Innovative research with children and young people

Two weeks ago, I attended an exciting and stimulating course at The University of Edinburgh about developing innovative methods in research with children and young people. The hands on two-day course provided us with opportunities to explore our own learning and development needs, consider how children and young people can be involved in the research continuum and understand how existing groups have successfully developed research with children and young people.

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The course was hosted by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR), which was established in 2001 as a consortium research centre based at The University of Edinburgh, with partners at the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Highlands & Islands and Stirling. CRFR also works in collaboration with the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham. Professor Kay Tisdall and Dr Susan Elsley facilitated the two-day course, which was unique to other courses that I have attended in the past (in a good way)!

Getting started

We began by defining our ways of working during the course, by sharing rules and expectations of ourselves and each other – similar to what we may do when conducting focus groups with young people. We then partnered with someone in the room who we didn’t know, and were tasked with creating a masterpiece that defined our skills and experiences… using LEGO!

A common theme that emerged during our LEGO starter activity was the idea of building bridges between researchers and young people. Coincidently, we struggled to find any male character LEGO models, reflective of personal observations that young men are underrepresented in research.

What’s in it for children and young people?

The question that began discussions on day one was, ‘What’s it in for children and young people, now and in the future?’ In research, we can be so focused on collecting data and achieving goals set by institutions and research programmes that we can, unintentionally, forget what children and young people get out of participating in research. Everyone in the room was passionate about ensuring that their research can be the best it can be; however, there was some confusion about the look and feel of participatory research with children and young people, as if the topic does not stem from them, then research is surely still researcher-led? This led into healthy discussions about the ethics of research with children and young people.

Ethical research with children and young people

As child and family health researchers, working with children and young people can help us to understand what children think about the issues that are affecting them, which is vital in my field of work involving long-term conditions. However, any research with children and young people must balance the aims and objectives of the research with the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. Therefore, it is important to provide the right support and have plans in place to know when to take appropriate action, ensuring that children and young people feel respected, and most importantly, safe. This is of particular importance when discussing sensitive issues, such as health.


At the end of the day, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that every eventuality is considered, particularly during the planning stages of the research. In particular, researchers must think about: (i) how to obtain informed consent and assent; (ii) how to manage the risk of harm to children and young people; and (iii) what to do with the information gathered during the research, ensuring that children and young people are informed and involved in understanding the outputs of research. There’s some useful guidance over on the NSPCC website, as well as Alderson and Morrow’s 10-point checklist for conducting ethical research with children and young people (Alderson, P., and Morrow, V. (2004) Ethics, social research and consulting with children and young people. Barkingside: Barnardo’s). Here are the key points that I think you must consider, adapted from Alderson and Morrow’s list:

  1. Throughly plan your project well in advance of collecting data;
  2. Assess the harms and benefits of your research for everyone who is likely to be involved;
  3. Respect the rights of children and young people, including anonymity, confidentiality, and privacy;
  4. Think about the selection and participation of children and young people, ensuring equal opportunities for all;
  5. Money matters – people should not be out-of-pocket when participating in your research;
  6. Ensure that your research methods are appropriate for your research aims and objectives, and that they are appropriate for the individuals who are going to be participating;
  7. Information for children and young people must be age- and developmentally-appropriate, hence why it is critical for children, young people and their families to be involved in designing such materials;
  8. Be clear about assent and consent – consent is required from parents and/or carers for those under 16; however, ensuring that children and young people are happy themselves to participate is so important, hence why assent should always be agreed;
  9. Reporting and dissemination – all too often, once people participate in research, they never hear from the researchers again! This is completely unacceptable, and it is down to researchers to ensure that all participants have the option to find out about results of the research that they have been involved in;
  10. The impact on children, young people and their families. Increasingly, we are focusing on the impact of research as part of the research process, continually evaluating and implementing findings to ensure that our research positively influences the lives of children and young people.

From participant to producer: the continuum of involving children and young people in research

“The concept of participation emphasises that including children should not only be a momentary act, but the starting point for an intense exchange between children and adults on the development of policies, programmes and measures in all relevant contexts of children’s lives….” United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

There are lots of ways to involve children and young people in research. As well as their participation in research as participants at one end of the continuum, two fantastic ways to actively involve them in research at the other end of the continuum is as an advisory group member or as a co-researcher. Having been a young person co-researcher prior to my doctoral research, I have witnessed the benefit this brings to any piece of research. I’ve also seen some fantastic examples over the years where co-researchers have been valued, respected and integrated as part of the research team, as well as some not so good examples where the process has been tokenistic and a misguided tick box exercise to increase the likelihood of successful funding.

However, the researcher must make adjustments to ensure that children and young people as co-researchers are adequately supported, and receive appropriate information and guidance to help them to shape the research. Researchers should attempt to build bridges with other resources aimed at children and young people – so it may be time for you to head to the local book store to see how illustrated books are wrote! It may sound trivial, but as researchers, we can become so focused with the methodological detail of our research that we overlook the simplistic and human side of research, which is absolutely essential when working with children. Individuals also highlighted the Plain Language Commission as a good resource to look at when developing accessible materials. As with everything in life, I am more of an optimist than a pessimist. So for those who say that children under eight cannot complete a health survey, my response would be that you must change the way you conduct your survey so that they can do it – children are intelligent!

Participative research methods

Participative methods in research with children and young people are both creative and participatory, focused on utilising multiple methods which place children and young people at the heart of research, viewing them as competent and active makers and explorers of their environment. There are three key claims about participative research methods. First and foremost, they are inclusive, since there are multiple methods which allow for multiple ways of communicating. Since many participative methods are creative or arts-based, they increase the likelihood for more people to participate in research. Participative techniques also have epistemological benefits, as they ascribe value to previously neglected knowledge. By the way, epistemological is academic language which describes the theory of knowledge! Finally, participative methods also have ethical benefits, since giving children and young people control over research is likely to make the results more reliable, valid and ethically acceptable.

Having a bag of tools within reach is a great way for researchers working with children and young people to select the most appropriate method to best address the research aims and the group of individuals involved in that particular piece of research, since it is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

One example of a participative research method is the mosaic approach, an adaptable approach which utilises multiple methods for listening to children and young people about their lives. It enables children to be experts and agents in their own lives, without the interference of adult interpretation. According to Clark (2005), there are seven methodological pieces of the mosaic approach:

Method Comments
Observation Qualitative observation accounts
Child interviewing A short, structured interview conducted individually or in a group
Photography and book making Children photograph important things to them
Tours Children direct and record tours of specific locations
Map making Children develop two-dimensional representations of locations using their own photographs and drawings
Interviews Informal interviews with parents/carers and practitioners
Magic carpet A slide show of familiar and different places to open up other possibilities using imagination

We also had the opportunity to participate in some activities using different methods that we could draw upon from our ‘bag of tools’. Here are just some examples of innovative methods researchers can use when conducting participatory research with children and young people, and some scenarios to explain them.

IMG_9814Paper people: A scenario is given to the young person. For example, the hospital waiting room. The researcher or young person draws a vertical line down the middle of the paper person. The left hand side represents the current waiting room. The right hand side represents how the waiting room could be improved. Young people are then asked to discuss different aspects of how the waiting room is currently experienced, using words, drawings or stickers. For example, on the eyes, how does the waiting room look? On the left hand side, words such as boring, white and clinical may be used. On the right hand side, words such as fun, colourful and relaxed may be used.

Collage: The researcher asks the young person to use the available resources to put together a collage, in response to the research aim. A collage uses the available resources (for example, magazines and newspapers), to create a visual representation in response to the research aim as the young person wishes. The researcher then asks the young person to discuss the collage, in light of the research aim, using think aloud techniques.

Drawing: The researcher asks the young person to draw a picture or map of something related to the research aim. The researcher asks the young person to explain what they drew and then asks whether any aspects of what the young person drew relates to the research aim.


Ranking game: The researcher asks the young person to think about a certain topic, for example, what they enjoy the most at school. The young person will be asked to list a number of points on post-it notes, probably around five or six (though this number can and will vary). The researcher then asks the young person to rank the post its from most to least important. This can be done on a wall, flip chart board or even on a table.

Puppets: The researcher asks the young person to have a look at the puppets. The researcher could ask the young person to think about a conversation with their teacher about their health condition. The researcher asks the young person to use the puppets to show how they would talk to the teacher, and how the teacher would talk to them.

Debating statements: The researcher has cards with agree and disagree on them in large letters. These are placed on the floor some way apart (for example, left of the room for agree, right of the room for disagree). Young people are then invited to stand next to the cards in response to statements which the researcher says. When young people have chosen their place, the researcher would probe to ask why they feel this way. Individuals may pick a place between agree and disagree (for example, if they have mixed thoughts). The researcher should make sure young people know that they can move if they change their mind and that there are no right or wrong answers. The researcher should aim to get young people debating.

Photography tour: First, you must decide what camera to use: a traditional camera  or a smartphone, belonging to either the researcher or young person. The researcher then invites the young person to lead them on a tour, taking photos of things that are of particular interest or relevant to them, in the context of the research aim. For example, we may wish to understand what average day-to-day life is like for a young person living with type one diabetes mellitus. The researcher may wish to use each photo as a chance to probe the young person’s views. For example, why did you take a photo of that? How does it make you feel?

Lights, camera, action!

Following a busy and thought-provoking first day, the second day of the course focused on two groups in Scotland who work with children and young people: the Children’s Parliament and Youth Edinburgh Action. It was fabulous to hear from young people about the work that they’ve done as part of these two organisations, and the journeys that they have taken. This was definitely part of the course where everyone’s energy and enthusiasm for research with children and young people was revitalised!

The Children’s Parliament builds relationships that allow children in Scotland the opportunity to voice their ideas, thoughts and feelings; so that their concerns and opinions can be listened to and acted upon. The Children’s Parliament is not a physical entity; rather, it becomes physical in any space when the group come together. The Children’s Parliament work directly with children through projects and consultations, in addition to educating and equipping adults with the knowledge and skills required to embed the Children’s Parliament’s approach into their respective organisations. At the root of their work is a commitment to increasing children and adults’ knowledge and understanding of children’s human rights with the aim of ensuring that the confident voices of children – and the good listening skills of adults –  help to keep children happy, healthy, and safe. Through their community programmes, projects and consultations, children learn a variety of skills, values, behaviours and knowledge.

Children's ParliamentThe Children’s Parliament identified bullying as a topic which they wanted to influence. This led onto discussions about human dignity, recognising that every human being is important and special.

“No matter how others treat you, they never have the right to take away your human dignity.”

In order to generate discussion about human dignity, the Children’s Parliament through the Imagining Aberdeen project designed the ‘dignometer’. Each table was then tasked with designing a human dignometer, describing the spectrum of human dignity, from what is ‘helpful’ to what is ‘in the way’. We were able to do this thanks to the fabulous young people from the Children’s Parliament who explained what to do to the researchers. In true Art Attack style, here’s two we made earlier…


UnfeartiesThe Children’s Parliament celebrates its 21st birthday in 2017, and to mark this special occasion, they have created an inspiring and brave brand of Unfearties – individuals who are not feart (afraid), are making a difference to the lives of children and who are willing to speak up for, and stand alongside children. I’ve join the brave band of Unfearties, so why don’t you do the same!


Young Edinburgh Action is an innovative approach to implementing the City of Edinburgh Council’s young people’s participation strategy, the aim of which is to facilitate young people’s meaningful participation in partnership working and decision-making. Youth Edinburgh Action supports young people to identify and research issues that matter to them in Edinburgh. The findings from this participatory action research carried out by young people are then shared with decision makers at ‘conversations for action’, where action plans are developed based on the young people’s recommendations for improving services.

Young Edinburgh Action shared with us how they attempt to include as many children and young people from across Edinburgh in their work through hosting an annual gathering – an open event where young people can learn more about Young Edinburgh Action, prioritise research areas of importance to them, and if they wish to do so, join an action research group to tackle a problem head on. It was truly amazing to witness the transformation this experience has had on one young person. This session also reminded us that research isn’t just done by researchers. Every day, people around the world actually do research, including children and young people. Whether it be finding out where to eat at the weekend, planning the best walking route in the Lake District, or finding the best computer game to buy next week – the entire world is doing research, and we need to celebrate that and use those skills that people already possess to ensure that research around the world has a positive and lasting impact.

Making research the best it can be

I certainly left this course feeling inspired and excited about the work I will do over the next few years as part of my doctoral research with iSMART. This was also a fabulous opportunity to meet people from around the world who are working in the field of child and family health, and it was particularly interesting to learn from those outside of my discipline area, as it is this holistic and multi-disciplinary view that enables us to reject the norm, challenge preconceived ideas as to how research should be done and be brave in the pursuit of making a difference, no matter how small, to the lives of children, young people and their families.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” Eleanor Roosevelt

I also got to see a little bit of Edinburgh… what a beautiful city it is!

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  1. Thanks for writing this blog about what looked like an amazing course! I’m enthused just by reading it. Would you know if this course will run again? I would be interested to sign up for it.

    Line Caes


    1. Hi Line, It was a great course indeed! They run this every year (though in past years, the topic has been slightly different, though still related to children and young people). They also host a number of other courses and events that may be of interest, keep an eye out for anything on their website:

      Best wishes,


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