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Child’s play? Using creative methods with adults in education research

Eleanor Long, PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University

The use of creative methods with children and young people has a long and well-established history in therapeutic practice and related research (Malchiodi & Perry, 2014). However, creative methods of data collection – such as drawing, modelling and photo-elicitation – can also be used successfully with adults; and this is increasing, particularly within social science and educational research (Kara, 2015; Mannay & Edwards, 2013; Truelove, 2016). Creative methods can be used as a means of accessing a deeper level of insight into participant experiences than can be elicited by interviews alone but may be used in conjunction with more traditional methods such as qualitative interviewing. This blog post focuses on the use of creative methods with adult education staff in a research project conducted as part of my PhD thesis. The study sought to explore how trauma-informed professional development influenced practitioners attitudes, beliefs and practice as well as their ability to create trauma-informed change within their settings.

Evidence shows that trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect and exposure to violence have a lasting developmental impact across the lifespan (Felitti & Anda, 1998; Van Der Kolk, 2014). We know that approximately a third of children have experienced trauma in England and Wales (Lewis et al., 2019) and that children who have experienced trauma typically have poorer outcomes in education. In response to increasing knowledge of the impact of trauma, a strengths-based, relational approach has emerged known as ‘trauma-informed practice’. A trauma-informed school is one that provides a safe and nurturing environment in which children can be supported by emotionally available adults who understand the impact of trauma and resulting behaviours. Given the scale of the problem, trauma-informed practice is increasingly advocated for use in education, increasing the demand for trauma-informed training for school staff.

‘A trauma-informed school is one that provides a safe and nurturing environment in which children can be supported by emotionally available adults who understand the impact of trauma and resulting behaviours.’

The study

For my PhD thesis I explored the experiences of primary education staff who had recently undertaken trauma-informed professional development. I was interested in finding out if and how the training had changed their attitudes, beliefs and practice, and how they experienced implementing trauma-informed change in their settings following the training.

Alongside semi-structured interviews, participants were asked to complete optional creative activities:

  1. to draw ‘trauma’ and ‘trauma-informed practice’
  2. photo-elicitation – to take photographs illustrating trauma-informed practice in their setting
  3. a ‘sandboxing’ activity to illustrate their experience of creating trauma-informed change by selecting ‘small-world’ objects and figures and creating a scene in the sand box (see images below) (Malchiodi & Perry, 2014;Torre & Murphy, 2015; Mannay & Edwards, 2013

Creative activities were staged from simple (basic line drawing) to more complex (taking photographs and illustrating a scene in the sandbox) in order to ‘ease participants in’ to thinking creatively, and were conducted in three rounds of data collection.

Round 1: Interview + drawing

Round 2: Photo-elicitation (participant-generated) + interview

Round 3: Sandboxing actitivty + interview

Interview data was transcribed and analysed using reflexive thematic analysis (RTA) (Braun & Clarke, 2022). All participants had some prior experience of using creative methods either in their own practice or as part of their professional development, so I knew this would make the creative activities less daunting; however, I still was surprised by the richness of the data produced. Participants expressed their enjoyment of the activities as a surprisingly easy means of expressing themselves, despite the challenging subject matter. In conducting this research I learned that creative methods can and should be used with adults as a means of collecting data, particularly when dealing with complex or sensitive issues.


Barbour, B. (2014). Introducing qualitative research: A student’s guide (2nd ed.). Sage.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2022). Thematic analysis: A practical guide. SAGE.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V. Koss, M. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. 

Kara, H., (2015). Creative research methods in practice. In Creative research methods in the social sciences: A practical guide (1st ed.), pp. 19–34. Bristol University Press.

Lewis, S. J., Arseneault, L., & Danese, A. (2016). 6.126 The epidemiology of posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative cohort of british youths. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 55(10), S244–S244.

Malchiodi, C. A., & Perry, B. D. (2014). Creative interventions with traumatized children: Creative arts and play therapy (2nd ed.). Guilford Publications.

Mannay, D., & Edwards, V. (2013, December 11–13). It’s written in the sand: Employing sandboxing to explore the experiences of non-traditional, mature students in higher education. Presentation at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Research Conference 2013.

Mannay, D., Staples, E., & Edwards, V. (2017). Visual methodologies, sand and psychoanalysis: Employing creative participatory techniques to explore the educational experiences of mature students and children in care. Visual Studies, 32(4), 345–358.

Torre, D., & Murphy, J. (2015). A different lens: Using photo-elicitation interviews in education research. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(111).

Truelove, L. (2016). Early years teacher status trainees’ placement experiences: A creative interpretative phenomenological analysis (Doctoral thesis, Sheffield Hallam University).