The right to be an active participant in early childhood education-Glynne Mackey

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Are you able to recall your earliest memories of a time when you were a participant in taking action? Maybe during childhood, it was a family or a community action? Maybe in later years, this was a political action such as voting. You may even recall the feelings associated with these actions: feelings of elation, empowerment, belonging, or perhaps disappointment or even rejection. What might you have learnt from these experiences?

Children love to actively participate in groups and family activities, especially when they are able to work alongside friends, family and teachers. As participants, children are experiencing feelings associated with having made a difference, such as what to plant in the garden or what needs to be included in plans for their outdoor play space.  Experiences in early childhood are often not taken seriously and the opportunities to build citizenship and civic identity are lost in the world where adult ideas rule and children’s ideas are often dismissed as fanciful and unrealistic. 

Child-centred early childhood experiences that include parents, grandparents and community members recognise the value of intergenerational learning, participating in communities and respectful relationships. Through these relationships young children understand what it is like to belong to a group, sharing knowledge and working towards the same goal. 

It is necessary to differentiate between participation and active participation. In previous writings with colleagues we have assumed active participation to involve intimate connections and interdependent relationships (Mackey & Lockie, 2012), but also involving meaningful and purposeful action where the children are engaged in the search for knowledge that leads to decision making. It is within this context that teachers need to respond positively to demonstrations of civic action by acknowledging children’s agency, and providing opportunities for children to feel success and acceptance as a valued member of the community. Practicing citizenship in this way engenders a feeling of belonging while making a contribution to the community (Hayward, Bargh, Barrett and Knight, 2018).  If teachers deny children the opportunity to be involved as active participants, there is the risk that these children will not be part of an inventive, creative community seeking workable solutions for a more sustainable future. Active participation in early childhood is where the roots to democracy and citizenship take hold. 

Early childhood centres are places well suited to support citizenship, especially when teachers are demonstrating principles of citizenship and social justice within the everyday programme and experiences.  Teachers are often challenged in their practice regarding children’s participation and citizenship because of cultural norms and family expectations for their children. Sharing the principles of active participation with family and community can help ensure better understanding and cooperation.  Centre learning stories documenting active participation can be shared with family members and friends. Revisiting the stories and photographs in the centre with teachers, friends and family, at home with family, reinforces the value of the child’s contribution where others have been able to benefit from the action.  If we want our children to be competent and confident, and make a valued contribution to society (Te Whāriki, 2017), we must begin with active participation in the early years. 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Article 29, addressed the child’s right to education. The Article is expressed using clear language to detail what that education should be. The ways in which politicians, policy makers and teachers respond to children should  embrace the language of the Convention such as talking about the child’s right to learning about justice, peace, tolerance, equity, and inclusion; the child’s right to be cared for and to have significant others in their lives who demonstrate democracy and citizenship. Stuart (2014) altered us when she said that we run the risk of using a proxy language that is watered down, gentle on the ears of policy makers and at best, ineffective.

Moving ahead

Many countries have guiding curriculum documents, with a culturally based vision for early childhood. Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017) is rich in cultural values and aspirations for all children in Aotearoa New Zealand.

 In moving ahead, these values and principles must not be compromised while attempting to bow to the forces of a market focused and management driven governance of our early childhood services where children’s rights can easily be a secondary consideration. 

The language of rights, as expressed in the Convention, needs to become part of the language of teachers, policy makers and politicians.  There is a risk of making our language so general that the specifics of what we mean will never be clear or make an impact on policy. 

In moving ahead: Advocates for our young children need to be using rights terminology that relates directly to the way children are able to engage in democratic education experiences where they can be respected for expressing their good ideas, concerns and emotions: language that encourages and responds to acts of citizenship, participation and children making a valuable contribution to their community. 


Hayward, B., Bargh, M., Barrett, P., & Knight, D. (2018). Why review civics and citizenship education? In N. Z. P. S. A. (NZPSA) (Ed.), Our civic future: civics, citizenship and political literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand. . Wellington, NZ: NZPSA.

Mackey, G., & Lockie, C. (2012). Huakina Mai. Opening doorways for children’s participation within early childhood settings. Economic disadvantage as a barrier to citizenship. In D. Gordon-Burns, A. Gunn, K. Purdue, & N. Surtees (Eds.), Te Aoturoa Tataki: Inclusive Early Childhood Education. (pp. 75–94). Wellington: NZCER.

Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa – Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Stuart, M. (2014). Out of place: Economic imperialisms in early childhood education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, http://dx.doi.org10.1080/00131857.2014.971094

UNESCO. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from  

Mackey Mackey is a senior lecturer in Teacher Education and Early Childhood at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Over the past 20 years she has been involved in environmental education and more recently developing courses in sustainability and social justice. Her research has focused on children’s voices and children’s agency in taking action for the environment. 

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