Children's Participation

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Citation: Roger A. Hart (1997) Children's Participation.

Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), participation (RSS), participatory planning (RSS), politics (RSS), planning (RSS), children (RSS), environment (RSS), activism (RSS), social movements (RSS), learning (RSS), education (RSS)


Children's Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care

Given the ways that children's lives around the world are profoundly affected by their political and material environments, how can we include children under fourteen--"young citizens"-- in community development and environmental care? Children's Participation by Roger Hart, commissioned by UNICEF and the former UN Environment section in 1997, walks through ideas and methods for incorporating some of the world's least powerful people in the issues that shape their lives.

Introduction and Conceptual Issues

The driving vision of this book is the argument that "only through direct participation can children develop a genuine appreciation of democracy and a sense of their own competence and responsibility to participate" (3). Hart argues that this can and should be done in the "planning, design, monitoring, and management of the physical environment," where it's easier for children to see the issues and impact than other social projblems, and where they can grow to become "highly reflective, even critical participants in environmental issues" locally and globally.

Hart opens with a series of critiques and concepts to frame his approach:

  • Approaches to Environment and Development
    • environmental concerns too often focus on the "natural" environment and middle class concerns rather than the lived environment of most people
    • green isn't enough; justice is also important
    • sustainability originally linked environment and development, but this has been lostInside a European Adventure Playground
    • development is often linked with economic growth and environmental exploitation rather than a people-centered development approach, with strong local democracy.
    • primary environment care, "a community-based approach to meeting basic needs throgh the empowerment of local communities" with priority towards the most vulnerable (9)
  • Children's Rights
    • children as protagonists of their own rights: Hart argues that child protection is not adequate and highlights parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that focus on the participatory agency of children in their own lives.
    • moving beyond mobilized children: social movements tend to mobilize children along pre-determined agendas rather than respecting their views and fostering their responsibility and citizenship. While children are often invited to speak at national or international environmental conferences, they are less frequently allowed agency in local environmental issues.
    • parental resistance to childrens' rights: Hart describes the challenge of synchronizing the participatory agency of children with parenting and caregiving practices, especially when parents misunderstand, mistrust, or resist that agency.
  • Development of Children's Environmental Knowledge, Concern and Action, moving more into literature review and research questions, especially focused on:
  • how children develop an understanding of environment from experience and media
  • the importance of local knowledge for children
  • linking local to global knowledge
  • intergenerational learning
  • the political nature of environmental education, and dealing with pressure against politics in schools

Children's Developing Capacity to Participate

In this chapter, Hart outlines theories on the development identity, developmernts in their understanding of the perspectives of others, and the development of social cooperation. Notably, Hart offers a model of developmental stages and how they relate to the development of close friendships, peer groups, and leadership among children. Hart also examines the research on differences between girls and boys.

In one part of the chapter, Hart explores competing ideas for supporting the development of cooperation among young people. One idea is to model behaviour for children. Another approach is to support play spaces. Finally, Hart argues that "children and adolescents become more aware of their own and others' perspectives in disputes with peers and attempts to convince others, as well as through differences opinion which emerge in topical discussions" (34).

Organizational Principles

In this chapter, Hart sets out to describe an approach to avoiding manipulation and tokenism, drawing from Arnstein's work on ladders of participation [1]. He describes manipulative ways children are used, the use of children as decoration (with t-shirts promoting a cause), and tokenism, where adults may just not be very experienced at supporting childrens' voices. In tokenism, "articulate, charming children [are] selected by adults to sit on panels, with little opportunity to consult with their peers whom they purportedly represent" (42).

Hart argues for organizers to "maximize the opportunity for any child to choose to participate at the highest level of his or her ability" (42). Moving up the ladder of children's participation, includes "social mobilization" where children are mobilized for large-scale action, especially towards adults' objectives, free labor rather than participants. At greater levels of participation, children might be consulted and informed without having power over the goals or process. The highest levels of child participation include:

  • adult-initiated, shared decisions with children, where children are a part of the entire process (Hart suggests that adults starting out may wish to begin here)
  • child-initiated and child-directed projects, motly found among children's play. As an example of this, Hart offers the example of a "secret vegetable garden built by eight-year-old Peter... [who] longed to grow food for his family, but his father would not allow him to work in his garden. So Peter 'stole' seeds and developed his own garden," sneaking the produce into his father's harvest (45).
  • child-initiated, shared decisions with adults, where children feel competent and respected enough to work together with adults

The rest of the chapter explores structures and processes for sharing power between adults and children. Hart pays some attention to simulation and role-playing (including The Houses Game, a participatory planning game) as ways for children and adults as means for both groups to develop capacities of cooperation before embarging on a higher stakes participatory process. Hart then describes other structures, including brainstorming workshops, competitions, engagements with the news media, and monitoring projects.

New Models for Involving Children and New Institutional Alliances

This section reviews institutional structures that are designed to include children and foster democratic development among children. Hart pays close attention to the role of community-based schools like the "New Schools" in Columbia described in chapters 4 and 7, as well as non-formal schooling, including home education. He also describes the role of community development organizations, childrens' organizations (Hart admires the adventure playgrounds of Europe[2] and the Children's House Society in the UK which creates spaces governed by children). Hart also describes participatory practices among street and working children, as well as children living under poverty. [El Programa del Muchacho Trabajador] in Ecuador established Espacios Alternativas as spaces for children to "learn informally to defend their rights, through play, learning, discussion, and action" (66). After offering an overview of adult-initiated children's environmental clubs (like Walia in Mali], the chapter describes child-initiated clubs, networks, and projects that are carried out without adult initiation. Hart describes Earth Force, a U.S. group that supports alliances across these youth-led groups towards national effort. In 1994, 145,000 children voted in an Earth Force national ballot on wildlife preservation (69).

Sometimes, NGOs work together with children on collaborative research projects. Hart describes Wildlife Watch, a program by the UK Wildlife Trusts that invited families to collaborate on a national study of stream pollution. The response was so great that the UK Wildlife Trusts established a children's wing that at the time of this summary had over 150,000 members[3]. Hart also describes the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, a self-help movement that since 1958 has introduced Buddhist and Ghandian development and conflict resolution programs to villages through children, supported by pre-school teachers[4].

The chapter also describes childrens' participation in local government decisions, such as a UK initiative in 1967 that involved primary and secondary children from 36 schools to consult on the proposed route for the M4 motorway [5]. The chapter also outlines a UK project by the Groundwork Trust called GreenIt, where young people created plans for restoring environmentally blighted industrial areas owned by corporations, presenting those plans to the companies and in some cases, following the process of implementation.

In these context, Hart argues that adults play more of an animator, facilitator, playleaders, or promoters, roles that many are untrained and unprepared to take.

Children's Participation in Practice

Action Research with Children

Hart offers an overview of approaches for action research with children, and grounded in conscientization, the development of critical consciousness through reflection and action[6]. In this chapter, Hart outlines roles for children in problem identification, investigation of the study site or theme, analyzing and interpretation, planning environmental actions, and evaluating the research, with examples for each.

Environmental Planning, Design, and Construction by Children

In this section, Hart describes ways that children can be involved in the planning, design, and construction of their own environments, from school grounds to joint planning with adults of community initiatives (see Tony Gibsen's work on Planning for Real[7]), as well as natural resource conservation projects. The book also describes practices focused on planning by children for adult 'clients', as illustrated by the work by students with GreenIt and many additional case studies.

Environmental Managment

In this chapter, Hart discusses the opportunity of involving children in ongoing management of the environment, in addition to the more project-oriented approaches in preceding chapters. Hart argues that this is one area of great opportunity for families. The chapter includes descriptions of the "health and happiness mobile circus" carried out by "Saude e Alegria" in Brazil, which supports young people in household management, from the care of small children to personal health, and local environment and sanitation issues. The chapter also describes initiatives focused on child health, management of school grounds, and the management of community resources, especially around monitoring environmental quality.

Environmental Monitoring

This chapter describes ways that children have worked together across the monitoring process, from involving them in the definition of measurements/indicators, carrying out the monitoring process on schoolgrounds, and contributing to national environmental surveys.

Public Awareness and Political Action by Children

This chapter outlines children's involvement in political action, describing the ethical challenges around involving children in political campaigns and public demonstrations. Hart encourages readers to focus more on conferences, whether adult-centered events, training events, or childrens' conferences. Throughout this kind of work, care is needed to ensure representativeness: specifying which children are being represented and allowing children to choose their own representatives. Hart also outlines the challenges of moving towards a larger goal from a particular event, challenging in its own right. Hart also describes the practice of Children's Hearings, where panels or groups of children are able to ask questions of adults and hold them accountable. Hart describes practices that can help these events avoid tokenism.

From Local to Global Through Linking and Networks

In this brief section, Hart describes exchange programs and other initiatives that foster links between global and local thinking among children.


The final part of this book, one of the richest and shortest parts, describes a range of workshop practices in support of children's participation. It pays special focus on:

  • Drawings and Collages, outlining a variety of approaches
  • Mapping and Modelling, from paper maps to sand maps to actually chalking and measuring one's schoolyard, to large-scale community murals, as well as simulations
  • Interviewing and surveys, whether personal inventories, landscape surveys, wildlife surveys, large-scale collaborative scientific surveys, or "trails", where children walk a pre-planned path (perhaps planned by children) and add items to appraisal sheets as they find things
  • Media and communication, whether children writing for each other, or children sharing their views with mass media. Hart also describes performance media, including music, dance, puppetry, drama, and festivals


Theoretical and practical relevance:

This book offers a very principled statement of values around children's participation alongside a description of a wide range of international examples up to the late 1990s.

I especially loved the examples in the book, which were inspiring and thought provoking Natematias (talk) 01:09, 26 March 2015 (UTC)

Notable References

  1. Arnstein, Sherry R. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 (4): 216–24.
  2. Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Kasia. 2014 Inside a European Adventure Playground, The Atlantic
  3. About Wildlife Watch Accessed March 25, 2015
  4. Wikipedia. "Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Accessed March 25, 2015
  5. Coggin, Philip A. 2013. "Co-operation Between Schools" from Hidden Factors in Technological change, Elsevier.
  6. Wikipedia. Critical Consciousness. Accessed March 25, 2015
  7. Planning for Real Innovation Works, accessed March 25, 2015