When research is child’s play

Bethan Pell discusses the practical activities helping children and young people express themselves during sensitive research
Bethan Pell

In December 2020, I was awarded an Early Career Researcher Bursary from the Violence Abuse and Mental Health Network, to attend a ‘Creative Methods in Qualitative Research’ online training course.  

My motivation to apply for this scheme was to develop my knowledge, skills and experience in visual and creative methodologies with children and young people, specifically to develop and undertake doctoral study in the area of violence, abuse and mental health. You can read more about why I applied for the bursary and my experience of the course here.  

I was awarded this bursary at the same time as acquiring a full time post at DECIPHer, where I will be working on more research relating to the health and wellbeing of children and young people (CYP). I therefore felt that my development from this course would benefit me in my new role within DECIPHer.  

Picture sorts provide an insight into internal cognitive processes and decisions, which adults can find difficult to articulate, let alone children.’ 

In this blog, I will delve more into the practical activities, which included visual and creative methods such as picture sorts, artefacts and model making (with Lego or sandboxes). They provided an opportunity to experiment and reflect on alternative ways to articulate, express and represent experiences and feelings through visual metaphors. Although I have existing experience using creative and visual methods with adult participants, these methods are particularly useful when considering sensitive research with potentially vulnerable CYP. 

The Picture Sorts provided a detailed insight into the cognitive processes involved when interpreting and expressing ourselves, as well as individualisation within the activity, where there were different reasons and interpretations for choosing the same picture – reflecting internal representations externally.  I found this fascinating, and as a participant, really enjoyed hearing about others’ interpretations. This activity seemed like it would be particularly useful in research with CYP, providing an insight into internal cognitive processes and decisions, which adults can find difficult to articulate, let alone children! 

I was already acutely aware of the use of Model Making (Lego and sandboxing) in research with CYP but was still excited by the depth of information elicited from visual representation alone, coupled with the possibility of eliciting narratives by talking through the creative process. 

These methods give opportunity to express and represent the self, which provides safer, more engaging ways to explore sensitive issues with vulnerable children in research.’

I have used Artefacts as a creative and visual method in recent research with adult participants and I think it is an effective, time-and-resource-efficient way of integrating creativity into research. For this activity in the course, we had to select an object that represented life as a researcher. I chose a yoga mat, likening my journey to some of the ethos of yoga – practicing patience, building strength and skills, appreciating the importance of flexibility, reflection and balance. While listening to other narratives, I reflected how this exercise provided an insight into identity and sense of self, whilst also providing a springboard for further questions. I could see how this method would be great to use with CYP to initially help build rapport, whilst also encouraging narratives around self representations.  

Ethically, these methods give opportunity to express and represent the self, which provides safer, more engaging ways to explore sensitive issues with vulnerable children in research. Of course, you would need to consider your research questions, existing theory frameworks, and the suitability of each method in relation to these. Furthermore, co-production work with CYP and other relevant stakeholders would help to identify and select appropriate creative and visual methods and ensure gathering of relevant data. Practically, some of these creative methods may be quite expensive – although there are alternatives that work just as well. These types of activities also potentially add to participant experience. They are a lot of fun to take part in, highlighting how research can be made more engaging and enjoyable for CYP participants.  

I am extremely grateful to VAMHN for the opportunity to attend this course, where I have strengthened my knowledge, understanding and experience of using visual and creative methodologies, particularly with CYP. I would highly recommend researchers joining networks related to their research interest, pursuing opportunities that not only enhances professional development, but gives a sense of achievement! 

I hope to use my learning directly in my role with DECIPHer, and to strengthen my intended doctoral study research ideas for progression and development.   

Bethan Pell is a Research Associate at DECIPHer. You can find her on Twitter here.

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