When I began the BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning in Maynooth University back in 2019 I was aware that our dissertation involved action research but had no clue what this actually involved. I then discovered that action research is a cyclical process which combines changes to practice, reviewing literature, blogs and resources regarding these changes, a period of observation followed by reflection. There are many action research cycles to choose from, however I used the cycle developed by Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) as I felt it was the most straightforward. I liked the fact they believed there is no need to follow the cyclical steps with blind faith but instead develop strong self-growth while understanding how to improve practice. This cycle involves planning, acting and observing and then reflecting, before the cycle begins again, as you re-plan, based on the observation and reflection.
Without going too deep into my actual dissertation, the first cycle involved adding open-ended and junk materials from ReCreate into the room and observing if these encouraged the children’s creative play. For the second cycle I then added lots of messy and sensory play materials to the room such as water beads, chia seed slime, cooked spaghetti and jelly. For my dissertation I needed to complete two full cycles, however in reality I continued into further cycles as new issues emerged and challenged my thinking. I soon realised that for me, action research was much more than something that needed to be done to complete my dissertation, it was truly transformative. As educators, we often observe the children, the range of interactions and the environment in which they play and learn. We often make plans to address concerns or to improve practice on a regular basis. However, we sometimes fail to recognise the importance of these changes and the learning journey they take both the children and the educator on. Action research can be a more formal way of doing this when approached with an open mind.
My advice when beginning an action research project would be to embrace the changes. It may be hard but one of the most useful things to do is to try not to predict the outcome. When making a change it can be easy to imagine where things may lead and what you want to change in the next cycle. However, if you allow your observations to highlight what needs to be changed your action research will most likely take you down unexpected paths. In my case when I first introduced the junk materials, I felt it would naturally lead to introducing more loose parts in the outdoor environment. I can even admit now, I had lots of ideas for my second cycle before I had even begun the first! However, the children helped me uncover the fact that I was not living to my own beliefs and values.
One of the materials I got from ReCreate were tubs filled with tiny white plastic beads, almost like grains of rice. To say the children loved these is an understatement. On one of the days, the children started to make potions with the beads and paint, and while mixing them with their hands they noticed the beads stuck to them and they looked like “monster hands”. This play evolved and lasted for days on end. My subsequent reflection highlighted the fact that I had been avoiding truly messy play and the sensory experiences that I was depriving the children of. I felt so guilty as I believed I did provide these activities and valued the learning opportunities this type of play promotes. For me, this is when I realised the point of action research, to change teaching practice as an individual and improve the experiences for the children I work with.
Although this dissertation ended after two cycles, there are still changes happening in my practice as a result. It is almost as if I have a new lens to look through that is highlighting all the areas that I could incorporate more open-ended objects and materials. My third cycle led to me replacing all the costumes in the dress up area with pieces of material of different colours and textures. It is exciting to see the children enter different imaginary worlds instead of being predictable superheroes and princesses. As we closed for summer break this action research project came to a natural end. I can honestly say this will be part of my practice going forward, one that I feel captures the wants and needs of the children, incorporates planning for the curriculum and as previously stated, documents the journey for all involved. My views regarding children’s play, the spaces they play in, the provision of materials and their thought processes have forever changed due to action research, and I am excited to see where any future changes will lead to.
Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere In: Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S., eds. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 3rd edition. California: Sage. Ch. 23.
Janis Power has just completed the BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning on a part-time basis in Maynooth University and plans to begin a postgrad in Maynooth University in September. She has over 10 years’ experience in Early Education and is currently educator/manager of a community setting in Jobstown, Tallaght. She is passionate about advocating for children’s right to choose how they spend their time in the setting, to have their opinions valued and to play freely to their hearts’ content.