Over the last decade, the term ‘participation’ has gained prominence within children's services and policy formation. However, this term is used in variable ways and there remains a lack of consensus within policy circles about its employment. As a consequence, young people encounter a variety of practices to which this term is ascribed. This article explores the understandings of participation as they varied across settings with a cohort of upper-primary pupils who accessed a number of children's services within their locality. Contested meanings of participation became particularly apparent within a multi-agency project in which the area's community centre and housing office piloted a project packaged as an antisocial-behaviour prevention strategy. This project brought participatory learning strategies into the school and raised awareness for those participating about community services and opportunities. The article draws on observations of sessions and interviews with teachers, youth workers and young people to explore the negotiations around pedagogy and discourse that the project entailed in order to explore the different ways that participation was glossed within these negotiations. This examination of differing understandings and performances of participation is then used to reflect upon changing the children's services agenda and terminology.