Children and young people are using services all around us that have been designed for them by grown-ups. These are in parks, playgrounds, schools, health clinics, court-rooms, libraries, museums and homes, including dozens of forms of social media. But, it is rare for children to be consulted about the design of services created specifically for them, let alone be invited to research how they use, or are affected by, these creations and what works for them.
It may come as a surprise to many that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) entitles children to a broad range of rights including the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them and have their views taken seriously. But entitlement is not the same as action.
My colleagues, Sue Dockett and Dorothy Bottrell, and I believe that those who work in, and research children’s services have a responsibility to spend time with kids, asking them, not only what they think, but also how things can be improved. Beyond that, even, we see that youngsters can contribute to future planning and evaluation.
We believe that very young children have insights into, for example, the ways in which they might enjoy an art exhibition or be able to play with their friends in a park. As well, truculent adolescents have views on the ways in which they are dragooned into taking tests in their schools and such-like to satisfy some remote government policy about which they have little say.
We are well aware that many would argue that children already have too much say in matters that affect them and that decisions should be left to adults who know better. But we have explored the arguments extensively and see that very few discussions examine the great differences in power that exist and that “knowing better” is little more than a kind of blindness to children and young people’s lack of voice.
All too often, any kind of consultation is little more than tokenism. Children might be asked to complete a survey or two, but they are rarely told of the results and the impact on planning, if there is any.
We are committed to the notion of an ‘active citizenry’, that is, being enabled to participate in the many matters that surround us. Active citizens are responsible citizens who take an interest in not only local affairs, but also those large issues that cause concern. Active citizens will stand up for what they believe to be right, for example, ensuring that public broadcasting is properly funded or that mining resources is not at the cost of the environment. We believe this should start with the very young and continue through until adulthood is reached.
When we do engage more completely and authentically with our children and young people we face many dilemmas. They may not always say and do things that make us comfortable. They may challenge us to listen to them more carefully and not merely play some tokenistic game.
We have put these ideas and more into our new book Participatory research with children and young people. It is a practical guide, written to be a useful resource for all professionals who work with children and young people, as well as for children and young people themselves as they contribute to research and inquiry into matters that affect them.
Susan Groundwater-Smith is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work. She facilitates practitioner researchers working in Schools, Museums, the State Library and Taronga Zoo, paying particular attention to eliciting feedback from children and young people and engaging them in inquiry. She convenes the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools, a hybrid group of government and non-government schools, single and co-educational schools and cultural institutions. She has published a number of books and chapters in this area, working closely with Nicole Mockler, also at the University of Sydney.
Groundwater-Smith, S., Dockett, S. and Bottrell, D. (2015) Participatory research with children and young people London: Sage. Available through Footprint Books