Some people think that children under five are too young to express opinions, but Sara Bryson and her colleagues found ways of ensuring that babies and children were at the heart of the decision-making processHistorical context

The importance and relevance of listening to the views and experiences of young children is not a new concern; as early as 1924 Susan Isaacs, founder of the Malting House experiential school in Cambridge, promoted the importance of actively listening to the children in our care. In 1989 the United Nations approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This set out children’s rights to have their basic needs met in terms of survival, protection, health care, food and water and their rights to the opportunities which help them to reach their full potential through education, play and sport. Specifically, Article 12 of the UNCRC, states that:

‘State Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own opinion the right to express these views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’  (

The UN convention was subsequently ratified by the United Kingdom government when the committee responsible for this process added a general comment to Article 12: ‘Respect for the views and feelings of the young child. The Committee wishes to emphasize that article 12 applies to both younger and to older children. As holders of rights, even the youngest children are entitled to express their views.’ For many working in the early years field the importance and relevance of listening to young children will not be a new concern, with many early years professionals up and down the country routinely acting on the expressed views and wishes of young children as part of daily good practice. For a long time in this country the concept of participation has been largely concerned with children in the 13- to 19-year-old age range. Traditional decision-making structures are over reliant on the ability to speak and as a result have tended to exclude young children, children and young people with a disability, as well as children and young people who do not have English as a first language. The Children’s Fund helped to redress this imbalance by emphasising the importance of participation work with the five to 13-year-old age range. The introduction of the Every Child Matters agenda and a holistic approach to the 0 -19 age range led many local authorities and services to consider opportunities for participation by the very youngest children. For some the answer was that children under the age of five were too young to express views and opinions. Others knew it was possible but were unsure where to start.

Putting policy into practice

Early years professionals know and understand that young children are skilful and competent communicators from birth, communicating their views and experiences all of the time, through the sounds that they make, their movement and actions. The key role of the adult is to listen, tune in to, document and reflect on this communication. In my previous posts as children’s participation worker and listening to young children officer in Sure Start Local Programmes and children’s centres, I worked with babies, children, parents and practitioners to ensure children were at the heart of decision-making processes. Through careful planning we found ways to involve babies and children in both day-to-day evaluation and strategic decision making.

Evaluating day-to-day services

We often started by involving children in the evaluation of our services, gathering their views alongside the views of parents and practitioners whose views were routinely sought. For example, when a ‘baby social’, an event involving parents with their babies, was about to be rolled out across the programme area we took the opportunity to ask the question, ‘What is the baby social like from the child’s point of view?’ To answer this question we spent six weeks observing four babies who accessed the service. An observation sheet was used to document what the children spent their time doing, how long they played with particular activities, what made them laugh, what made them cry, what caught their attention, what they gazed at and what they reached for. Parents and key workers were also asked for their observations. At the end of the six weeks all of the information was brought together and reviewed. The results were unsurprising. The children favoured heuristic play, treasure baskets, sensory materials, and music, but most of all valued the social interaction with other children. These findings then informed the roll-out of the services across the rest of the Sure Start local programme. We also began to routinely gather the views of young children in evaluations of family fun days. Sometimes the results were shocking. At fun days, we found that while toddlers had a great time there wasn’t anything provided for the babies. We observed babies spending time in prams, becoming frustrated and fed up through being unable to engage in activities. This often resulted in whole families having to leave the event early. As a result we developed a baby tent, to provide babies with a safe place to play and explore.

‘What is it like to be a young child living here?’

Finding ways to involve young children in the strategic decision-making process is far more challenging than listening to and responding to their evaluations of day-to-day activities. In the process of evolving from a Sure Start local programme into a children’s centre we felt we had to include the views of young children themselves. As the complexity of the new arrangements was difficult enough for many professionals to get their head around we had to think creatively about how we were going to include young children. To achieve this we went back to basics and asked the question, ‘What is it like to be a young child living here?’ The results would then guide our thinking about the services that were needed. One hundred and thirteen children under five took part in a series of sensory walks. All were given a disposable camera and asked to record the things that they liked and disliked. By working in partnership with nine local nurseries we were able to cover the whole geographical area of the children’s centre. Children with all levels of language ability were able to take part. Some walked and talked, their comments recorded using a dictaphone. Others just took photos. We walked in small groups of four to eight at a time and followed the children’s interests and the directions they wanted to go in. Once the photos were developed we spent time consolidating our understanding with each child individually. We checked what their likes and dislikes were and made sure we recorded carefully what the children were trying to communicate to us. Each child then chose their favourite photos to display as part of a dissemination event. Children, parents, staff and local decision makers were invited to attend and hear and see what the children had to say. Out of this process we came up with a list of 10 likes and dislikes. Among the most important things to children were:

  • social interaction with both other children and adults
  • open green spaces as play spaces
  • their nursery settings.

The children expressed their concerns about:

  • traffic and road safety
  • the litter which often obstructed their mobility
  • being scared of older children in parks
  • fear of the large amount of derelict housing in the area.

Some of the issues which the children raised – such as the desire to play in open green spaces – could be addressed through the children’s centre. Other matters – such as the concerns over derelict housing – were passed on to relevant agencies in the local council. The fact that this had such an impact on young children was shocking for local councillors to hear. Young children have gone on to be involved in the design of play spaces and to take part in consultation about the new Early Years Foundation Stage.

Further information

Participation Works

: online gateway for information, training, advice and support.
Listening as a Way of Life series, six free downloadable guides including Listening to Babies and How and Why to Listen to Young Children, National Children’s Bureau
Lancaster, YP, and Broadbent, V (2003) Listening to Young Children, Open University Press
Clark, A, and Moss, P (2001), Listening to Children: The Mosaic Approach, National Children’s Bureau Sara Bryson is senior participation officer at 11 MILLION (formerly the Office of the Children’s Commissioner)

What is 11 MILLION?

The Childcare Act 2006 marks not only the first Act of Parliament dealing exclusively with services for children under five, but also brings with it a legal requirement for local authorities to listen to young children. ‘In discharging their duties under this section, an English local authority must have regard to such information about the views of young children as is available to the local authority and appears to them to be relevant to the discharge of those duties’. The Children Act 2004 also created for the first time the post of children’s commissioner for England, with the mandate to ‘promote the views and best interests of children and young people from birth to eighteen’. 11 MILLION is the organisation led by the children’s commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley Green. As the role of the commissioner is to promote the views of children and young people from birth to 18, children under five have been actively included. The five-year strategy of the commission was launched at the Treasury on 16 May 2007. In 2007 this will focus on one theme – ‘Happy and Healthy’ – to achieve maximum impact. As part of this work, they will be looking at what being happy and healthy means to children and young people at three key transitional stages; the transition from early years settings into school; from primary into secondary school and on from secondary school. As part of this process they will be working in partnership with three early years settings across England to gather the views of three- and four-year-olds. The re-branding of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’as 11 MILLION reflects the fact that there are 11.8m children and young people in England who shape all that it does. The visual images within the 11 MILLION logo were chosen by children and on the design of the website was achieved following consultation to produce an image that was more appealing to young children than the previous text-based Office of the Children’s Commissioner website.

11 MILLION and the Children’s Commissioner will also be working on six spotlight areas in 2007-2008. Full details of this work can be found on the website at The key to ensuring young children are involved will be their partnership approach with early years professionals. If you would like more information, or are interested in working more closely with them, then visit the website for more details of how to get involved.