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Why do research in to children’s play?
Well, let’s face it, if you are serious about anything, you research it. Research is a structured and disciplined commitment to finding out about a subject. That’s a little more than asking questions to find out what you want to know. It’s about designing ways of looking, listening, investigating and exploring that will help you find out the unknown, unknowns, it’s about designing ways to enable all that might be learnt about a thing to bubble to the surface. When we do research like this it raises new questions for investigation, illuminates issues related to, but tangential to a subject that simple evaluation often misses, it provides opportunity for surprises, for dissident voices and ideas and incongruences to appear and sometimes, all too often perhaps, for the downright obvious to emerge, right under everyone’s nose.
As adults we have all played, so we already have a fair idea about it. That said, our individual experiences, while useful can form a pre-existing lens. We can have a tendency to interpret children’s experiences through our own, we can misinterpret, and we certainly cannot live in their shoes to really understand their context. What we can do is have positive regard for their preferred disposition (play/playful) and make concerted efforts to understand what playing means to them and what conditions best support it. When we engage in that endeavour with children, we can come to understand the unique sets of conditions that work for them in their contexts and we can work with all concerned to try and assemble those conditions appropriately. Creating assets for play that will benefit children and the wider community.
Play encapsulates so many of children’s interconnected and indivisible rights that to ignore it as some sort of adjunct to their lives screams of tokenism and disregard. Researching play is essential if we are serious about upholding children’s rights a citizens. We try to develop research methodologies that enable participants, whether they be younger or older human beings, to feel wanted, important, and valuable, because they are.
Where participants are older human beings, responsible perhaps for designing planning or delivery of services, when they are relaxed and confident that their contribution matters, they value the opportunity to enter another timespace. A very different timespace to that which they occupy in their everyday lives, and when together as researchers and participants we achieve this, there is a flow, a magic that happens, an unlocking of expertise of the lived experience all too often obscured or submerged by the demands of everyday lifework.
In most contexts there is a significant power differential that favours older over younger human beings. When researching with younger human beings’ significant efforts must be made to achieve a more even distribution of power or even reverse it. When this is achieved the richness of information, the expertise the young have of their everyday experience of the practices, attitudes and structures they are subject to is profound. Equally, when they feel respected and trust you are listening and actually do care they will share their ideas, creativity, concerns and contemplations. These are rarely as bound by convention as those of older humans and as such provide insights to possible news ways of doing things.
It is vital to surface this richness of information if the potential of any initiative is to be realised and research is the way to do it. The nuance, the detail, the specificity of this situated and contextual information is what initiatives really need if they are to succeed. Principles of practice, design etc are always an excellent starting point but rarely can principles alone meet the differentiated demands of varied communities and contexts. Research avoids presumption and assumption and we all know what they can lead to…
Furthermore, it is all too common to finish group interviews, focus groups or workshops with participants, younger or older and hear them sharing exclamations about the quality and importance of the actual act of participation.
While working with school teaching staff after an hour-long focus group some participants were moved to tears having had their first opportunity in three years to actually stop and really think about the journey they had been on, its trials, tribulations and achievements. Equally importantly the detailed recollections of their experiences shaped project development plans and guidance for practitioners implementing similar projects, saving valuable time and money.
Two weeks in to a four-week workshop programme with secondary school children they asked us to tell them why this stuff (Their opportunities to play, to choose what they do, where when and with how) actually mattered. We stopped and shared our understanding about children’s voices being marginalised by an all too often uneven distribution of power and their play being, leisure and recreation time being poorly valued and provided. The whole dynamic shifted, they told us they had never been spoken to like that, no one really listens to us, we get asked stuff, but no one really cares.
For the remainder of that session and the next two weeks workshops, 25 children from years seven to eleven carefully, thoughtfully, and consistently shared a degree of expertise about their lived experience that was enough to shape the work of a Local Authorities leisure service, planning department, urban regeneration unit, economic development department and education and social services department for years to come. Detailed and nuanced accounts rich with specificity the kind of detail that really makes a difference to the success or failure of an initiative.
In a two-hour workshopping session for a local authority with multiple departmental leads. The chair, in disbelief at what had been achieved asked for a copy of our notes realising they and their colleagues had just designed, planned and programmed the next three year work plan.
Strictly speaking research aims to do two things:
Conceptual: Generate new knowledge/contribute to existing pool of understanding on a subject
Application: Make a positive difference to the population of study
All the research we do is applied research. What that means to us is that we are only really interested in doing research where the outcome is an immediate beneficial change in practice. Now, that change can be a change in the policies and practices of an organisation, a change in the landscape design of a visitor attraction or Urban design master plan, or changes in services delivery of a department for example. Importantly though the changes our research recommends are only ever changes that we think will have a direct or indirect influence on the quantity and quality of children’s play experiences.