Engaging with children’s voices

Experiences of relationships and participation in communities contribute to children’s belonging, being and becoming.

From birth, children experience living and learning with others in a range of communities. These might include families, local communities or early childhood settings. Having a positive sense of identity and experiencing respectful, responsive relationships strengthens children’s interest and skills in being and becoming active contributors to their world (DEEWR, 2009, p. 25).

Children are competent humans who have the inherent right and capability to contribute to decisions that affect their lives. Such is the assertion of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1989):

When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.

Let’s be quite clear—Article 12, and indeed the other articles in this children’s rights charter, do not grant children these rights but rather recognise the rights children inherently have that are part and parcel of human rights for everyone.

Long have we known from early childhood theories, research and practice that children are active constructors of meaning, with voices to be heard and the capacity to express their views with wisdom and insight. Children are key informants and experts on their own lives (McNaughton, 2002) and, indeed, are our best source of advice for matters affecting them (Osborn & Bromfield, 2007).

The view of children as active citizens and learners imbues Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009). Outcome 2—‘Children are connected with and contribute to their world’—is especially relevant to children’s participation as active citizens and learners.

This outcome includes:

Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active community participation (DEEWR, 2009, p. 26).

UNICEF’s framework and vision for child friendly cities (UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2001) frames ways in which a child-friendly city is committed to the fullest implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It guarantees, among other rights, the right of every young citizen to influence decisions about their city, express their opinion on the city they want, participate in family, community and social life, and be an equal citizen of their city with access to every service, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, income, gender or disability.

But what does it mean for young children to influence decisions and be a citizen in a community where they feel they belong? What does it mean for us to recognise and honour children’s rights as active learners and citizens?

These questions lie at the heart of the recent statewide consultations with 350 young children across South Australia, in which I was recently involved as an advisor and documenting researcher. My research into the consultations provided rich insights into factors that contributed to the success of these consultations, challenges that arose, and ways in which the processes might be enhanced. These insights came from interviews, observations, document analyses, and artefacts created by children, all of which took stock of the voices and perspectives of those involved—children, educators, families and policy-makers. This study resonates with research conducted elsewhere in Australia and overseas, while providing fresh insights into the processes involved in consulting with young children.

The consultations were conducted by early childhood educators at children’s services, and were framed by the Early Years Learning Framework, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and UNICEF’s child–friendly cities framework. The question at the heart of these consultations with children was:

What is important to children in their communities and what do children wish for in their lives?

This key question led the study to explore the places children go in their everyday lives and the activities, sights, feelings and people they experience there, as well as what they enjoy or don’t enjoy, and what they would like to experience.

These consultations were not one-off events and involved sustained engagement over time. Following careful preparation, an all-day professional development workshop was held for educators on principles and strategies for implementing the consultations. Key principles included authenticity, ethics, and accuracy and documentation.

Broad strategies for each site were suggested, which educators tailored to their particular children and communities. Their strategies drew on multiple ways of making meaning and included role-play, photography, visual arts, music, dance, song and storytelling. Central to these strategies was the art of conversation with children. This art involves how we hand the floor to children; don’t put words in children’s mouths; pose provocative questions or prompts; probe and clarify children’s views; and use projection techniques such as ‘What do you think …?’ or ‘Why do you want …?’ that explicitly put children’s views at the heart of the consultations.

The themes that emerged from children’s messages about what is important to them were summed up as:

  • enjoying and looking after the environment
  • being with family and friends
  • engaging in activities and public events, including play
  • playing with and looking after animals
  • sharing meals and snacks with loved ones out-and-about
  • associating places and experiences with how they feel—for example: happy, safe, scared (setting apart risky
  • experiences in which they ‘liked scary’)
  • having transport to be able to get from place to place and to things children want to be able to experience
  • being able to do now what grown-ups do, such as having a child-sized kitchen so they, too, can cook
  • being able to participate and have an opportunity to express their point of view.

Equally striking, but a little unexpected, was the transformative impact on educators and everyone else involved. The consultations were a journey of discovery—discovering children’s perspectives, and educators discovering new aspects about their own work with children in relation to what became possible in this consultative space. As one educator excitedly put it, ‘We could hear the children’s voices. We could hear their passion’.

The integrity of the children’s voices was honoured from the consultations through to the final report. When a senior state government policy-maker received the report, she said, ‘It was still in children’s own words and it’s still their ideas and it was really clear. I use the words, “the honesty of the process”’.

Leaving the last words to children—what else in a paper about children’s voices?—one child summed up the consultation experience when he observed, ‘This is not normal kindy!’

Professor Pauline Harris

The Lillian de Lissa Chair in Early Childhood (Research), University of South Australia and SA Department for Education and Child Development


Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.

McNaughton, S. (2002). Meeting of minds. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media Ltd.

Osborn, A., & Bromfield, L. M. (2007). Participation of children and young people in care in decisions affecting their lives. National Child Protection Clearinghouse Research Brief No. 6. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2001). Building child friendly cities: a framework for action. Retrieved 23 February, 2012, from http://www.childfriendlycities.org.

United Nations (UN) (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved 23 February, 2012, from


Every Child magazine – vol. 18 no. 3, 2012.

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