Engaging young children in research

  • Colwell, Jen (PI)
  • de Carvalho, Xénia Venusta (CoI)
  • West, Andrew (CoI)
  • Johnson, Vicky (CoI)

Project Details


This research project highlighted the need to include younger children in research and practice internationally. The Bernard van Leer Foundation provided a grant of £82,000 to enable our researchers to examine how to involve younger children and develop materials for supporting their participation.

Steps for engaging young children in research is a comprehensive resource developed for academics and practitioner researchers wanting to include the perspectives of young children in their research.

The resource was developed with academics and practitioners, who had actively carried out research with children aged from five- to eight-years old. Once identified they were asked to join a network of experts. These experts represented a range of academic and professional fields, including: streetwork, playwork, social work, childhood studies, education, psychology, counselling, sociology and anthropology.

The project aimed to establish a comprehensive approach to the participation of younger children in research and practice internationally through the following objectives:

> analysing why younger children's perspectives are being overlooked, including the capacity of organisations, lack of systematic compilation of information, and the need for cross-disciplinary engagement
> reviewing the range of methods that have been developed to interact with younger children, including gaining an understanding of how their participation varies in diverse contexts, and
> developing new materials, which incorporate emerging new knowledge and understanding, for supporting young children's participation in research.

University of Brighton research team: Dr Jen Colwell, Dr Xenia Carvalho, Dr Andrew West, Freelance Researcher, Education Research Centre, University of Brighton; Dr Vicky Johnson.

Partners: Professor Roger Hart, New York City University; Linda Biersteker, Head of Research at the Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU), South Africa; Gina Crivello, Young Lives (Department of International Development), University of Oxford; Johanna Einarsdottir, Professor of Education, University of Iceland; Susan Engel, Professor, Department of Psychology at Williams College, Williamstown; Judith Ennew, Director, Knowing Children; Donna Koller, Associate, School of Early Childhood Studies, University of Ryerson; Claire O’Kane, Independent consultant in childhood and youth; Filipe Reis, Head of Anthropology Department, ISCTE, University Institute of Lisbon; Pashupati Sapkota, Program Manager, Save the Children, Nepal

Key findings

This research demonstrates that there are ways to engage young children meaningfully in research and gain their perspectives on issues which affect their lives. We found that the perspectives of young children can be gathered successfully by researchers by:

> establishing a relationship of trust
> utilising a medium of communication that is engaging
> considering the benefits and challenges of a variety of methods in different contexts
addressing the ethical and moral implications of the methods used.

Furthermore, as children become more adept at sharing their perspectives through research the value placed on their perspectives often also increased. The framework we have developed for considering which methodologies and associated methods to employ in research with young children can support others to engage in this process.

‘Steps to engaging young children in research’ is split into a Researcher Resource and a Researcher Toolkit. These have been developed to assist researchers to design research which is ethical, sensitive to the needs of the children and communities involved, and that is engaging for young children. These steps suggest an initial process of reviewing capabilities, developing ethical protocols and building trust and relationships.

The Researcher Toolkit encourages researchers planning to work with young children to consider not only the types of methods needed to answer different research questions, but also the context in which the methods are to be applied and the skills that will be required to use them.

This Researcher Toolkit is presented as guidance rather than as a ‘how-to guide’ to be strictly followed. Each research problem is unique, each group of children will have different needs and abilities and, as such, researchers need access to a variety of methods that can be applied flexibly; modified, and combined in different ways to provide a unique research design.

The resource begins by providing a series of six steps for developing a research process with young children. The resource provides detailed examples of multiple methods suitable for use in a variety of global contexts. These methods are clustered into groups, which include child-led tours, methods that are carried out in-situ, visuals that can be used for free expression or structured activities, narrative and performance, and play and games.

Alongside detailed consideration of how such methods can be used and developed in a variety of contexts with children from five years of age, detailed examples of their use is also provided.

This includes research using:

> doll play
> modelling clay and candle-lit stories in South Africa
> accompanying children and gaining children’s opinions using ranking methods in Nepal
> play with puppets in India.

In addition, comprehensive case studies that examine the method in use and the types of data produced are provided, including:

> developing early years settings in Ethiopia, addressing abuse in schools in Uganda
children’s views on aspects of schooling in England
> exploring wellbeing in Peru
> children’s perspectives of water supplies in Tibet
> addressing transition from kindergarten to school in Iceland.

Project findings were reviewed during the international expert meeting held at the Bernard van Leer Foundation offices in June 2013 at The Hague by academics and practitioners across disciplines. The next phase of this research will involve further consultation with practitioner researchers and children to refine the process in practice.

Johnson, V. Hart, R. Colwell, J. West. A. (forthcoming), Younger Perspectives: Involving younger children in research, to be published as web resource and book
Steps for Engaging Young Children in Research Volume 1: The Guide
Steps for Engaging Young Children in Research Volume 2: The Researcher Toolkit
Effective start/end date1/01/1331/12/14


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