Not all children in kindergarten actually participate

'Children in kindergarten come from different social backgrounds. Kindergarten facilities can help to even out social differences, but to do so, staff must pay close attention to the individual child. They don't always do that', according to researcher Lone Svinth.


Photo: Jannecke Sanne Normann


Kindergartens are a great place for all children, regardless of social background, to gain experience of participation.

‘Regrettably, that doesn’t always happen’, says Svinth. The Danish researcher’s doctoral thesis includes video recordings of interactions between adults and children. Altogether, she studied 24 different pedagogical  activities in two kindergartens in Denmark. She also interviewed employees and children in the kindergarten facilities.


Her study shows that all children do not have the same opportunities to participate in the pedagogical activities. Their right to participate is often limited by a weak position in the cohort, a poor command of Danish, or the adults giving the children vastly different levels of attention.

‘I saw that in the cases in which children participated, it was because the child itself took the initiative, not the adults.

‘If you are not proficient in a language, for example, it is difficult to make yourself heard. That can weigh too heavily on a child.

‘To participate, you must also challenge the adults, but that is not accepted in all cultures’, the researcher hastens to add.

‘The consequence may be that rather than being evened out, social differences are reproduced in kindergarten.

‘This is critical information’, Svinth cautions.


‘There are many things that kindergarten employees can do to include all the children. However, to do that, they may have to take a different perspective, focussing more on the individual child. It is not enough simply to state in the Framework Plan that children’s participation is important’, she says.

‘We need a cultural shift in our view of learning, at least here in Denmark.

Today, many understand learning first and foremost as knowledge transfer from adults to children. As a kindergarten employee, you try to create a situation in which the child is active, but if you stand quietly on the sidelines, observing, you get a different perspective. You see both the child and the situation.’

She mentions one example from her research:

‘Three children are sitting around a table, ready to make a sun that will be displayed in their unit. To do that, they use yellow paper plates and pipe cleaners that are to be attached to represent sunbeams. The adults have used a machine to punch holes for the pipe cleaners, and the children are supposed to attach them.

‘Four-year-old Sandra has placed the pipe cleaners so that they stick out on both sides of the holes. When a staff member notices this, she takes the sun out of Sandra’s hands and says: “That isn’t the right way. They’re supposed to look like sunbeams,” whereupon she attaches them as she sees fit. Sandra sits quietly, watching, shoulders sagging, until finally, she leaves the table.

‘I’ve seen many examples of how adults take over an activity, making the situation somewhat absurd. This situation makes Sandra think that her participation is not important. She can’t help shape the activity, and the adult is not seeing the situation from Sandra’s perspective’, the researcher points out.


‘Today’s educational system attaches too much importance to the child’s skills, e.g. that she is not fluent in Danish, rather than on the interaction between the adult and the child,’ comments Svinth, asking: ‘What can you, as an adult, do to make it possible for the child to participate? What kind of atmosphere is created by the interaction?’

She suggests that staff members must strive to introduce what she calls affective forces in kindergarten.

‘This involves thinking of ourselves and each other as individuals in relation to one another, not as separate individuals. She uses one specific example from one of the kindergartens to illustrate this: The 12 children in the unit are between three and five years old, and it is time to eat. The children have been told to sit with their hands in their laps and be quiet while the adults get the food ready and get the last children seated at the table. A few of the children whisper to their neighbour, but most of them sit quietly. The adults admonish the children to be quiet several times, reminding them to sit still. Eight minutes pass, and the mood has become tense, weighed down by the adults’ control and reprimands. Warnings to “Be quiet now”, “Let’s rest our ears, while we set the table” are getting increasingly frequent. Then one little boy starts to cough a bit. A couple of seconds later, another child starts to cough just a little. The coughing is now proliferating as a weak, but swelling energy around the table, the children watching each other vigilantly. The coughing stops when one of the adults says in an ironic tone: “Just imagine how lovely it will be when you have eaten and can go outside to play. Then you can run around and get very tired before you come in again.”

‘In this situation, the adults’ rules and reprimands create an atmosphere of control, and the children act out their opposition by feigning coughs. If the interaction is to be guided in a more fruitful direction, the adults need to consider what rules and feelings might result in good interaction between them and the children during the meal’, says Svinth.

In her doctoral thesis, Svinth concludes that staff must be open to recognising the children’s perspectives to a greater extent. This will create fertile conditions for strengthening children’s participation’, she concludes.