Consent in Play

Teaching consent to children is an important element of social-emotional learning. Consent in broad terms relates to the permission to engage in an activity with another person, or for something to happen. This idea becomes more important to understand and obtain when children’s play involves physical contact. 

Consent is constantly being sought and rejected throughout the day, often in very subtle ways.. For example, someone may reach their hand out towards another person as an invitation to hold hands, and the response of consent may be ‘yes’ by holding hands, or ‘no’ by not. When children are engaging, or would like to engage, in rough and tumble or physical play, the initial forms of consent may also be subtle. Consent may have evolved as a natural extension of the initial play that was taking place, and thus no explicit consent with each other was offered. 

However, as a caregiver it is important to ensure that all children involved in the play understand the potential outcomes, boundaries and agreement for the play:

  • Outcomes - this relates to the potential for injury or tears that may come from the actions within the play. For example, when playing with sticks someone may get hit with a stick and that may hurt. Is everyone okay with this?
  • Boundaries - expectations and understanding needs to be clear between all parties as to what is and is not allowed in the play. For example, if children are participating in a game where balls are being thrown at each other, the areas to aim for should be outlined (such as no headshots). Alternatively, a child may have a bruise on their leg and would like that area of their body to be avoided if possible. 
  • Agreement - agreement from every child engaged in the play is required. If one child does not agree with any of the previous components (either the outcomes or boundaries) then they do not have to participate. If everyone agrees, the children are free to play and follow the expectations that have been set. Additionally, this is also a good time to inform the children about what a withdrawal of consent looks like. This can take the form of a verbal phrase, such as stop, or a physical withdrawal by walking away. This element of consent is an ongoing and continuous process, and may ebb and flow throughout a play scenario. 

Using the components of consent outlined above allows a caregiver to adhere to a duty of care while at the same time letting the children make choices about their play. When/if the undesirable outcome (inevitably) occurs, you are able to continue the conversation and remind the child that they agreed to play (using their actions or through verbal agreement) despite being aware of the potential outcome.

Laying the groundwork for understanding and seeking consent in the early years enables children to respect the boundaries of others throughout their lives, and is an important element of the social-emotional development of the child.