The childhood researchers Gallacher and Gallagher argue that, as practitioners and investigators of childhood, we really have a duty to “know” a bit less.

In emphasizing (inter)dependence, incompetence, incompleteness and vulnerability, the concept of immaturity begins to (re)position research – and life more generally – as a necessarily  complex,  incomplete  and  messy  process.  It asks for a little humility: ‘we’ are all fallible: imperfect and naive, learning and changing; ‘immature’ rather than fully formed.”


Gallacher, L.A. and Gallagher, M. (2008) ‘Methodological Immaturity in Childhood Research? Thinking through ‘participatory methods”, Childhood, 15(4), p.511.

Case study

The Tree Research

At Cowgate Under 5s nursery in Edinburgh, Emma, a practitioner, decided to experiment with new ways of enabling child-led learning.

First she asked a group of children aged 2-5 what they understood by the word “research”. Later she asked if they would like to do some research and what it could be about. Different children suggested ideas of planets, dinosaurs, the country Ghana, but eventually the group’s conversation settled on trees, and they agreed they would like to learn more about trees together.

Initially, they created a series of mindmaps to capture their own knowledge and interests, with Emma faithfully scribing what was said underneath children’s names, which they recognised and frequently asked to have read back to them. These were then elaborated on in ways the children suggested and enacted: visiting gardens, speaking to members of the community, doing a tree survey of their immediate surroundings, climbing trees, (re)naming them in their own indigenous languages.

With each experience new questions emerged and new ways of finding out. Emma scribed and intuited “living questions” from the children’s play and conversations which she offered to the wider group. “What can we make from trees?” “Why are trees important?”, “What songs do we know about trees?” Children shared their unique insights and perspectives – often unexpected – and these opened doorways to conversations and learning that Emma could never have planned.

Through careful, collaborative documentation, the children collected objects and photographs alongside the words they had shared and drew friends, family and other staff into further play and learning. The children felt proud of their leadership in this work – creating knowledge, sharing it, being part of a team and self-determining their learning activities. The project ran for over a year, until the children who had been the “principal investigators” went to school. Then a new phase of research began.

What do we need to do as adults to enable children’s participation?

Brainstorm this question with your team. Here are some of our suggestions. What did you/colleagues add?

  • Step back and set aside our “superior” knowledge
  • Be continually willing to follow where children lead, within safe limits
  • Slow things down – attune, dialogue, adapt
  • Commit to tentative, not fixed, resolutions
  • Change the systems, routines and language that is getting in the way
  • Be aware that participation comes easily to some children (and adults) and is harder for others. Celebrate and build gently on the contributions of all
  • Hold onto and amplify Froebelian principles – which insist on continuously expanding children’s freedom within community.

Q: Which of these are you best at – individually and as a team? What would you add?

Children’s Participation, A Toolkit – Table of Contents

1. What is participation     2. Limits of participation    3. Children’s resistances    4. Children’s right to shape the world    5. New worlds     6. A co-learning community     7. A new kind of citizenship     8. Resources