Children as research actors

By Frédéric Darbellay and Zoe Moody

1. Frédéric Darbellay (biography)
2. Zoe Moody (biography)

From a transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge perspective, how can children’s capacity for reflection, analysis, curiosity, discovery and creativity be recognized? Why and how can the involvement of children in the research process be promoted by giving them a co-researcher status? Based on our experience of research on and with children, we present the main issues and potential of this type of research.

1. Research with Children

Recent developments in the fields of childhood studies and children’s rights studies highlight the benefits of carrying out research with and for children rather than about them.

Research with children is based on a horizontal model of knowledge production, that recognizes children as the real experts on what it is like to “be a child.” Combining children’s insider views of their experiences with the outsider views of adult researchers allows movement beyond the possible replication of research about children and production of original and innovative knowledge.

Armed with their capacity for reflection and action, children can thus be mobilized in a collaborative perspective with adult researchers. Although the latter are appointed and trained professionals in the production of knowledge, they may find it beneficial to be guided by children and to include them in the research process on subjects that concern them directly.

A research project involving children (Darbellay, 2021)

2. Children as co-researchers

Children as co-researchers participate in scientific questioning, the development of methodological tools, and the discussion and promotion of research results. Children are invited to participate in research and contribute their expertise to issues that concern them. This process is beneficial for researchers who learn from children and share their experiences, as well as for children to develop their thinking skills.

The participation of children in research has advantages at several levels:

  • for children, by offering them the possibility of expressing themselves on a subject that concerns them and of asserting their research capacities based on discovery and curiosity;
  • for the research process, which can count on original and enlightened contributions on the issues addressed;
  • for society in general, which can capitalize on research results adapted to the lived realities of children.

3. Requirements for research participation by children

How children will participate is usefully considered using Arnstein’s ladder of participation (Arnstein, 1969; for a description see The aim is to go beyond the ‘non-participation’ levels, including manipulation of opinion, mere information about the project or consultation. Stronger forms of participation require working directly with children collaboratively (co-creation), giving them some form of control or even a capacity for initiative (agency). These are the conditions for them to get involved actively, and maybe even autonomously in research activities. Children can then become either research partners (research with children), or even take the initiative in scientific questioning (research by children).

This type of participatory system also needs to provide:

  • a safe space and sufficient time in which children can freely express their points of view without discrimination;
  • voice given to children in order to encourage them to express their points of view without fear of possible divergence from adult opinions, conceptions, representations and practices;
  • mechanisms to collect, listen to and hear the voices of children; and
  • influence on the negotiations and decision-making processes that concern the children involved, including receiving feedback on their contributions and the impacts of their participation.

What do you think of sharing expertise with children? Have you ever involved children in your research activities? If so, for what reasons, with what objectives and in what way? If not, for what reasons (research topic, irrelevance, etc.) and would you be interested in doing so if the opportunity arises?

To find out more:

Darbellay, F. and Moody, Z. (2023). Children as Research Actors: Theories, Methods and Experimentation. In, R. J. Lawrence, Handbook of Transdisciplinarity: Global Perspectives, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK: 403-418. (Online) (DOI):

Darbellay, F. (2021). Children as Co-researchers in a Stakeholder Discussion Group. td-net toolbox, Methods and tools for co-producing knowledge webportal. (Online):


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, 4: 216-224.

Biography: Frédéric Darbellay PhD is associate professor in Inter- and Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He is Head of the Inter- and Transdisciplinarity Unit at the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies (CIDE) and the CIDE Deputy Director. His research focuses on the study of inter- and transdisciplinarity as a creative process of knowledge production between and beyond disciplines.

Biography: Zoe Moody PhD is professor at the University of Teacher Education Valais and Senior Research Associate at the Center for Children’s Rights Studies, University of Geneva, Switzerland. Her interdisciplinary work is focused on children’s rights from educational and psycho-social perspectives and based on participatory and mixed-methods approaches.

4 thoughts on “Children as research actors”

  1. Dear Frédéric and Zoe,
    Let me philosophize a little on the topic of your post.

    Your post suggests that we clarify the boundaries of age perception of the surrounding world. You and I know that human consciousness and mind are associated primarily with the megaconstruction of neuronal connections in the brain. Moreover, these connections are able to form in the presence of a certain number of neurons; the ability of these neurons to maintain and transmit certain electrical impulses over the network; to accompany the transmission of these impulses with a certain composition of neurohormones.

    In the brain of a child up to a certain age, new neurons are formed, new neural networks are formed. But how does a child’s brain manage to maintain purposeful development in conditions of constant growth? Most likely, in different periods of childhood, the brain uses different modes of perception and cognition of the world. Since we have passed the common period of childhood, we can consider ourselves “experts” in this matter. As “experts”, we distinguish four age periods of childhood:
    1 period – from birth to 4 years;
    2 period – from 4 years to 8 years;
    3 period – from 8 years to 12 years;
    4 period – from 12 to 16 years.

    The first and second periods of childhood are spent in the mode of “natural curiosity”. Let me remind you that curiosity is an animal instinct, which manifests itself in the desire to be a witness of something. In the first period of childhood, we should talk about the instinctive reaction of the child to the presence of objects of the surrounding world. As a result, the child’s brain learns to identify these objects. Then there is an associative connection of these objects with their names. Then the child’s brain learns to perceive these objects as part of separate pictures of reality. Every picture of reality is fixed in the child’s developing brain in the form of primary archaic stereotypes. In the second period of childhood, we should talk about the instinctive desire of the child to form archaic functional stereotypes from archaic stereotypes. Let’s show an example of the “natural curiosity” mode. A six–year-old child asks his father – what is the difference between a girl cat and a boy cat? The father tried for a long time to figure out how to explain to the child information about sexual characteristics, the difference in body structure, the difference in hormones. The father decided to involve his daughter in the study of this issue. The daughter replied like this: the cats differ in the color of the bow: the boy’s cat has a blue bow, and the girl’s cat has a pink bow…

    The third and fourth periods of childhood are spent in the mode of “provoked curiosity”. The third period accounts for primary school education. The fourth period accounts for training in secondary school. Simply put, the child continues to be a witness. In this case, but is a witness to the knowledge about the surrounding world, which was formed by previous generations. At this stage, archaic functional stereotypes turn into basic stereotypes of a modern person. It is these basic stereotypes that prepare the megaconstruction of the child’s emerging brain to work in the mode of “inquisitiveness”. Let me remind you that inquisitiveness is a conscious desire for knowledge (for new knowledge), which has a practical or theoretical interest.
    What is the conclusion from these philosophical arguments, more precisely, from the transdisciplinary generalization of the disciplinary knowledge of physiology and psychology?

    If we recognize the sequence of stages in the development of a child’s brain using the modes of “natural and provoked curiosity”, then it is inappropriate for us to use children as co-researchers and research participants. Research is driven by the desire to gain new knowledge and their understanding. Children have not yet formed a psychophysiological tool for this (megaconstruction of the brain). By demanding the impossible from children, we can inflict psychological trauma on children.

    However, by developing an idea of the four periods of children’s brain development, you can purposefully reorient and reformulate your accumulated experience for interacting with children in the modes of “natural and provoked curiosity”.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment. The implementation of research methods with or even by children does indeed take into account children’s stages of cognitive, emotional and social development. Children are not regarded as miniature adults, but rather as beings with their own views, understandings, skills and potential (including creativity, curiosity, etc.): beings evolving while also transforming, taking into account their own history and experiences, as well as the socio-cultural context in which they are embedded.

  2. Dear Sibylle,

    Thanks for your kind and constructive feedback.

    The main idea is to ensure that the co-researchers can sense that their inputs genuinely influence, to some extent, the research process. Therefore, the children’s opinions or ideas should not solely have an ancillary function (e.g., validate the questions, the tools, the vocabulary, etc.) but should invite the team sometimes to reconsider the directions taken or previous decisions. For children, one way of assessing this influence can be to spend 5 minutes at the end of each co-research session to reflect in writing on their personal experience, based on several questions for consideration; our team has successfully used a booklet for this purpose, which children were using throughout the whole process. Scientists can, for their part, record sessions and then return to the recordings shortly afterwards, aiming to identify all excluded ideas or suggestions and re-assess the relevance of exclusion.

    Concerning the writing process, the age variable is here at play. We know some projects carried out with 15-18 year-olds in which the co-researchers were involved in drafting reports and papers. When the children are younger, it can take place through other means (e.g., co-writing workshops, drafting of some very specific paragraphs) or even focus on co-generating content or selecting the ideas which should be further diffused. Then, the scientists can take the lead in the drafting process.

    Kind regards,
    Zoe & Frédéric

  3. Dear Frédéric, Dear Zoe
    Many thanks for your gentle reminder to do research with and to support research by children. A very important focus, especially these days when intergenerational justice is an issue in many debates (about global commons)!
    Could you tell us a little bit more about the “influence on the negotiations and decision-making processes” of the children as co-researchers? Do you have any examples or best practices here?
    … and I wonder how far you can go in involving children in the writing process? What are your experiences in this respect?


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