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Untangling "Consulting" with Children

I’ve recently had the opportunity to expand my practice into what was a new area for me; consulting with children.  In some ways it wasn’t new area at all; ongoing consultation with children is a part of my everyday practice; I’m always seeking to get to know the children I’m working with and learning about their interests and needs and, if you work with children you likely do this too, perhaps without even thinking about it in those terms. But when we talk about a “Consultation” we do mean something slightly different, and those differences can make it feel like a whole new and intimidating task.

A Consultation differs from those everyday inquiries in two key ways. Firstly you are seeking specific information within a specific time frame and secondly you are bringing in an outside agenda to your interactions with the children.

Thinking about how to do this in an effective and non-tokenistic way bought up a whole set of questions:

How do you consult with children in a meaningful way, for the children involved and in terms of your agenda?

How do get information that genuinely comes from the child?

How do you communicate what you want from them and… What are you actually asking?

Throughout this work I’ve thought about, explored and discussed these questions and have come up with a few different ways of trying to answer them. These ideas have informed the sessions I’ve designed and facilitated for children and young people so far. These have been for a few different organisations and have been largely focused on hospital waiting spaces and how the child’s experience of this space could be improved but has also been relevant to some work I’ve been doing with a group of children around the play spaces in their school.

When I put all this together I come up with something like a work in progress methodology! Here’s what it looks like:

1.Interrogate your Agenda!

This is my starting point. I notice two big assumptions that we tend to make, especially when asking big or complex questions. And this kind of self-interrogation can help avoid both.

The first is simply that we assume that we know exactly what we’re asking or looking for from an interaction when actually we tend to pile up a lot of superfluous information without even thinking about it.

The second is perhaps a little more complex. It’s when we assume that the people we’re communicating with have all the tools to interpret what we are saying in the way we are saying it. People tend to find it quite easy to switch their communication or language style for younger children, but, when it comes to slightly older children and teenagers’ I’ve seen adults get a bit stumped. It may be that they’re self-conscious or nervous in front of an audience who so often get a bad rep, but I also think there’s an element of conflating explaining things clearly and simply with ‘talking down’ to people. Which isn’t necessarily true.

I start by breaking down what I’m thinking and talking about into as few key concepts as possible. In a consultation this is likely to take the form of questions. If you can keep these key concepts at the centre of what you do and say, then you can make it relevant for any group. Start simple and then build on that if necessary, but often, you don’t need to do this in a formal way. The building and going deeper comes from the unplanned interactions you have during the process.

I find that creating a graphic breakdown is a good way of going through this thinking process myself, and, it’s also a valuable tool for supporting communication and understanding for the children you are working with. For children with learning difficulties and/or cognitive and language impairments having visual communication support can also be essential for access. I draw, so have a nice easy way to do this, but putting together some photos or symbols works just as well, and possibly better in some contexts

Visual Story explaining the purpose of a consultation on Waiting Spaces in hospitals

2. Find ways to make abstract ideas tangible

If you’re asking children to think about something that they can’t see, or touch or hear in that physical space then find a way to link it to something they can see, touch or hear. When you ask someone questions about how they experience something or how they want to experience something then you’re asking them to tap into their instincts about feeling and doing. That’s difficult to do just through thinking, especially for children. For consultations I did around waiting spaces in hospitals I created a ‘waiting space’ in the room using plastic sheets and chairs, it wasn’t particularly complex and wasn’t as effective perhaps as being in the actual space, but it made the idea of a physical space where your sit and wait more tangible to the children in the room. They could pretend that space was a waiting room and then think about what it should be like rather than do all that in their head. My thinking is that this will encourage more authentic responses.

A temporary “Waiting Space” created in a classroom

3. Get them doing

An unfamiliar adult asking a group of children questions, especially when they might be introducing quite new or complex ideas, is potentially quite an intimidating figure. If the children feel under pressure to please or say the right thing, they’re less likely to give genuine responses. Getting the children doing something, and even joining them in that task can help ease that pressure. When children (and probably adults too!) are engaged in a practical and/or creative task you have an opportunity to ask questions and tease out information in a more natural way. The activity/tasks will come from the ideas you’re consulting on, this is an opportunity to be creative and playful. Focus on getting the children engaged in something first and then, when they’re a bit more comfortable you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions.

4. Have multiple ways of participating

Following on from the ‘getting them doing’ point, that ‘doing’ needs to have multiple entry points or ways of engaging. Different children will participate and communicate ideas and feelings in different ways. Building this into your session creates a more inclusive environment as it allows you to facilitate a space with children/young people with a range of needs and abilities.  To do this you can think about scale, perspective and ways of expressing self. If you have a big collaborative creative activity planned you an also set up a smaller version that a children can work on alone or take to a quieter area. If you have an activity planned using written words and images, make sure there’s also an option for children to draw or even record their voices (most smart phones have the ability to record audio). Some children will stick to one thing throughout and really commit to and enjoy it. Some will try everything systematically and some with jump erratically between everything. Having different options and flexibility will make your sessions generally more interesting and stimulating but it could also enable a child to participate who wouldn’t have participated at all if there was only one option that just didn’t fit for their way of thinking or communicating.

Sheet of paper with the words “I want to” written across the top, someone has responded by drawing several bright coloured shapes. You can just make out some writing near the bottom.

5. Ask questions based on the children’s actions

Pay attention to what the children are doing in your session and how they’re interacting with the activity and ideas. Then ask questions based on this and listen to their answers! It’s easy to be really focussed on that information you’re trying to get but it’s more likely to come out in the flow of a conversation where both parties are engaged and listening than an interrogation. Link their answers to what you are consulting about for further questioning.  Always start at the simplest level and then go deeper/more complex as appropriate depending on the child.

It might look something like this;

You: Wow, I love all these animals! Is that a dog you’re drawing?

Child: Yeah, its my dog from home

You: Ahh, do you think people would like to see a picture of your dog?

Child: yes! Animals make people feel happy

It might stop there, or, depending on what your consulting on there might be an opportunity to take it further and investigate that child’s motivation or thought process. But I think you’re more likely to find those genuine bits of insight through this kind of questioning. Which leads nicely to point number six…

6.Prioritise authentic responses over amount of information.

This one is pretty straightforward but is maybe one of the hardest to do, our adult under-pressure instinct can be to push for as much information as possible but try and keep this in mind. You’re there for the children’s ideas and input whatever that is! Record everything as truly and thoroughly as you can but don’t focus on quantity at the expense of authenticity. I’ve also found that things that have maybe not seemed that directly ‘useful’ at the time later become an important part of a bigger picture. It’s also a part of respecting the children you are working with which leads nicely into my final point…

7. Be honest

Find an honest and clear way to explain what it is you plan to do with the information the children are giving you. This is important form an ethical perspective alone but also, if you’re looking for authentic responses from children then this needs to be an honest exchange both ways to work. This is also an opportunity to let the children know that you value their input and ideas.


I wanted to share these to hopefully help others working on consulting with children, but, equally, to open up a conversation. This is still a very new area to me, but it feels exciting and I’m keen to learn and explore more. I’d love to hear from anyone reading this about their thoughts and experiences. Comment below or drop me an email at playradical@outlook.com