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FOCUS December 2005 Volume 42

Fostering a Culture of Child Participation: The Case of Tsurugashima City

Yoshie Abe*

* Yoshie Abe is a Research Associate in the Faculty of Literature, Waseda University.

In 2004, the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended the promotion of child participation in the development of national and local government policies regarding children. The UN, however, has yet to indicate specific methodologies or theories for this purpose. In Japan, Kawasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture adopted a comprehensive local ordinance on child rights, one of the first such initiatives by local governments in the world. The Kawasaki City Committee on the Rights of Children, which monitors the implementation of the policies, tried in its first term (September 2001 to April 2004) to include children in the monitoring process. But there were many issues that needed to be solved. The development of methods to promote child participation in drafting policy and in its evaluation is therefore necessary. This article introduces the efforts of Tsurugashima City in Saitama Prefecture in promoting child participation.

Adult learning process opening ways for child participation

Tsurugashima City, about 45 kilometers north of Tokyo, has a population of 69,000. Formerly a rural area, it experienced rapid urbanization. Its population shot up since 1965. Its administrative status changed from village to town in 1966 then to city in 1991. Libraries and other social education facilities (staffed with qualified social education officers, librarians and other personnel) were established considering the milieu of the people's daily lives. This environment contributed to active learning by the people, and their high awareness through these activities led to community building based on people's participation.

The City ensures various forms of people's participation in social education, such as in the management councils of public halls and community centers. But prior to 2000 no such system for people's participation existed in the area of school education or administration of educational policies as a whole. The creation of the Education Council (composed of representatives of schools, education administration, parents, and people in general) in 2000 enabled the people to pay attention to the participation of children.

Children as small community builders

In 2001, the Board of Education in the City identified children as 'small community builders,' and placed child participation issue as its focus. The concept of children as 'small community builders' means that they are actors as well as partners for cooperation in community building at present and are also responsible for community building in the future. The idea is in line with results of the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Children in 2002.[1]

Based on this idea, the City started in 2002 the annual "Children's Free Talk" as a way to ensure expression of views and participation by children, as well as to receive views on the City's "Basic Principles on Education."

"Children's Free Talk" is an initiative to incorporate the views of the children in the development of education policies. It involves children from 4th grade primary school up to senior high school. 10 to 20 children participate each time on a continuing basis. The experience shows that for children to become active participants as 'small community builders,' public relations and awareness-raising alone are insufficient. And for child participation to take root, building upon small initiatives such as this is essential.

New competencies of adults

UNICEF, which globally advocates child participation based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that in order to promote child participation, "adults must develop new competencies of their own. "[2] Adults "must learn how to effectively elicit the views of children and young people and to recognize their multiple voices, the various ways children and young people express themselves, and how to interpret their messages, both verbal and non-verbal." Further, they "must ensure that there is opportunity, time and a safe place for the opinions of children and young people to be heard and given due weight." It sees the need of adults involved with children to develop their "own capabilities to respond appropriately to the messages and opinions of children and young people."

One of the characteristics of "Children's Free Talk " is its emphasis on the role of the facilitator, who has expertise and techniques in child participation. A facilitator elicits the views of children and promotes their participation. Tsurugashima City sees the role of the facilitator as someone who creates an environment in which each participant can express what she/he is thinking, organizes various views based on the agreement of the participants, and assists them in forming new ideas. While facilitation is a very engaging task it still respects the independence of the participants in all situations. The facilitator, therefore, is key to making children express their views, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the success of child participation initiatives depends on him/her.[3] That the importance of the facilitator is recognized is due to the City's climate of respect for expertise in education.

This does not mean that the initiative is dependent on outside facilitators. The Board of Education staff, who have been participating in the "Children's Free Talk", compiled a document on how adults can be involved with children to promote their participation. It provides 11 points such as the importance of adults waiting without giving instructions or assistance until the children themselves become aware and start to act, and recognizing that children can learn from mistakes.

"We want to say more."

With the adults' "waiting and assisting" drawing forth the strength of the children, they (children) started to act on their own, voluntarily initiating discussions in the "Children's Free Talk." Children with disabilities also participate. Through continued involvement of members of the Education Council and local government officials and the building of trust with children, their (children's) voices such as "we want to say more," or "once a month is not enough," can be heard. Many municipalities face the problem of non-participation of children even in organizing events for them, or the decreasing number of participating children over time. In "Children's Free Talk," this problem does not exist. On the contrary, the children are asking, "When is the next meeting?" and they have so much fun during the discussions.

A number of proposals have been directly incorporated in the "Basic Principles on Education" from the discussions in "Children's Free Talk" such as cutting the number of times the students clean the classrooms so that more time can be allotted to play, development of curriculums and schools based on the children's evaluation, adoption of measures to make the children themselves realize the significance of child participation, promotion of participation of children as official members of school councils, and study of the possibility of on-site inspection of schools by children from other schools.

The primary schools in Tsurugashima City have already started to cut the frequency of school cleaning to create more time for children to play. Children welcomed the move saying, "we can play as much as we want," and "the teacher started to tell us stories." School has become a "fun place." Child participation on a school-wide basis has also started to take place, such as festivals in which children's groups were the main organizers.

The case of Tsurugashima City, which fulfills child participation without local ordinances, indicates that child participation is possible in any municipality. Even though there is probably declining birth rate, there are children in any village, town or city. It is now the adults' turn to change so that they can support the participation of children.

Endnotes

1. For more information about the UN General Assembly Special Session, refer to the document entitled A World Fit for Our Children and visit www.unicef.org/specialsession/highlights/index.html

2. UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2003 (New York: UNICEF), page 2.

3. See Tsurugashima no Kyouiku (Education in Tsurugashima Newsletter), volume 107 (Tsurugashima: Board of Education), page 6.


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