4 Ways of Conducting Participatory Research With Children

children drawing

In a report by the World Bank Group (2018), 10 countries had a significant number of migrant children who had been living without their parents. This movement of the children within national boundaries has been enormous in India. Among the many organisations that work towards combating this phenomenon is Salam Balak Trust (SBT) and this is where this research had taken place. SBT pioneers in aspects of inclusion and providing basic education, medical health facilities and institutional care to migrant children. The children in their centres mostly hail from states of Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Punjab, and Maharashtra.

Participatory research methods help us to better understand the lives and experiences of children. The creative and visual methods help in developing communication, bond, faith and enhanced engagement. Moreover, it allows researchers to initiate discussions to explore the any topic that one is interested in exploring with children in comparison to other mundane methods. However, there can be some disadvantages for incorporating such methods. For example, not all children consider it to be fun and others may be inhibited by their capabilities. Older children may call it ‘babyish’ and not interesting. Beginning such methods with very small exercises acting as icebreaker games creates a happy and comfortable environment.

Participatory methods have proved to be an extremely handy tool for children in the age bracket of 10 years and above. As a researcher working on child migration in an urban setup, the approach was to enable participants to use and engage using the tools in order to gain in-depth knowledge on the marginalised and often neglected section of our society.  It was quite an emotional experience for both participants and the researcher that enables children to not only have time full of fun and frolic but as well as engage with other children to enhance stimulation. Pain and Francis (2003) explains how participatory techniques create a space of inclusive accounts among the participants by enabling them to make use of their own words and frameworks of understanding through a range of exercises such as mapping, drawings and similar techniques.


  1. Drawing maps or plans

A popular participatory method used in many studies to gather information about significant spaces for children and to explore their perceptions of these places. This tool enables children and young people to explore the risks they face such as in their local communities, to identify protection factors in their local communities, also identifying the risks they most want to change. It provides views and opinions on their current situations. For instance, drawing a village or a community with the help of other children of the group or the researcher.

  1. Thought showers

A popular tool to explore their views and ideas. Children are asked to write or draw a picture in the middle of a large piece of paper to enquire what ideas come into their heads associated with that word or thing. The picture drawn will act as a stimulus for children to think about the journeys and decisions taken, fears faced and cultural context of the environment they are and have come from. Such as, how do you feel around say, a brother or father, how do you like your village and similar circumstances.

  1. Drawings

As a method, it is regarded as an appropriate warm-up activity to enable the children to become familiarized with the adult researcher. The use of drawing gives children time to think about what they wish to portray. The image can be changed and added which gives children more control over their form of expression, unlike an interview situation where responses tend to be quicker and more immediate.

  1. Tree activity

This is specially designed as an assessment exercise helping to initiate discussions on resilience and stress factors in the lives of participants. To initiate this activity, pens, A4 size paper and a quiet space are the basic requirements. Children are often good at making and listening to stories. Hence, in this activity they think of themselves as a tree and draw or write on the roots about the things or people who keep them safe and sound. This activity is great when one wants to know about personal/innate attachments of the child in the family or maybe how he/she deals with a person they don’t like.

While the roots represent resilience factors in the life of the child, the trunk will show the strengths and positives surrounding them. The leaves and branches will explain the vulnerabilities, risks, negatives and stress factors in their lives. In this activity, questions such as who looks after you, supports physically and emotionally, what qualities this person has that makes the child comfortable, what skills did you use? How did you feel after you coped with it?

From the many experiences during the 6 months duration of incorporating participatory  methods, I have learnt a lot.. For example,  the activities that are prescribed and many more that one wants to conduct needs proper planning and execution. Chances of children leaving during the activity is normal and high. Therefore, it must be planned and initiated according to the age and interest related children groups. One should know the characteristics and interests of the children they  want to involve to make smooth beginnings and endings of each activity.In addition, it is recommended to create small groups of less than 10 people (in each group) in order for children to enjoy the whole process in a group setting and gauge their interests for longer hours. At the end, just go with the flow and enjoy the journey with children!!

The author of this blog is Yukti Lamba, PhD Candidate in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.


World Bank Group. (2018). Migration and Remittances. IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc.

Pain, R., & Francis, P. (2003). Reflections on participatory research. Area, 35(1), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-4762.00109

Darbyshire, P., Macdougall, C., & Schiller, W. (2005). Multiple methods in qualitative research with children: more insight or just more? Qualitative Research, 5(4), 417–436. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794105056921

Morrow, Virginia. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children’s Geographies.

Punch, S. (2002). Research with Children: The Same or Different from Research with Adults? Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research, 9(3), 321–341. https://doi.org/10.1177/0907568202009003045

Wosu, H., & Tait, A. (2013). Direct work with vulnerable children : playful activities and strategies for communication. London: London : Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



Justice in the time of coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic is a public health issue, but it is also a justice issue. It is causing a great deal of harm, suffering and death; the harm is not falling equally, and to some extent it is preventable. In the UK, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is higher for those who are older, male, live in deprived communities, or are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (Public Health England, 2020). People are also at increased risk of contracting the virus if they work in occupations that put them on the ‘front line’, including medical professionals, supermarket workers, teachers, refuse collectors, and a range of other jobs. Many people working in these occupations are on low wages. The inequity of the harm creates a need to consider this from a justice perspective.

The coronavirus and related lockdown have also effectively suspended some aspects of the criminal justice system. Court business in Scotland effectively stopped during the lockdown, although it is now beginning to restart. We’ve also seen a significant drop in crime, most notably in relation to crimes such as serious assault and house-breaking. However, some other types of crime may be increasing, such as fraud, domestic violence (Brooks-Hay, Burman, & Bradley, 2020), harms against children, and some forms of criminal activity committed online.

COVID-19 presents a particular risk for people in prisons (Jardine, 2020). Due to the suspension of court business, more people are not being sent to prison, yet people are still being released from prison, so the prison population is decreasing. There are also some emergency measures which allow the early release of some categories of prisoners. The number of people in Scottish prisoners has dropped by approximately 15%, from 8,094 in mid-March 2020 to 6,869 near the end of May; the number of women in prison decreased by about a third during this period, from 395 to 264. Given that the spread of the virus within prisons is particularly dangerous, there is good reason to try to reduce the prison population further (Nowotny, Bailey, Omori, & Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2020).

Community sentences are also significantly affected (McNeill, 2020). For example, unpaid work is effectively suspended during the lockdown, and the time periods for completing these sentences has been extended. Physical distancing has also changed the nature of the supervision of people on community sentences. For instance, some of the therapeutic interventions are more difficult to provide without face-to-face contact, meaning that support has shifted more towards supervision than targeted interventions for addressing offending behaviour, although some face-to-face meetings are still going ahead where the risks of offending are particularly high. The pandemic also appears to be leading towards a global recession. In the context of mass job losses, one of the main sanctions for criminal behaviour – the monetary fine – is a less desirable or socially just response.

So, with many aspects of the criminal justice process changed or halted, with a need to reduce the prison population, a pause on court business, challenges in delivering community sentences, and the undesirability of monetary fines, where does this leave us? Many argue that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ With court cases severely delayed, this creates significant problems for meeting people’s justice needs. One potential approach is restorative justice. One way of defining restorative justice is as a justice mechanism (Daly, 2016) that facilitates safe communication between someone who has committed an offence and the person harmed by that offence, for the purposes of asking and answering questions, discussing and deciding how to make amends, supporting people to address the harm, and making plans for avoiding the occurrence of similar harm in the future (Kirkwood, 2018). While these processes normally take place face-to-face, it may be possible to facilitate such processes using online methods if physical distancing measure remain in place. This may be attractive to at least some people, especially if the alternative is either no formal response or one that is severely delayed.

Restorative justice experts across Europe recently discussed the potential of restorative justice in response to and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The potential included the use of restorative justice facilitated online, the use of restorative approaches to breaches of lockdown restrictions, and the possibility of restorative practices being used more widely. For example, people who have lost loved ones may find processing grief is very difficult, or at least changed, by the current situation, and restorative processes may be of value to them. This includes practices such as Circles, whereby people are given an opportunity to speak within a group, one at a time and uninterrupted, to shared their views and feelings.

Given that a number of deaths appear to be preventable, it raises questions around responsibility, and such discussions with relevant professionals and official representatives may be particularly valuable to family members of those who have died. Medical professionals and other key workers are also putting themselves at great risk, and having to make difficult decisions, therefore they may have needs that could benefit from restorative practices, helping to process difficult feelings and decisions. The use of restorative practices in relation to medical intervention can be challenging, but can also bring a lot of value to professionals and members of the public (Wailling, Marshall, & Wilkinson, 2019). There could even be a need for a national or even international conversation about the coronavirus, about issues of justice, and seeking to address these needs. The quality of such processes online might not be as high as when they are delivered face-to-face; however, some of the safety concerns may be easier to manage if people don’t actually need to meet.

Crime can be thought of as a public health issue (Middleton, 1998). For instance, violence and drug misuse can be seen as issues that harm populations, and therefore the responses should be holistic, taking a preventative approach, rather than only focusing on blame and punishment. However, public health can also be seen as a justice issue. The harm that is caused by the pandemic creates a range of justice needs that ought to be addressed, and restorative justice offers a perspective for understanding and responding to some of these needs.

Dr Steve Kirkwood

Senior Lecturer in Social Work (The University of Edinburgh)


Brooks-Hay, O., Burman, M., & Bradley, L. (2020). Gender Based Violence in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://sccjrblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/gender-based-violence-in-a-pandemic/

Daly, K. (2016). What is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question. Victims and Offenders, 11(1), 9–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2015.1107797

Jardine, C. (2020). Behind the Curve: Prison and Covid-19. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://sccjrblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/can-justice-systems-get-ahead-of-covid-19-and-avoid- a-prisons-crisis/

Kirkwood, S. (2018). Iriss insight: Restorative Justice. Glasgow. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781452229300.n1601

McNeill, F. (2020). Penal supervision in a pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://sccjrblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/04/penal-supervision-in-a-pandemic/

Middleton, J. (1998). Crime is a public health problem. Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, 14(1), 24–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/13623699808409369

Nowotny, K., Bailey, Z., Omori, M., & Brinkley-Rubinstein, L. (2020). COVID-19 Exposes Need for Progressive Criminal Justice Reform. American Journal of Public Health, 110(7), e1–e2. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2020.305707

Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of About Public Health England.

Wailling, J., Marshall, C., & Wilkinson, J. (2019). Hearing and Responding to the Stories of Survivors of Surgical Mesh Ngā kōrero a ngā mōrehu-he urupare Report for the Ministry of Health.