Spaces to Play: gathering children's perspectives, Alison Clark, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, London
How can we increase our understandings of how children use spaces to play?
How can we make children's perspectives visible and audible in order to be the starting point for change?
This pilot study has set out to explore with three and four years olds in a preschool their understandings and uses of outdoor provision, in order to inform change. It has used the Mosaic approach which combines the traditional research tools of observation and interviewing with participatory methods, including the use of cameras, map making and child-led tours (Clark and Moss, 2001 )1.
This pilot project has been funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the Carnegie Trust. Focusing on the outdoor environment, the project has been carried out in collaboration with Learning through Landscapes, the national school grounds charity. Learning through Landscapes is working with Kent Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership and 15 early years settings across the county to develop accessible, replicable, low tech and affordable solutions to developing their outdoor environment. The research has been undertaken in one of these settings in Kent.
Spaces to Play project
Aims and Objectives
The pilot project set out to involve children under five years-old in the decision-making processes concerned with changes to an outdoor play space, in particular looking at:
How to listen: extending and adapting the Mosaic Approach in order to inform changes to the outdoor environment.
How to involve practitioners and parents: exploring how to provide a participatory framework for adults and children to discuss different perspectives.
Stage One: Gathering children's and adult's perspectives using observation, then the participatory tools of cameras, book making, tours, map making and the Magic Carpet, and ending with the more formal interviews with children, parents and practitioners.
The Manager and practitioners in the preschool wanted to develop the outdoor provision and had been given a small grant from Learning through Landscapes to begin this process. The preschool has over 80 children on its roll with up to 36 children at each session. A number of the children have special physical or behavioural needs. It serves an area of economic disadvantage.
Together with parents and practitioners, 28 three and four year olds were involved in the pilot project, which took place between September 2003 to February 2004.
Observation: a general observation of both a morning and afternoon session, then a focused observation of five randomly selected children
Cameras: 15 children, including some with speech and language delay, were asked to 'take photographs of what is important here'. The children used single use and basic reusable cameras.
Book making: 10 children who had taken the most photographs made individual books about the outdoor space. Two sets of photographs were made, one for the children and one for the researcher.
Tours: four children directed and recorded tours of the outdoor space, indicating the important places. The children were in charge of the route as well as how the tour was recorded. Each pair had a camera and a small tape recorder.
Map making: eight children worked in pairs and in a four to make maps of the outdoor space, using photos and adding drawings. These maps were made on large 'polos' - circular pieces of paper, with a hole in the middle to enable children to think about the space 'in the round'. Maps were displayed in the cloakroom area where parents, staff and children could discuss them.
Magic Carpet: this is a new piece of the Mosaic and has been adapted from an idea by Christine Parker (2001)2 as a way of talking to young children about different places. Slides were made of the local town centre, the castle and park (all taken from a child's height). Children watched these slides of their locality, whilst sitting in a darkened corner of the indoor play space on a 'Magic Carpet'.
Child interviews: 20 children were interviewed about their use and preferences in the outdoor space. The questions were structured but the format of the interviews remained flexible, and they were conducted outside in a place where the children might feel relaxed.
Practitioner and parent interviews: short interviews were carried out with the Manager, three other staff and four parents. Practitioners were asked about what they enjoyed doing with the children outside, and what they would like to change. Parents were asked about what their children enjoyed doing inside and outside at home and at preschool.
Stage Two: Discussing the material with children and adults, reflecting on what were the important places and uses of space emerging from the process.
Children's comments and photographs from Stage One were made into a book, which the researcher discussed with the children. They talked about their photographs and comments and answered questions in the text about their views on future changes to the space.
The book became the focus of two short staff meetings. The researcher shared the children's comments from the book and this led to a wider discussion about the children's photographs and map making.
The researcher and Learning through Landscapes Early Years Development Officer met to review the material. A large plan was made to summarise the visual and verbal material produced by the different research tools. Each of the tools were discussed in turn in order to reveal emerging themes from the reviews with children and practitioners.
Stage Three: Deciding areas of continuity and change. Four categories emerged- places to keep, places to expand, places to change and places to add.
Places to keep: the caterpillar
A large plastic caterpillar tunnel was regularly placed outside. It had been apparent from the first visit that the children enjoyed this strange shape. However, the use of the different research tools had emphasised just how important this piece of equipment was for the children: for example, ten of the sixty photographs chosen by the children in the book making activity, showed the caterpillar. This was a play space not to try to change.
Places to expand: the house
Observing the children revealed this to be a key resource for the children. The children confirmed this through their photographs, the tour and their interviews. Parents also mentioned the house as an important space in the preschool. However the interviews with practitioners showed that the house was a source of tension. They felt it was too small. The multi-method approach adopted had made these differences visible. The review with children, practitioners and Learning through Landscapes recognised these opposing views and raised some possible solutions. These included providing the children with building material, crates and planks to build their own temporary structures on the available ground.
Places to change: the fence
The children's photographs and maps emphasised how the security fence dominated the outdoor space. Close observation revealed another dimension. The gaps in the security fence were wide enough for the children to see through. Any solution needed to bear in mind the importance of leaving these gaps, so the people spotting and dog watching could continue. Three ideas under consideration are adding temporary weaving to the fence, placing paint boards on the fence and having binoculars and telescopes available for long-distance viewing.
Places to add: new seating and digging
The research process identified places which could be added to the outdoor space to maximise the children's enjoyment. The first was more places for adults and children to sit together. There was a lack of places for this to happen apart from the decking. The 'Magic Carpet' slide show drew on children's wider knowledge of places they liked to sit. One possibility emerging from this pilot project is to add seating for adults and children to sit comfortably together around the play space.
The second was places to dig. Observation had shown how popular the inside sandpit was: one child included a photograph of the inside sand tray in his book of important outdoor spaces! The opportunities to dig outside in the compost tray were not taken up by the children. However, parents talked about how their children liked to dig outside. Practitioners discussed adding a digging area as a new feature of the outdoor space.
What might be the possible uses of this approach with older children?
A flexible set of research tools
A multi-method, participatory approach, time consuming though it is, enables children with different skills and personalities to contribute their experiences.
This applies to older children including those with special needs. The tools you choose to use can be altered according to the children you are working with. For example, in a future project the research team is hoping to use the Mosaic approach with 4, 7 and 12 year olds. The 12 year olds will use videocameras rather than single use cameras. Perhaps older children could conduct the interviews with their peers?
'Experts in their own lives'
The philosophy behind the Mosaic approach, children as 'experts in their own lives' can apply to children of all ages. This was recognised by Iona and Peter Opie working in the 1950s onwards who wrote the classic 'lore and language of schoolchildren. They recognised this expertise and observed:
'The modern schoolchild when out of sight and on his own , appears rich in language, well-versed in custom, a respecter of the details of his own codes, and a practicing authority on traditional self-amusements.'3
So when designing outdoor spaces work needs to begin by looking at children and not looking at a catalogue. There is a temptation for practitioners to apply for a possible grant by looking up new pieces of equipment in a catalogue. However, the most rewarding changes are those which use as their starting point young children's views and experiences.
Listening is about learning
This approach to listening doesn't need to be seen as an extra activity that takes up valuable curriculum time, because this is about learning. At one level, there is the potential for learning goals to be achieved through working with children in this way: for example, developing speaking and listening skills through using the cameras. At a deeper level children are engaged in an active process of meaning making.
Learning through Landscapes: Kent Space to Grow Project
Following the completion of the research project and taking account of its findings, the Manager of the preschool has met with Learning through Landscapes to draw up an action plan which will form the basis for the development of the outdoor space.
Thomas Coram Research Unit: Spaces to Play Project
Following the successful completion of the pilot project, a three year project has been funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to work with young children, architects and early years managers and practitioners. This will extend the Mosaic approach to consider how young children's perspectives can be taken into account in a 'new build' and in early years institutions planning to change either the indoor or outdoor environment.
The pilot project has demonstrated how young children's views and experiences about their outdoor environment can play a tangible part in decision-making about change. Three and four year-olds of different abilities have shown themselves to be competent documenters of their play space.
We would like to express our thanks to the children, practitioners and parents who have made a unique contribution to this project. We are grateful for the support of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust and the Bernard van Leer Foundation for making this collaborative venture possible.
A book about this research, Spaces to Play: More Listening to Young Children using the Mosaic Approach by Alison Clark and Peter Moss will be published in the Autumn, 2004. Contact for details: email@example.com
1. Clark, A. and Moss, P. (2001) Listening to young children: the Mosaic approach. London: National Children's Bureau for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
2. Parker, C. (2001) 'When is she coming back?' in Abbott, L. and Nutbrown, C. (eds.) Experiencing Reggio Emilia: implications for pre-school provision. Buckingham: Open University Press.
3. Opie, P.. and Opie, I. (1959) The Lore and Language of School Children. Oxford: Clarendon Press.