The Mosaic approach offers a framework for listening to young children, which reflects the complexities of their everyday lives. This complexity does not fit well with easily measured targets and standards. At the time of undertaking the study, one approach to gathering the views of young users was by using stickers with ‘smiley’ faces and ‘sad’ faces to express preferences. This shorthand may be useful on occasions but there is a limit to such a simplified approach. Children are not in charge of the questions but only, in a limited way, of the answers. This seems to be an adaptation of a consumer model of gathering views designed for adults – a top down approach. The Mosaic approach is one attempt to turn this upside down and begin from young children’s strengths – their local knowledge, their attention to detail, and their visual as well as verbal communication skills.
The use of participatory methods with young children has opened up more ways of communicating. This contradicts the myth that researchers and practitioners need to simplify their approaches with young children. This exploratory study has shown that there is a need to think differently and be flexible, but not to oversimplify. I learned this lesson early on in the study when describing to the children how to use the cameras. I explained the procedure for using the viewfinder, the flash button and how to wind on the film. I added a comment about keeping the camera still ‘otherwise you’ll get a wobbly picture’. One of the girls then disappeared with her camera. When I caught up with her she was taking a photograph of the sandpit while moving the camera gently from side to side. When I asked her what she was doing she replied: ‘I’m taking a wobbly photo’.
Participatory tools such as the cameras and the tours allowed the children to set more of the questions as well as provide answers. The issue of contact with siblings was one such question. The child conferencing did not reveal any details about this aspect of some of the children’s lives in the nursery. It only became apparent when the children walked me to their siblings’ rooms. The participatory nature of the tools meant that they acted as mediators between me as researcher and the children as informants.18 It was, I found, the process of using the various methodologies, which increased my understanding of the children’s lives.
The notion of ‘interpretation’ raises an interesting difference between some research and practice perspectives on listening to children. Within the research paradigm of the sociology of childhood there is an acknowledgement of need for interpretation to construct meanings. There is also recognition that the research task is not limited to unearthing one ‘true’ meaning. This seems to differ from some understandings of children’s participation, where the task is seen as extracting children’s views as untainted by adult ‘interference’ as possible. I have tried in the Mosaic approach to set up a platform where children are given many different opportunities to express their views and experiences and then to be part of the interpretation – this search for meanings. This seems to be of particular importance when working with young children who are in the process of establishing their identities and place identities. Throughout the study the children were involved in discussing, reflecting on and reassessing what it was like to be in their nursery.
It’s not so much a matter of eliciting children’s preformed ideas and opinions, it’s much more a question of enabling them to explore the ways in which they perceive the world and communicate their ideas in a way that is meaningful to them.19
This view of listening, as part of an ongoing exploration of the world, presents a challenge to the designers of children’s daycare centres. The outcomes will be open ended and open to interpretation. This calls for a redefinition of listening, away from a one-off event to meet a prescribed target, towards an acknowledgement of listening as an active process of communication involving hearing, interpreting and constructing meanings. The effective process will provide significant rewards to architects who are prepared to listen.
Early years practitioners are in the best position to listen to the young children in their care. There is a danger in the target-driven climate of education design that there is little time to notice young children’s own agendas, feelings and experience. There may be a place for a framework such as the Mosaic approach to help practitioners concentrate on the small details of the children’s lives around them. A number of staff could work, for example, with a group of children, using this approach as part of their induction. There may also be children within a group who could benefit from the opportunities for communication offered by the different tools. One of the shyest children in this study took great pleasure in taking me on tour and in using the camera. Her key worker remarked on how keen she was to talk about her photographs.
There appears to be practical application for using the Mosaic approach to change the environment. As discussed above, this study revealed a detailed picture of children’s knowledge of place use and their place preferences and fears. Children could be involved in recording their feelings about an existing space. Older children in a setting (3-4-year-olds) could be involved in recording pre-verbal children’s use of the space. This could inform future decisions about changes to the indoor and outdoor environment.20 However, the greatest challenge within the context of this publication would be for architects to become engaged in this in-depth discussion with children at design stage. It provokes the important question, who really is the client? My answer would be, the children, together with the early years practitioners.
This small exploratory study set out to develop an imaginative framework for listening to young children. It has involved moving across disciplines and blending methods. The emphasis has been on the use of multiple methods, including the traditional tools of observation and interviewing, but also investigating the use of participatory methods with children under 5. The suggestion from this study, subsequent training sessions and feedback, is that the Mosaic approach offers new possibilities for furthering our understanding of the complexities of the everyday lives of older as well as younger children.
However, the information gained from children within the framework of this short study, illustrates a fascinating range of features which could be incorporated in to the architect’s thinking in terms of detail design, and in the distribution of specific rooms within the framework of the client’s schedule of accommodation. For example, children talked of the importance of specific rooms within the centre where special activities took place, such as the music and dancing room. This suggests that children should be permitted time beyond the confines of their homebase. Meeting spaces and defined ‘landmarks’ are important. The bench next to the sandpit was viewed as an important social space, and the landmark of a display board in the conservatory was important in developing place identity and enhanced meanings for the children. It is clear that these lessons can have real immediacy for architects developing new strategies for the design of childcare centre architecture. Children see the centre as their world, and very much a landscape of play and discovery.
1 Daycare Trust (1998). Listening to children. Young children’s views on childcare: a guide for parents. London: Daycare Trust.
2 The editor’s experience in designing childcare centres for a number of different clients within both the public and private sector is always structured around strict age groupings. Homebase areas are created which confine babies, toddlers, 3-4-year-olds and 4-5-year – olds into separate, largely autonomous, home – base areas. Children of different ages are usually prevented from having much to do with each other except in more innovative settings such as some Montessori nurseries, which establish family groups of mixed ages.
3 Qvortrup, J., Bardy, M., Sgritta, G. and Wintersberger, H. (eds) (1994). Childhood Matters. Vienna: European Centre.
4 Langsted, O. (1994). ‘Looking at quality from the child’s perspective.’ In P. Moss and A. Pence, (eds) Valuing Quality in Early Childhood Services: new approaches to defining quality. London: Paul Chapman.
5 Rinaldi, C. (1999). Paper presented in Reggio Emilia, Italy. April 1999.
6 Clark, A. and Moss, P. (2001). Listening to Young Children: the Mosaic Approach. London: National Children’s Bureau.
7 Edwards, C., Gandini, L. and Foreman, G. (eds) (1998). The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, 2nd edn. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
8 Corsaro, W. (1985). Friendship and Peer Culture in the Early Years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex and Corsaro, W. (1997). The Sociology of Childhood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pineforge Press.
9 Walker, R (1993). ‘Finding a voice for the researcher: using photographs in evaluation and research’, in M. Schratz (ed) Qualitative Voices in Educational Research. London: Falmer Press.
10 Smith, F. and Barker, J. (1999). From Ninja Turtles to the Spice Girls: children’s participation in the development of out of school play environments. Built Environment, 25 (1), 35-46.
Smith, F. and Barker, J. (2002). Contested spaces. Childhood, 7 (3), 315-333.
11 Hart, R. (1997). Children’s Experience of Place. New York: Irvington Publishers. Hart, R. (1997). Children’s Participation. London: UNICEF and Earthscan.
12 Adams, E. and Ingham, S. (1998). Changing Places: children’s participation in the environmental planning. London: Children’s Society.
13 Hart, R. (1997). p. 165.
14 Hart, R. (1979). 12-13.
15 Sibley, D. (1995). ‘Families and domestic routines: constructing the boundaries of childhood’ in S. Pile and N. Thrift (eds), Mapping the Subject: geographies of cultural transformation. London: Routledge.
16 Altman, I. (1975). The Environment and Social Behaviour. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
17 Weinstein, C. (1987).‘Designing pre-school classrooms to support development: research and reflection’, in C. Weinstein and T. David (eds) Spaces for Children: the built environment and child development. New York, Plenum. Trancik, A. and Evans, G. (1995). ‘Places fit for Children: competency in the design of daycare centre environments’. Children’s Environments, 12 (3), 311-319.
18 Christensen, P. and James, A. (eds) (2000). Research with Children. London: Falmer Press.
19 Tolfree, D. and Woodhead, M. (1999). Tapping a key resource. Early Childhood Matters, 91,19-23.
20 This has been explored in Clark, A. and Moss, P. (2005) Spaces to Play: More Listening to Young Children using the Mosaic Approach. London: National Children’s Bureau.
Alison Clark is a Research Officer at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her research interests focus on young children’s participation. Her work has included a research and development project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on listening to young children. She has recently completed a pilot project involving young children in the designing of an outdoor play area. She is engaged on a three year project to bring architects, early years practitioners and young children to plan, design and change indoor and outdoor environments.