What is Research With Children

As I begin the second year of my Ph.D. in the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, I decided to write a post about different ways children are involved in research. While there are many different opinions on this topic, I thought you might be interested in a few to get you thinking…

What Do You Mean by Research?

Research is a term used to summarise the creative, systematic investigation and study of materials, people, or areas of life to establish facts and reach conclusions which in turn informs policy and practice. In less academic language, research is about looking at the world around you and trying to make sense of it. Research involves children for many different reasons, such as to improve medical science, the arts, or education. By involving children in educational research, we provide an opportunity for children to share their thoughts and feeling about issues that impact their world.

What Do We Need to Know about Research with Children?

Without children’s help, it would be challenging to design new ways to improve learning and teaching that draw from their interests. The core areas of research involving children focus on ethics, safety and avoiding harm. This includes getting informed consent from the primary caregiver and making sure the child knows all of the steps involved in the research and wishes to take part. The opinions of the children are important if we are to change educational policy and practice in ways that represent the children’s voice.

Research on Children

Traditionally, research was conducted on children instead of with children or by children. In research on children they are not actively involved. Instead, children are observed or included in experimental research studies where the observations or tests are documented as data findings. In some instances, such as in medicine, this type of study is considered necessary. However, in early childhood education, we position children as confident and capable of actively contributing to research about how they should learn.

Research with Children

When researching with children, the adults and children work as part of a research team. Together with the classroom teacher, parents and children engage in discussion to develop and create ideas that can be put into practice. Towards this end, researchers develop interactive research methods that include children in the data collection process. Children are encouraged to share their ideas, thoughts and insights about the research. Consequently, children can be represented in research projects as co-researchers where their voices are visible in the research findings.

Research by Children

Research by children is less common because it removes the researcher from collecting data. Instead, the researchers’ role is to find ways to position children as collectors of information by seeking child-led ways to help children explore ways to investigate their ideas and examine the findings. From this position, the children take the lead throughout the research project. Although the idea of research by children is respectful to the child’s intelligence, it comes with many challenges. For example, a key issue for research by children concerns the difference in children across different social, cultural, linguistic and geographical backgrounds. Considering that children learning together in the same classroom will have different strengths and challenges, I assert that it is more effective in early education to conduct research with children than to conduct research on children or research by children.

Best Practice

Finally, it is essential to highlight that some children will understand the concept of research if it is explained in a developmentally appropriate manner. Still, their peers may not be at a stage to discuss research projects or topics that they are not familiar with. Therefore, it is best practice that a child is never involved in a research project if the information concerning the research is not accessible or easily understood.


Exploring how young children think and feel about various life issues in school and at home is an important topic of inquiry. In researching with children, I recognise children as meaning-makers and active agents in their learning environments. It is from the children that the researcher learns what to do.

Thanks’ for taking the time to read my post. If you have any comments I would be delighted to hear from you. Stay safe.

Dr Catherine (Kitty) O'Reilly

Dr Catherine (Kitty) O'Reilly Collage

Posted on 18th October, 2021, under Research