their own confidence to give children more trust and freedom when they go out on community walks.

Q: Does the word “participation” do justice to this kind of pedagogy? What other language or words might we use to describe Hamzah’s practice?

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