Participation in simple terms means to take part in something (Hornby 1995: 844). When referring to children’s rights, the concept is far broader. It is much more than simply asking children for their ideas or opinions. It is about listening to, respecting and understanding children, working in partnership with them, giving children the opportunity to actively make decisions that will result in their ideas becoming reality and their contributions bringing about positive change (Ministry of Social Development 2003).
Children’s participation is a right not an optional extra (Participation Works 2012). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) promotes a rights-based approach to children and states that these rights begin at birth (Alderson 2008: 83). Many of the 54 articles encompass child participation. Articles 6, 7 and 8 refer to a child’s right to life, to a name and to an identity (Unicef n.d). The right to a life, to be a part of society, to participate as a part of the human race make all other rights achievable (Alderson 2008). Article 7 states that every child should have a name and their name should be respected. Giving a child a name and an identity is recognising the child as a unique individual rather than the property of a parent or carer (Alderson 2008: 79).
One of the key articles that promote child participation is Article 12:
‘state parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with age and maturity of the child’ (Alderson 2008: 87).
Article 12 is about giving children the right to express their views and having them heard. This means actively listening to children by allowing them to communicate their thoughts, feelings or ideas and know that they will be taken on board and respected (Scott et al 2008: 51). There are many whom are critical of this article and are concerned that it may be interpreted in such a way as to manipulate certain situations (Scott et al 2008: 51). The article states that the views of the child will be given due weight in accordance with age and maturity (Alderson 2008: 87). Some feel this may mean that children under a certain age may not be taken seriously nor have their views heard (Scott et al 2008). Alderson believes that babies and very young children are able to express themselves in various ways and get great joy from making choices (2008: 88).
The UNCRC outlines child’s rights which protect children and promote welfare (Alderson 2008: 78). These rights illustrate how children and young people can actively participate and contribute to society (Alderson 2008: 78).
Childhood has changed significantly and this is primarily due to an alteration in society’s view of children rather than the children themselves (Miller 2003: 14).
Children have become the main focus in many households with parents and carers feeling the need to provide for their children in such a way that results in children feeling powerless (Miller 2003: 14). Adults may have a childhood ideal and attempt to enforce this onto their children. This may be an act of love but can do more harm than good (Miller 2003: 14). Adults may make decisions on a child’s behalf to spare them responsibility or by thinking the child is not capable of making those decisions. However this may result in a child feeling as if they have no control over their own life and may remain dependent rather than becoming confident and independent (Miller 2003:14). Decisions that may appear to be insignificant to adults such as what a child wears or what food they can eat, where they go to school or who they are allowed to play with are all extremely important and impact massively on the child’s life (Miller 2003: 15).
It is presumed that children are inferior and that adults know better (Miller 2003: 15). Adults may possess more life experience than children but that does not mean that they always know what is right for a child. How a child feels and what they feel is important to them at that moment coupled with adult support is key to establishing a positive outcome that will benefit the child (Miller 2003: 15).
Failing to allow child participation can be viewed as control or power. Many adults will use and abuse this power to gain something for themselves (Miller 2003: 15). Some adults may discipline or punish their children in a way that hurts or humiliates the child and will justify their actions as being essential in helping their child develop into a responsible citizen (Miller 2003: 15). In other cases children may be asked for their opinions or views only to have them ridiculed or dismissed.
Barriers to Participation
Involving children in decision making can be threatening or difficult for adults to achieve. This may be the case with parents/significant others, teachers or with anyone involved in working with children (Miller 2003: 17). Many worry that giving a child a voice and empowering them will lead to family difficulties and disordered classrooms (Alderson 2008: 92). Others find it hard to promote participation amongst younger children without being tokenistic (Scott et al 2008: 47). Some adults are of the opinion that child participation is dangerous and may put children at unnecessary risk (Miller 2003: 17).
However if all risks are considered and it is accepted that the child can cope with the risks then the experience would prove beneficial to the child (Miller 2003: 21). If a child is not allowed to take risks within a safe and supported environment they may never experience risk at all (Miller 2003: 21). Allowing children to assess and take risks empowers them and enables them to gain first hand life experience (Scott et al 2008: 49). Handing over complete responsibility and power to a child would not be viable as they would not have the necessary life skills to deal with such an ask (Miller 2003: 21). It is essential to provide support and guidance as well as set boundaries for children in order to protect and nurture whilst empowering (Scott et al 2008: 51).
It appears there is an unwillingness to allow children the opportunity to actively participate and this is portrayed well in Professor Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation. Hart’s ladder was devised as a tool for understanding and portraying different levels of participation. There are eight levels in total on the ladder with each step describing the level of child participation and the adult intervention (Scott et al 2008: 49). The first three steps are manipulation, decoration and tokenism (Scott et al 2008: 49). These refer mostly to adult led activities where children are used or are given a voice but are given very little choice or opportunity for input (Scott et al 2008: 49).
As the steps progress the level of adult intervention diminishes and child participation increases. Level 6 is adult initiated and refers to a working partnership between children and adults (Scott et al 2008: 49). Although the activity was initiated by the adult, the children play a part in decision making. The final step is level 8 which is child initiated (Scott et al 2008: 50). This is the step that allows children complete and total participation. They have initiated the project and have actively taken part in the decision making. They have chosen a project or activity that is relevant for them and one in which they feel they will bring about change (Miller 2003: 16 ). The adults take a back seat but are there to fully support and guide the children when necessary (Scott et al 2008: 50).
Child participation should be voluntary; the child should have the right to decide whether or not they want to take part (Miller 2003: 18). In order for children to make that decision they have to be informed about the decision making process and how it works (Miller 2003: 18). This will ensure they understand their own role as well as the roles of others (Miller 2003: 18). It is important for adults to recognise opportunities for child participation and to find ways of encouraging active involvement (Miller 2003: 21). Adults must consider a child’s experience, skills and needs as well as the impact these may have on others.
It is important to actively listen to children and to create a safe environment where children are able to express their views and feelings (Scott et al 2008: 51). To promote inclusion it is vital to reach those children and young people who do not readily participate in decision making such as children with disabilities or children with socioeconomic issues (Miller 2003: 19). Adults must identify barriers and try to break these down. Providing an easily accessible environment that is adapted to suit the needs of the children may be one way or providing information and resources in a format that suits the child, i.e. Braille or using sign language (Miller 2003: 19). Information should also be displayed and communicated in a child friendly manner, free from jargon or hidden agenda (Unicef n.d).
It is important to support and motivate children during active participation by keeping children informed and up to date (Unicef n.d). Letting children know how their efforts are impacting on a situation will keep them motivated and reassured that their voices are being heard and are making a difference (Unicef n.d).
There are many benefits to child participation such as giving children a sense of citizenship; they are using their voices to bring about change (Scott et al 2008: 49). Some other benefits include increased self-esteem and confidence, a sense of being valued and respected, greater responsibility, gaining practical, language and presentation skills and inspiration and motivation (Scott et al 2008: 49). This will in turn impact on the wider society by encouraging citizenship; promote democracy and influence policy (Miller 2003: 17).
I feel child participation is vital in ensuring all children are listened to, valued and respected as individuals and as citizens of society. I aim to encourage participation in my workplace setting by actively listening to the children and ensuring I am always available to the children. I will respect the children’s feelings and views and actively acknowledge their feelings in a positive manner. I feel it is important to involve children in decision making and planning. When planning activities I will ensure they are child led and that the children have expressed their interest in the area or topic or have suggested an activity or topic.
I will do this by having discussions with the children and asking open questions to ensure children have the opportunity to express their own opinions and thoughts. I believe the area in which children learn should be adapted to suit their needs and should allow for inclusion for all. This may mean ensuring all equipment and resources are easily accessible and are clearly labelled. Children should play an active part in deciding on their snack and I will always encourage children to express their likes and dislikes. Discussing food and children’s opinions on food can empower children to make healthy food choices for themselves. I will endeavour to act in a way which promotes the rights of every child to full participation whilst ensuring their protection and
It is clear that children’s voices are being heard and that there are opportunities for children to participate in bringing about positive change for the future. However there are still many barriers and hurdles that prevent children from feeling as though they have a choice or that having a choice will actually make a difference. The main barrier may indeed be attitude and the consensus that children simply can’t do what adults can do for them. I feel that children are in fact the teachers and adults can learn a great deal from them if they were only willing to listen.
Alderson P. (2008) Young Children’s Rights; Exploring Beliefs, Principles and Practice. (2nd edition) London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hornby A .S. (1995). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Miller J. (2003). Never Too Young; How Young Children can Take Responsibility and Make Decisions. London: Save the Children.
Ministry of Social Development. (2003). Involving Children. New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development.
Participation Works Partnership. (2012). What is Participation? [Online]. Available from: http://www.participationworks.org.uk/topics/rights/participation-rights [Accessed 27 November 2012].
Scott F et al. (2008). HNC Early Education & Childcare. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.
Unicef. (n.d). Fact Sheet: A summary of the rights under the convention on the rights of the child. [Online]. Available from: http://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf [Accessed 27 November 2012].
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