This blog message was contributed by Melissa Be (CED-group).
‘To ensure the best possible guidance for children to become autonomous and critical citizens, we need to speak with them about their ideals, their identity, how they perceive their society and about how they want to change it.’ – de Winter, 2011
Is this also possible with young children? Yes! The European ISOTIS research  found that children from an early age were able to show how they perceived their (pre)school and what they wanted to change. Through playful activities within a safe and natural environment children were able to express themselves in their own way. For example, children were asked to give a tour through their (pre)school building  to show how they would welcome new children. Another way was to let them express themselves through pictures of ‘suns’ and ‘clouds’ about what felt ‘good’ (sun) or ‘did not feel good’ (cloud) for them. In this way children could express what they found valuable in their (pre)school.
The Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Italy, Poland and Germany specifically looked at the experiences of young children (2,5-6 years) within their (pre)school. Christel Eijkholt conducted the research in the Netherlands, as part of her promotion research and ISOTIS . What are the most important findings of this study? What do children experience in their (pre)school?
No differences between ethnic-cultural backgrounds
Children in the age of 2,5 to 6 years old do not make a difference between the various cultures and languages in their group. They know that there are differences, but for them, this is not important. According to the children, it is more important that they have positive relationships with their peers, teachers and family within the (pre)school. They also find it important to have the opportunity to choose themselves what they want to play with and with whom. Furthermore, the welcoming feeling is important, also for new children.
Positive relationships and friends
Most important for children were their social relationships with other children (‘friends’), the (pre)school teachers and family within the (pre)school. Whether children feel good or not depends on the presence of their friends. Children often speak about ‘we’ (‘look, we still have glittering stones!’). They see themselves as part of their group/community and seem to feel good in socially inclusive play activities, such as ‘group play’ or ‘cooking or baking together’. They also find it important that their brothers, sisters and parents are being welcomed and involved within the activities of the (pre)school.
An attractive (pre)school environment
Besides their sense of belonging and the relationship with other children, (pre)school teachers and family, children also suggested the (pre)school and classroom to be more beautifully decorated with ‘brighter colors, and more smileys and pictures’. It is important that all children get a chance to share their ideas. The meaning of ‘beautiful’ differs per child and is also not always in line with our own ideas. Children also feel safe when they recognize themselves in their (pre)school and classroom. They value their own baskets with name tags and with something familiar in it from home. Do all children recognize themselves in the their (pre)school and classroom? Is the space decorated with recognizable photos and other familiar stuff from home?
Children also feel good in open spaces with various freely accessible play possibilities (movement, phantasy, creativity) and materials. Children prefer to be able to choose themselves where and with whom they can play.
Welcoming new children
Another finding in this study is that young children are able to come up with their own ideas about how to welcome new children. Children recalled the emotional support they received from peers when they first entered their (pre)school. You can support new children by ‘showing them around’, but also by ‘sharing food or make food together’. When they are sad you can read ‘their favorite book’ or ‘cuddle’ them. They also recognize that (pre)school teachers play an important role here. This sense of belonging is not only important for children themselves, but also for new children who enter their classroom.
Lastly, children also mention that it is difficult for children to make friends if they do not yet speak the school language. Therefore they want to learn the school language as quickly and good as possible, so that they are able to communicate with other children. To support communication for children with a foreign language, children suggested to use ‘posters, pictures, symbols and keywords in different languages’.
From a safe environment to participation of young children:
- A precondition for children to express themselves is that they feel safe and welcome. Children and their families feel safe through recognizability within the (pre)school and classroom. You can use a poster with the word “welcome” in the various languages of children and parents, pictures of children with their families or by asking to bring something from home which makes them feel good. It is also important to involve the ideas of children and parents.
- Built positive relations with children and stimulate positive interactions between children. Recognize children who are playing well with each other or take care of each other: ‘Nice that you are sharing your car with Xx. Do you see that Xx feels happy now?’ In this way children gain insight in how to take care of each other.
- Strengthen the sense of belonging through playful activities, where ‘getting to know each other’ plays a central role. Give children insight in how they can contribute to this themselves, for example on how to welcome new children.
- Stimulate ownership and participation of children, by involving their ideas, thoughts and preferences through playful activities. What do children need to be able to express themselves? And in which moments of the day are children able to make their own decisions?
“Look at the (pre)school as a place which is co-owned by children. A place where children can use their ideas to contribute to a place where people feel connected and easily find each other. A place where everyone feels at home.” – Paul Leseman, end conference ISOTIS, 2019.
Whether the (pre)school offers sufficient protection and safety can only be discovered by illuminating the thoughts of children themselves. Within a safe environment we can learn children how to use their voice in a positive way. In this way children feel that they matter, which builds a strong foundation to develop into autonomous citizens. Citizens with an open attitude to meet and welcome others.
 Pastori et al. (2019). Children’s views on and contributions to inclusive education: Studies in diverse classrooms. https://staging-isotis-pw.framework.pt/site/assets/files/1470/20191126_d2_5_wp2_integrative_report_for_website_part_3.pdf  Eijkholt, C. (in progress). Rights-based participatory pedagogy for democratic citizenship of young children. Utrecht University.  Clark, A. (2017). Listening to young children, expanded third edition: A guide to understanding and using the mosaic approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
De Winter, M. (2011). Verbeter de wereld, begin bij de opvoeding. Vanachter de voordeur naar democratie en verbinding. (150 p.) Amsterdam: SWP.