Many of us who have worked with children have grappled with how we can effectively include the perspective and voice of children in our planning and program development. We know it is important and valuable but how do we do it well? And how do we check back that we have understood the feedback or input that children are providing without distorting it through our ‘adult’ lens.
Including the voice of children has become even more difficult during the pandemic, when many schools and programs are being run remotely, or not at all. But as happens during times of challenge, new ways of working (often born of necessity) come into being.
Before we delve into some ideas, old and new, about how we can engage with children to hear their voices, it can be valuable to revisit the reasons why it is important to include the perspective and ideas of children when we are creating or evaluating programs or curricula.
Why include the voices of children?
When creating programs or new spaces aimed at children, or if we are wanting feedback on existing initiatives, it can be incredibly useful to hear from the end users themselves. Programs are much more likely to be effective if they meet the needs of the participants.
It can be easy to make assumptions about what children need or want but unless we have mechanisms to check in and see if what we are doing is helpful, we may find ourselves way off track and completely missing the mark, leaving us wondering, ‘why didn’t this work?’ By consulting with children throughout the development and evaluation process, we are much more likely to adjust to meet the actual needs of children.
If we are working in a strengths-based way, we are always looking for ways to create the conditions for people to feel empowered. By inviting feedback and asking for input from children on the planning and development of programs, we are modelling respectful and inclusive approaches. This also teaches children the value of asking questions and builds their ability to contribute to decision-making, problem-solve and reflect on what is important to them.
It is one thing to understand the importance of including children’s voices. But the reality is, it isn’t always easy to do in practical and meaningful ways. So how do we do this well?
Setting up respectful spaces for consulting with children
For consultation with children to be effective, children need to feel safe, valued and relaxed, preferably surrounded by adults they know and trust. It can help if they are having fun or playing. Try and set up spaces that support children to feel comfortable and empowered. These might be places they are familiar with, are child-friendly or the consultation itself might be done in collaboration with people they know and trust.
It is also important to find the right time to talk with children—after lunch on a Friday afternoon, when they are feeling tired or antsy, might not be a great time to ask children to share their ideas. Instead choose times when they are relaxed, focussed and able to reflect.
Model respectful behaviour by asking children for their permission to record their ideas. As you would with adults, explain to children why you are asking questions or collecting feedback and tell them how their ideas will be used. Also, tell them how you will report back to them about how their ideas were incorporated into the planning, review or development process.
There are so many innovative and creative ways to do this. Here are a few.
Creative ways to capture the voice of the child
Use scaling tools
A simple yet effective strategy for asking children to give feedback is to use scaling tools to rate their experience or level of interest and engagement. (They will need to be able to understand the concept of scaling, whether it be 1-10, ‘happy, neutral and sad faces’, feelings stickers or emojis, so you may need to do some preparation with young children.) There are many great free scaling templates and digital tools online.
Feelings stickers or emojis are great with young children or when you are looking for feedback from a lot of children in a short space of time. To gather feedback, set up a range of activities or run a series of events and invite children to use smiley faces to rate their experience.
Scaling tools are great in one-on-one settings or with older children. Ask questions like: On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being ‘I hated it’ and 10 being ‘I loved it’, how do you feel about that activity/idea? What could we do to move the scale up 1 point? What would make it a 10? Or if you are assessing which elements of a program or activity the child valued, you might ask something like ‘On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is not important at all and 10 is very important, how would you rate each of these things’?
Increasingly young children are confident and capable users of technology. We can embrace this to gather ideas and feedback from children. One way to do this is to set up a listening lab. Using the available technology—a desktop, laptop or tablet (phone can be used but are a bit trickier)— ask children a specific question or ask them to comment on a particular image or photo. You can set this up as a video booth if privacy isn’t an issue, or simply record the audio to de-identify the child. If you are online, use the various video or audio recording apps available.
Bring all the video or audio together to identify key themes and topics and use this information to inform your planning.
Give children a camera and ask them to capture their experience in images
I remember hearing about a great initiative several years ago where a large group of children were given disposable cameras and asked them to photograph everything they found interesting for a week. They then printed all the photos and created a large display.
Having all the images in front of them made the researchers aware of how inaccessible many environments were to smaller people. They also gained a deeper understanding of how children thought and what they found inspiring, threatening or attention-grabbing. It also helped them understanding how children used and moved through spaces. They were able to use this process to inform their planning for creating child-friendly spaces in their community.
Many children have access to phones or other devices for taking photos. Understanding how, when and why children interact in and with a space can help inform the best way to develop engaging and effective activities and programs. This strategy can be used in many different ways to gain insight that can inform planning or help with evaluation.
Ask the ‘miracle’ question
‘If something magical happened overnight and you woke up in the morning and everything in your world was fantastic, what changed?’ Drawn from solution-focused brief therapy, the miracle question invites people to imagine the world as they would like it to be. However, it is rare that we ask children this question.
While children may respond in very imaginative ways, their answers can still give us very concrete and valuable clues about what they value and what makes them feel safe.
Children can respond in words or you could ask them to draw, paint or create something that shows you what this ‘magical’ world looks or feels like. Ask them to tell you about their reasons for including the different elements and why they are important.
How to check you have understood
As is the case with any feedback or consultation, it is important to check that you haven’t misinterpreted what children have said or what they meant. It is really important to use active listening skills—listen carefully, paraphrase and summarise, check with the child or children that what you have heard is what they meant, ask questions if you aren’t sure, come from a place of genuine curiosity and interest in what the child has to say (they will know if you aren’t really listening or you are asking just to serve a purpose/tick a box).
Once you have used their input, report back to them to let them know how their ideas have been incorporated into your project or initiative. We often forget this last part. However, it is a really important part of the process as it empowers children to know they are able to contribute to their world in concrete and meaningful ways.
There are lots of innovative and creative ways to include the voices of children in planning and program development. What do you do? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.