Views of children are varied, complex and evolving. Specifically in Ireland, we have broadened views of children over time, from viewing children just as in need of survival and protection to a wider appreciation of the complexities of development and participation rights children. Legislation has moved on to encompass children’s capabilities, through their agency and participation, two of our national policy documents are testament to this shift:  Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures 2014-2020 sets out increased the coordination of the statutory, voluntary and community bodies working with and for children, through interagency activity. The 2015 document, National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision Making 2015-2020, goes further in allocation departments and agencies to targets for children’s participation. These documents are the culmination of years of research with and policy development for children, whilst there is still work to do, children’s rights and agency have been advanced.

However, the place of children is contested by themselves and those working with them. The neo-liberal basis of economies and societies, such as Ireland’s, mean there are structural economic forces at play in children’s lives, and much of what happens to children is beyond their control. From such perspectives and participation of children in decision making is always going to be considered tokenistic. Others views are that despite structural impacts on children’s lives, they are able to be social actors, with agency. From these perspectives, children are free to participate in decisions that affect them. A great example of this is children’s use of mobile phones. On one hand this means they are subject to the influences of large multinational companies in their daily lives, such as social media, retailers, etc. On the other hand, phones grant children freedom, as they can wander further from home but still be contacted or tracked by parents using technologies.

Perhaps the varying views of children’s lives are in fact, a complex continuum of ideas, and that we need to ‘get on’ with the business of children and young people’s agency and participation in their everyday settings for meaningful change in their lives. With this in mind, we need empirical research and practice examples of children’s agency and participation working well, and not so. The articles in this issue contain many such examples. In fact, within the great range of articles presented here, provide insights into children’s experiences in terms of structured and unstructured leisure and play times and places. The children are a range of ages from early years through to teenagers. They also have a range of particular characteristics and needs, from children on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) spectrum (renamed by O’Sullivan and colleagues as the Autistic Spectrum Difference), to very young children and children living in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. Within the papers, children featured are also in a range of setting; pre-schools, after-schools, schools as well as in their communities, playing outside.

Rights for leisure and play, with choice

The Growing Up in Ireland survey is our prime example of the increased amount of data available on children’s lives, including their leisure and play in Ireland. The project, which needs no introduction here, provides a wealth of data from the longitudinal study. Quite simply, the GUI project tells us so much, but not everything, about our children’s lives. The Rokicki and McGovern article, draws on GUI data to consider children’s play activities. Their analysis of the data shows complex gender and socio-economic differences that appear to impact on outcomes for children’s outcomes. And that these variations will have an impact on children’s future in terms of education and well-being. At a micro scale, the role of the educator is apparent, in Vasileva’s work on gender and place in early childhood settings. She shows how educators can make a real difference to the scope of children’s play in relation to ideas about girls’ and boy’s play activities. Variations in what children do is also the case for older children as Kavanagh and Weir, note there are differing patterns of children’s unstructured time. Their impressive range of data with a large survey size reveals variations in how children spend their time depending on their families and communities. It seems there are differences in the opportunities for structured and unstructured leisure in different groups of children. Some children spending large amounts of time in structured activity, others spending large amounts of time in unstructured activity. The role of children in deciding how they spend their time is an area now receiving attention. O’Riordan, Horgan, Marin and O’Sullivan draw out the importance of children’s choices in how they spend their unstructured time, through creative research strategies with children of all ages. The children’s wonderful words and pictures illustrate vividly. All of these papers note we still need to know more about such patterns to try to establish some ideal balances between structured and unstructured time, as well as what activities are carried out in those times.

The O’Riordan article is one of many examples of how children’s lives in their daily settings have moved on from ideas of survival and protection. On a weekly basis in teacher education it is evident that in all settings children do have more of a say: they are more likely to make choices about play, learning and activities. A visual example of this is, many education and play settings have now recognised the need to outdoor space, with elements to enable children to make play in spaces their own. Stokes’ work is a great example of this, through presenting the children’s own words, she illustrates the delight and quality of children’s imaginative play. Although, as she shows, children’s agency has to be prioritised by adults. When this is the case, results are positive for children’s current and future development. Such ‘granting’ of agency can be a challenge, this is especially the case for children on the ASD spectrum. Sexton’s research, in a range of settings, illustrates how choice and autonomy had a positive impact on children’s experiences. Crucially, children had opportunities in outdoor settings that were not possible indoors, and that such play was powerful in many ways. Sexton also notes how such play was easier in education settings because of the possible and actual expectations of strangers in more public settings. Sexton’s work shows the importance of play for all, not just those working with children within the ASD spectrums, to maximise the affordances of play for children.

Drawing on children’s ideas about their leisure time is particularly important for children on the ASD, but it can be a challenge too, especially when children have different ways of communicating. An example of this is found in two more of the articles relating to children on the ASD spectrum. In fact, differences are noted by O’Sullivan, Ring and Horgan as they reword ASD to the Autistic Spectrum Difference (ASD) spectrum. The children they worked with had particular needs in relation to play, but shared the wish to have agency in their play choices with their ‘mainstream’ children. Such choice in play is the case for older children as described in Cross’s work, focusing on girls on the ASD spectrum. As described, she found the cycle of lacking social and communication skills resulting in anxiety, resulting in increased impairments can be broken by focusing on the strengths of girls with ASD as well as their peers. This focus on what children on the ASD spectrum as well as their ‘can do’ is again evident, and in this study resulted in enough of a change in the girl’s everyday actions to result in a significant improvement in their lives.

Children’s agency and participation, indoors and out

The 2015 National Strategy on Children’s Participation is our national strategy on children’s participation, a first on the international stage. This strategy should ensure children have a voice in decisions about their lives in their communities; in education, on their health and wellbeing and in legal settings (DCYA, 2015). Containing a set of actions to encourage children’s participation in decision-making the strategy states that government departments will consult with children and young people in the development of policy, legislation, research and services. However, as the papers in this digest reveal, much of children’s agency and participation is in relation to their everyday lives: playing at home and outside, experiences in school, after school and in other care settings.

Murphy’s work across a range of settings found the importance of adults in outdoor play. Crucially, she evidenced that as adults understanding of outdoor play and learning increased, so did the quality of design and use of the outdoor play space. Where there was the combination of children’s participation in space making and adult appreciation of the importance of outdoor space for learning, then outdoor spaces were used frequently and in child led but adult enabled environments. Such settings also had better affordances for play, with trees, shrubs and grass. Moore and Lynch note the importance of children’s participation in play is their well-being, quite simply they argue that children are happier when they make decisions about their play. However, as Cummins, notes there is a lack of guidelines for after school settings in relation to children’s role in their play, and notes how this situation can mean restrictions are set upon children. She notes such settings cannot ‘free up children and compensate for a society where children’s lives are restricted in general. She uses powerful examples, to reveal the power of risky play, and that where children are less restricted their creativity and imagination are opened up.

Some of the best examples of children’s agency and participation in play tend to be in the outdoors where some fascinating research has taken place, and some great examples of this are within this issue. For example, McAuliffe, Hinchion and Lynch focused on the risky elements of children’s play, showing how both the socio-cultural contexts of children’s lives and the play spaces themselves impact on children’s play. In her work, once in play spaces it was evident what was valued by children was spaces they could make their own, by being imaginative and ‘risky’ with unstructured materials. Egan and Pope looked at such affordances in a different way, using the GUI data to reveal some national patterns in neighbourhood play. Again, the idea that to have agency in their play children need to take advantage of affordances of the neigbourhoods, in two ways. Firstly, in what is available to use or modify for play and secondly, crucially for what was permitted. They found chasing and imaginative play were more common than tree climbing, and that barriers to a full range of play, including those created by the adults themselves, must be recognised and resolved. An example for children’s agency and participation being enhanced by adults is Murphy’s work in Forest Schools, in her study the children explored and experimented with the properties and characteristics of making structures. She found through their designs, making, creativity was evident as well as learning around resilience, responsibility, independence and awareness of the surroundings. She also noted how happy the children were in their achievements. Cagney, Carol and Lynch’s work on children’s roles on designing play spaces, illustrates how logical it is to involve children in all stages of the provision of play spaces. Such research should provide wonderful example material for the guidelines they suggest for children’s participation in designing spaces for them, using the participatory methods such as they developed.


Final thoughts

There is much that draws all of the varied articles in this volume together; children’s agency, their participation in decisions and the actions they take. All of this would not be possible without the support of adults who are willing to ‘let go’ and recognise what children can, rather than cannot do. The articles are testament to the idea that what the forces at play in children’s lives, those working for and with them are a force of good in their lives. By taking time, as that is often what is needed, to listen to children and to act on what they say adults can make a significant difference to children’s lives. The articles also indicate how changes in legislation and thinking can ensure children’s lives do involve more opportunities for them to act on their agency with and participate in decisions about their lives, in all settings. Despite such provision, the recently launched Ireland 2040, a framework for development for Ireland mentions children just a handful of times, with most of these. It remains the case that in relation to national policy it does seem they are only considered in times of needs, such as early childhood, mental health and early school leaving. Reference to children in their everyday situations, particularly in relation to their roles in decision making about their lives in their communities and schools. This lack of children’s voice, agency and action includes their role in decision making about their local environments, the papers in this volume show the importance of listening to children and the power of the process of participation in play and education. The pages within this volume area treasure trove of what can be for the lives of our young people, whether at home, child care or school. Across the articles the research, whether in large scale national studies or smaller scale qualitative projects, reveals the agency of the youngest citizens of Ireland to be imaginative, creative and playful.