This blog post was contributed by Nadine Correia (ISCTE-IUL).
“This classroom is so beautiful because the teacher listens to children. Boys and girls can choose and do what they want to”(A., 5 years old).
Children’s right to participate has gained progressive recognition and visibility in different fields of knowledge. In the research field, this is a considerably recent topic. In the practice field, the implementation of this right in early childhood education (ECE) settings still remains a challenge. What does this right refer to, and how can we promote it?
What does this right mean?
Children’s right to participate is a universal human right, pivotal for establishing a culture of democracy and citizenship. The child is therefore considered as a rights holder, with competences, active voice and agency . According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child , adopted in 1989, children have the right to express their opinion and exert influence in all matters affecting them, from family to the educational context. This means giving every child, irrespective of their age or individual characteristics, the opportunity to be heard and have their opinions taken into account .
Why is it important?
Several potential benefits of children’s right to participate are described in literature, not only for children, but also for organizations, policy makers and society as a whole . In fact, organizations that promote children’s participation are more responsive to their needs, becoming more accessible and efficient. Likewise, the use of a pedagogy of participation  and the adoption of child-centred approaches by ECE professionals can lead to the acquisition of new skills and knowledge for themselves, as well as to a greater satisfaction.
At the child level, proposed benefits are related to an increased confidence and self-esteem, development of communication skills and collaboration with peers, as well as to increased decision-making and conflict resolution skills [5, 6]. Promoting children’s right to participate also means promoting their autonomy and competence, through the establishment of relationships with the others, which are fundamental for children’s motivation and well-being .
Children’s right to participate is considered an important criterion for the evaluation of ECE quality. The positive relation between children’s right to participate and ECE settings’ quality is documented, suggesting that children attending high-quality ECE settings report more opportunities to participate and to exert influence in decision-making processes .
How can ECE teachers promote children’s right to participate?
In order to respect and recognize children as partners in the decision-making process, ECE teachers should invest in more democratic interactions (not based on adults’ power and control), where children can give their opinion and have their contributions considered.
We share 3 practices towards the promotion of this right:
Listen to children
- With a sensitive attitude, foster an environment in which children feel their contributions are valued and considered, asking for their opinion, for instance, about a story they have just heard.
- Provide daily opportunities for children to share their experiences during group activities, by asking them to share, for instance, how was their weekend.
- Create specific situations in which children can participate; ask what they would like to do or what materials they would like to use.
- Let children feel free and confident to talk about their needs, interests and preferences, giving them room to lead and take initiative.
Include children and give them responsibility
- Include children in goals setting and work planning, being available to change initial plans to fit children’s interests.
- Establish classroom rules together with children, such as cleaning the classroom or defining the number of children per play area.
- Give children responsibility for day-to-day tasks, allowing them to check in, feed a pet, or distribute material to peers.
- Involve children in verifying and evaluating initial goals, by filling tables or organising classroom assemblies.
Encourage children’s choice and initiative
- Allow children to choose when and with whom they want to play, giving them freedom and autonomy.
- Respect children’s rhythms and preferences, allowing them to decide, for instance, when they want to draw and when they want to play.
- Create opportunities for children to make activities and play proposals, allowing the emergence of new projects, based on children’s experiences and interests.
- Facilitate children’s access to different materials and toys, for instance by labelling boxes within their reach, so they can freely explore them.
What do children say?
In a recent study, 43 children aged 4 to 6 years old were interviewed to access their ideas on children’s right to participate . Each child was presented with two identical images (only different in colour), separately, one of which was described with a narrative of participation, and the other with a narrative of non-participation. Results showed children consider they have more opportunities to make choices in classrooms described with the participation narrative. Simultaneously, the room in which participation occurs is consistently described by children as the one in which they feel better, have more fun, and like best. Thus, children seem to value more classrooms characterized by participation practices.
Share your experiences with us:
How do you promote children’s right to participate in your classroom? In your opinion, are there any benefits for children’s development, from exerting this right? Which are they? What obstacles do you encounter in your daily practice?
References Sarmento, M. J., Fernandes, N., & Tomás, C. (2006). Participação social e cidadania
ativa das crianças [Social participation and children’s active citizenship]. In D. Rodrigues (Ed.), Inclusão e educação: Doze olhares sobre a educação inclusiva [Inclusion and education: Twelve looks on inclusive education] (pp. 141-159). São Paulo: Summus Editorial. United Nations (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. New York: United Nations.  Horwath, J., Hodgkiss, D., Kalyva, E., & Spyrou, S. (2011). You respond: promoting
effective project participation by young People who have experienced violence. A guide to good practice through training and development. Sheffield: University of Sheffield. Formosinho, J., Lino, D., & Niza, S. (2007). Modelos curriculares para a educação de infância [Curricular models for early childhood education] (3.a Ed.). Porto, Porto Editora.  Kirby, P., & Bryson, S. (2002). Measuring the magic? Evaluating and researching young people’s participation in public decision making. London: Carnegie Young People Initiative.  Sinclair, R. (2004). Participation in practice: Making it meaningful, effective and sustainable. Children & Society, 18, 106–118.  Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.  Sheridan, S. (2007) Dimensions of pedagogical quality in preschool. International Journal of Early Years Education, 15(2), 197-217.  Correia, N., & Aguiar, C. (2017). Choosing classrooms: A structured interview on children’s participation right. International Journal of Educational Research, 82(1), 54-62.