The Study

The study took place between January 1999 and June 2000 at an early childhood institution, which was part of a multi-agency childcare network or community campus.6 This exploratory study on listening to young children was part of a wider evaluation of the campus, which includes an early childhood centre, a parents’ centre and a homeless families project. The main focus of the study was two key groups within the early childhood centre: children aged 3-4 years in the kindergarten and children under two in the nursery. Pilot work was carried out with refugee children attending the homeless families project. I will explore here the research carried out with a group of eight children in the kindergarten group. The children used the term ‘nursery’ to refer to their institution. I will therefore use ‘nursery’ to refer to a more complex early years model in the following account.

Developing the Mosaic approach

The focus of the development phase of this study was to find methodologies which played to young children’s strengths rather than weaknesses. This ruled out certain traditional methods such as written interview schedules. I wanted to find ways of harnessing young children’s creativity and physical engagement with their world. Such methods would acknowledge what Malaguzzi described as the ‘hundred languages of children’: the verbal and non-verbal ways in which young children com­municate their feelings.7

The approach developed as a multi-method model. It was important to include a range of methods in order to allow children with different abilities and interests to take part. A multi-method approach also enabled traditional tools of obser­vation and interviewing to contribute to the overall picture or ‘mosaic’. There was also the added benefit for triangulation of the findings across the different methodologies. The various methods used were implemented as follows:

• Observation: narrative accounts of children’s progress through the day.

• Child conferencing: a short structured interview schedule conducted one-to-one or in a group.

• Using cameras: children using single use cameras to take photographs of ‘important things’.

• Tours: tours of the site directed and recorded by the children.

• Map-making: 2d-representations of the site using children’s own photographs and drawings.

• Interviews: informal interviews with staff and parents.

The first tool used in the sequence was observation. I chose to use narrative accounts based on written descriptions of episodes of a child’s play. The use of learning stories in evaluation in the New Zealand early years programme, Te Whaariki, was an important influence here (Ministry of Education, 1996). I used two questions as the basis for my observations: ‘Do you listen to me?’ and ‘What is it like for me to be here?’.

This form of observation allowed me in as the ‘inexpert’ who is there to listen and learn from the children. This form of participant ethnographic observation is similar to the technique used by Corsaro (1985, 1997) to reveal details of the lives of pre-school children.8 Observation is an important part of listening, but it still relies on an adult perspective on children’s lives. I was also interested in pursuing participatory ways in which young children can convey their views and experiences.

Child conferencing provided a space for including formal conversations with children about their early childhood institution. This structured interview is based on a schedule developed by the Centre for Language in Primary Education in the 1980s. The questions I used were adapted from the interview schedule used by the head of the nursery. The fourteen open questions ask children why they come to their nursery, what they enjoy doing or dislike or find hard. Some questions focus on important people, places and activities. There is the opportunity for children to add other information they think the interviewer should know about their institution. I carried out the child conferencing with a group of children in the nursery twice over a four- month period. The children were able to listen to their previous responses, reflect on any changes and add new comments. However not all children were interested in talking in this formal way. I then adapted the child conferencing to be conducted ‘on the move’ so children could take me to places they spoke of.

Cameras provided a participatory tool through which the young children could communicate. Walker refers to the ‘silent voice of the camera’.9 A number of recent studies have incorporated the use of cameras with older children.10 This silent tool also appears to have potential for use with young children. I was interested in exploring their competency using a camera, as they would be representing not just objects, but also the context of that object, in other words, the space itself. The Daycare Trust in 1998 carried out a similar form of camera consultation, where children photographed their ‘favourite things’. I extended this approach to see if young children could provide a more in-depth view of life in the nursery using the ‘voice’ of the camera. I asked children to take photographs of what was important in the nursery. Single use cameras proved a useful tool for this age group as the children could be given freedom with the cameras without causing adult anxiety about expensive equipment. The children expressed pride in the photographs they had taken. Children who have seen adults taking photographs and pored over family albums know that photographs are valued in the ‘adult world’. This is not always the case with children’s own drawings and paintings. The cameras gave the children a powerful new language. They were given their own set of the photographs. The second set was used by the children to select photographs to make their own individual books about the nursery.

Tours and map-making emerged from the use of the cameras. I was interested in finding ways of gathering young children’s experiences which were best suited to their natural ways of communicating. This called out for an active approach. Tours are a participatory technique, similar to the idea of ‘transect walks’ which have been used in Inter­national Development programmes for people to convey their knowledge of their immediate surroundings.11 The physicality and mobility of this technique means that it lends itself to being used by young children. Neighbourhood walks have also been used to involve children in environmental planning.12 Langsted (1994) describes a similar approach in the BASUN Project, a comparative study of the daily lives of young children in five Nordic countries, where each 5-year-old took the researcher on a ‘sightseeing trip of his or her daily life’.

Following Langsted’s model, I used issues of time and space to help structure the walking interview. Working with children individually, in pairs or threes, I asked the children to take me on a tour of their nursery, beginning with where they entered in the morning. The children then gave a running commentary on what happened next, whom they met and which rooms they went into (or didn’t have access to). Children were in charge of the tour and how it was recorded. This involved the children taking photographs of important places and people, and making sound recordings of the tours using a small tape recorder with a clip mike.

Map-making was developed as a way for children to bring together the material they had gathered from the tours. Hart also describes the use of child-made maps:

The method can provide valuable insight for others into children’s everyday environment because it is based on the features they consider important, and hence can lead to good discussion about aspects of their lives that might not so easily emerge in words1

Children’s photographs provided the bridge between the children’s physical experiences of their environment and the two-dimensional nature of the map. The maps proved to be an interesting talking point for other children who had not been involved in the tours. Thus the mapping exercise led to more opportunities for talking and listening to a wider group of children about their nursery, through the visual language of their maps.

Interviews with staff and parents were developed as an important part of understanding young children’s lives in this place. Accounts from those who know the personalities and daily routines of the individual children need to sit alongside the other participatory tools in the Mosaic approach in order to build a more detailed understanding of young children’s experiences. The interview schedule was similar to the questions used in the child conferencing but the emphasis was on adults’ perceptions of everyday experience rather than first hand accounts from the children. These interviews were particularly valuable when using the Mosaic approach with pre-verbal children.