INGO Children’s Participation Forum: Steps for Engaging Young Children in Research

December 2015

Our Project Intern Philippa Watts, who has experience working with young children with special needs, participated in the INGO Children’s Participation Forum last week. Child to Child has been convening the Forum quarterly since early 2012. Last week’s session explored how to involve young children in research, as well as the advantages and challenges that this practice entails. Philippa tells us what she learnt from this interesting gathering.

The new logo for the INGO Children's Participation Forum.

The new logo for the INGO Children’s Participation Forum.


By Philippa Watts, Project Intern at Child to Child

If the ten years that I have spent working with young children has taught me anything, it is that for very small people, they have some really big ideas. Given the space to think and create, they are highly innovative, and demonstrate a perceptiveness that can catch adults by surprise. Unfortunately, these adults often regard their out-of-the-box thinking as outlandish, or just plain childish, and children’s opinions get left by the roadside.

A team based at the University of Brighton, funded and supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, has been working hard to rectify this situation. Presenting at the recent INGO Children’s Participation Forum, Dr Vicky Johnson unveiled Steps to Engaging Young Children in Research – which she co-edited with Roger Hart and Jennifer Colwell -, a guide and practical toolkit that aims to do exactly what it says on the tin. Funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the Brighton research team worked closely with experts and organisations across the globe to collect case studies and methods which enable researchers to work effectively with children under the age of 8, and get their unique perspective on the issues that affect them.

Designed to be accessible for all who work with young children, be it in academia, on the ground or in programme management, it does not take an expert in participation to see why the Steps are effective. Before diving into working with the young participants, the guide advocates taking a slow approach: ensuring that researchers and partners are prepared for the work ahead, checking that ethical systems are in place, and developing relationships with children. These elements are crucial in any work with children; while social conventions might go some way to ensuring adults work with researchers, if a four year old decides that they have better things to do than your research, chances are they’ll be half a mile away before you even realise they are bored. Adult researchers need to be open to very new, flexible ways of working, and will get far more out of a child who trusts them and enjoys being in their company.


The tools themselves are based around that all-important childhood skill: play. Games, roleplays, props and physical activities all feature in the toolkit, creating a friendly, open atmosphere which allows children to communicate and contribute in the ways that they are most comfortable with. By using these forms of communication, researchers are able to step back and let children take the lead. Not only is this important for giving a truer interpretation of children’s perspectives and opinions (not easy with an adult breathing down their necks), it also redresses the balance of power between children and adults, boosting self-confidence and leadership qualities amongst the children themselves. Add the fact that these tools are an awful lot of fun, and you have a recipe for a thought-provoking and informative research session. In fact, having seen some of these tools being trialled by laughing, beaming adults, I have often wondered if research in this vein wouldn’t be much more effective in all areas and sectors.

Having presented the toolkit to the Forum, Vicky Johnson invited the attendees to discuss their own experiences of using these kinds of tools with children. I cannot help thinking that there had been some ‘preaching to the converted’: the buzz that filled the room as people from a variety of backgrounds discussed work done with children was full of excitement and enthusiasm. However, while many interesting success stories were shared, the discussion did also bring to light the obstacles that still exist for children’s participation. Adult attitudes and a limited understanding of the true meaning of participation, both among donors and among researchers themselves, could limit the effectiveness of these tools. It also became clear that, in practice, even researchers with the best intentions struggle to be fully inclusive. The youngest children are often neglected, sometimes due to age limitations set by ethics boards, and there is still a great deal of work to be done working with and developing tools accessible for children with learning and communication difficulties. Nevertheless, the benefits are clearly enormous, and this was highlighted with case studies provided by Tricia Young (Director of Child to Child) on the project with Pikin to Pikin in Sierra Leone, and Anannia Admassu* (Director of CHADET) on projects relating to the rural-urban migration of girls in Ethiopia.

In short, while there is still work to be done, the University of Brighton team has done invaluable work in collating examples of best practice from across the world, and creating a simple guide that can only help to improve the quality of research, with immediate benefits for the children taking part. Promoting participatory techniques for involving children in all areas of project and academic work remains vital, and the INGO Children’s Participation Forum is just one small way that this is being achieved.


To download the Steps toolkit and guide, visit the University of Brighton’s website.

* To read Anannia Admassu’s interview about the need for education in rural areas of Ethiopia, click here.