Do we understand children?
The first AQR Children's Research Seminar, held at the RSA in May, proved to be a crowd-puller. We asked a client, Amy Tory from top European toy company Hasbro, and a researcher, April Blanchard from Clarity Research, whether the day lived up to expectations.
As they both pointed out, there is no set formula for working with children. Information is gained on the hoof, so seminars that can provide an opportunity to benchmark and offer an insight into how experienced and child savvy researchers are practicing are worth their weight in gold.
They may have looked for reassurance that the techniques they used were fundamentally sound, but their wish list went way beyond that. For instance Tory, as a psychology graduate, was keen to catch up on some of the latest thinking on child development and psychology while Blanchard wanted to be able to explore such issues as 'why we do what we do'.
Two papers stood out, in her eyes: the one from Marsha Hemingway, which outlined the principles underlying researching children, and the overview from Rosie Campbells of the teenage world, which provided a useful framework for evaluating individual research approaches with this age group.
"The only improvement would have been a paper exploring the latest thinking from related areas, e.g. psychology or education, to provide more ' food for thought' from other child specialists," said Blanchard.
As the day went on, it started to become clear the type of qualities needed to be successful in this area. "I took away an over-riding impression that a genuine interest in children, morally, academically and socially, is the key to a good child researcher," said Tory. "Additionally, when researching children, there is a heightened need to let them dictate the pace and to simultaneously listen, understand and observe."
This was a common theme, but one of the day's real strengths appeared to be the way it took delegates back to the basics. "It made you really consider factors that can have a huge impact on the nature of the research experience for the child such as the role of the research environment that can easily get lost amidst deadlines and pressure from clients," said Blanchard.
Many speakers touched on the problem of kids getting older younger, and the occasional inability of adult researchers to listen and take seriously the comments of children, to recognise how much they are capable of. "I think the very fact that the AQR devoted a seminar to 'Researching Children' is recognition that it isn't an easy task," said Tory. "However, all the researchers I met on the day were enthusiastic on the subject and thoroughly committed to getting it right."
Blanchard agreed, pointing to the debate on the ethics and practicalities of researching in schools as one of the more interesting to emerge. "This contentious issue provoked animated discussion that could have gone on much longer than the day allowed for," she said.
So did the day make delegates re-assess their views on what children are capable of contributing to research? "Children are at the heart of all that we do at Hasbro," said Tory, "so it's crucial that the research we conduct facilitates their free expression and talent. The day reinstated the fundamental considerations we need to make as researchers in order to create an effective environment where children can feel safe, comfortable and be themselves."
As the feedback forms post-seminar showed, delegates appreciated the thought provoking material provided by speakers, the organisation, and the venue not to mention the refreshments. "The best bit for me, however, was meeting other researchers," said Tory. "There was a sincere feeling that we all had something in common, something to share and something to learn."
As for Blanchard, "I was really impressed by the passion and commitment all the speakers and delegates brought to doing the best kid's research possible. The whole atmosphere and tone of the day was highly collaborative and supportive, more so than any other training course I have attended. "It was always going to be a challenge to satisfy such a diverse audience. The strength of the day was that, overall, it offered something for everyone, even if each paper did not entirely meet everyone's needs."
If the harshest quibble is a desire, next time round, for extra time and interactivity to discuss some of the more contentious research issues encountered, then there is obviously scope for a return match at some point.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, July 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001