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Studying enquiring minds – the challenges of early childhood practice research


Tuesday 27 June 2017

Last year Maire Corbett wrote a blog (Why? How? What?… Researchers in Early Years settings) about how much research matters in early childhood care and education. I am an academic researcher, not from an early childhood research background. What really attracted me to early childhood research is the commitment in the field to link research with practice and to upskill an already stretched workforce to be confident, reflective practitioners. This requires confident researchers in practice and that is incredibly hard to achieve. Research is a difficult skill to learn – especially so for early childhood researchers whose skills have to develop within the context of a busy day where the questions of young enquiring minds take over any research questions the practitioner researcher might want to explore.

As I took up a new post in the Children’s Research Network, my overriding ambition was to improve research supports for practitioners. For my part, I have consulted far and wide with practitioners about the challenges and opportunities of practice research in early childhood. The one question I met constantly was, “how do I find the time to observe, take notes, reflect on my research in a room with twenty children?” When I then conducted a survey for practitioners on their engagement with research, I asked about the kinds of support practitioners need in order to conduct research. When the main challenges are time and money, and I can produce neither, how do I support practitioners to conduct research? There is no easy way to address this but Maire Corbett in her blog post hinted at a possible solution. The busy context of 20 enquiring minds is not the obstacle but the solution….


Conducting research with children in a practice setting gives practitioners privileged access to research participants of which most academic researchers would be jealous. If we put the researching child at the centre of our own research we do not have to spend weeks or months thinking up the best research question, the kinds of questions we should be asking, what to observe, what to note down, what to analyse. Take any given day in the baby, wobbler or preschool rooms and there is a plethora of questions and lines of enquiry right there!

When my own pre-schooler had just turned two we went to visit her cousins twice, a week apart. On the first visit, her cousins had two small dogs that annoyed her greatly because they did not respect her well-established rules of not grabbing other people’s food, pushing and screaming (barking). On the second visit, her cousins only had one dog. So, what happened to the other one? Little did I realise at the time that this question entailed a six month project of researching how best to communicate death to a two year old who has her own very particular ideas about the world and how it functions.

From this enquiry, a research project could easily have formed. What does research literature tell us about answering her question - When do children understand about death? What is the best way to describe and explain death and dying, what are the kinds of questions that children have and demand answers to? And then, what do you do when a child suddenly asks a question that the psychological literature tells you she does not have the cognitive prerequisites to ask? You let the child be the researcher and create new knowledge from that lead. Document her questions, your answers, her reflections on your answers. Note the contexts, objects, situations, pictures that prompt her questions, and remember to keep it a joint project. As a researcher, you have no knowledge that is more accurate than the research participant. She holds the knowledge. Answer questions with questions, reflections with counter-reflections. And remember to write it all down!

To take this research further, practitioners could however benefit from access to academic literature, skills in conducting literature reviews, how to sort through the relevant literature and write it up in a review and relate the conclusions to the findings emerging from her own research. She would need skills in reflecting on what the child is asking and receiving from answers to his or her questions. The practitioner could also benefit from skills in complementing her conversation with the child through play-based methods, in analysing findings and writing them up coherently. Most of all, however, the practitioner needs confidence in taking the lead from a child’s question and pursuing a line of enquiry through the lens of research – which means being (relatively) systematic, reflective and somewhat objective. To build up this confidence, the Children’s Research Network is currently working to design a suite of supports and training offers that practitioners will be able to access.

If you are a practitioner with a keen interest in research, we would love to hear from you and get your input on the supports we are currently developing. Learn more about us on or email If you have conducted a piece of research and want to write it up and disseminate it, send it to us and we’ll help you get it out there! You can also join our Early Childhood Research Group or Outdoor Play Research Group.

To read the survey report please visit:


Maja Haals Brosnan is the Research Co-ordinator for the Children’s Research Network. Her role is to support researchers in Ireland and Northern Ireland by responding to research queries, organising events and training according to members’ needs. She oversees the publication of the Children’s Research Digest, Research Bulletins, Special Interest Groups and the Network’s annual conference in December. Maja has a particular interest in supporting researchers in optimising the influence of their research on policy and practice as well as to support practitioner researchers. Maja has a background in the not-for-profit and international development sectors. Most recently she worked as a researcher for Early Childhood Ireland. She has volunteered as a researcher for the Irish Refugee Council and is a former CES graduate intern. She has also recently lectured in early childhood research and is completing her PhD thesis in social anthropology on adverse childhoods in post-genocide Rwanda.

To contact Maja email or call +353 (0) 1 4160 529. 

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