The power of arts-based research methods in early years

10 February 2020

Despite a growing culture of ‘listening to children’, opportunities for young children to be meaningfully involved in developing the services and policies that affect them remain limited. Researchers from Strathclyde University have been exploring whether the arts can help ensure our youngest citizens have a voice. 

Children and young people have the right to be involved in all decisions affecting them, as enshrined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). This includes young children. However, young children’s right to express their views can be very challenging for adults trying to understand their perspective. 


Although there is a growing culture of ‘listening to children’ in early childhood settings, young children’s sphere of influence is limited by adult structures. For example, it is rare for young children to be meaningfully involved in public service planning or national government strategies, even when those strategies directly affect them. 


Our research pays special attention to the voices of those under 7 years of age and draws on techniques designed to facilitate children’s voices.  


The decision to focus on young children was driven by our knowledge that this group is often ignored or marginalised in the wider drive to address children’s participation and children’s broader rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2005: para. 14c) reminds us that it is the responsibility of adults to create opportunities for young children to express their views, rather than expecting children to prove their capabilities. This means adapting to the child’s ‘interests, levels of understanding and preferred ways of communicating’. 


Our arts-based methodology sought to engage with a multimodal definition of voice through artistic expression. To do this, we provided open-ended, process-focused activities with a variety of materials involved, including:

Fine arts (drawing; craft-making with glue, glitter, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, foam shapes; sculpting with soft ‘air dough’ style clay) 

A themed ‘play basket’ containing provocations affiliated with ‘voice’ (microphones, megaphones, walkie talkies, toy ears attached to headbands) 


Puppetry and role-play in relation to ‘voice’ 

Informal conversations with children

Visiting one nursery in Scotland, we worked with approximately 30 children from 3 to 5 years old. The children were able to join in and leave the activities fluidly, in a way that resonated with their play experiences in nursery. Similarly, they were able to tell the researchers about their work in a relaxed manner if they wished, unburdening them from formal interviews. 


Reflecting on our methods, we learned that participating in arts activities can provide opportunities for young children’s empowerment and participation, and for deepening our understanding about a child’s perspective on a concept/issue/subject. However, sometimes as researchers we got impatient or worried about our project, and wanted to default to ‘authentic’ verbal voice to get clear answers to our research questions. Nevertheless, providing a variety of materials and coming to understand children’s interests from the ‘bottom up’ allowed us to see possibilities for future activities that could bring a better understanding of children’s perspectives of voice. A gradual, sensitive approach to co-shaping the activities seems promising and exciting.  


Creative, playful and open-ended artsbased research in early years can provide opportunities for children to embody and enact complex concepts and ideas. An intergenerational approach to eliciting voices – in which adults are not afraid to shape the agenda, but do so in responsive, gradual and sensitive ways – creates the potential for a more inclusive experience for children that hopefully also meets researcher needs.  


To read more about the techniques we used read our full article: Look Who’s Talking: Using creative, playful arts-based methods in research with young children. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 17(1), 14–31. (2019)

Look Who’s Talking website:

This blog has been written by authors of the research Caralyn  Blaisdell, Lorna Arnott, Kate Wall and Carol Robinson. It is part of Starcatchers campaign Making My Mark, a celebration of the role the arts can play in helping young children learn about their rights.

Lorna Arnott and Kate Wall were speakers at Starcatchers’ Fire Starter Festival 2020 event ‘A creative approach to giving young children a voice in service planning’ on 6th February 2020.