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Exploring children’s experiences: The value of metaphor, film and photography

Laura Quick, Honorary Research Fellow at University College London

Many who conduct research with children in schools will be familiar with interview responses that are monosyllabic or seem designed to please (Mayall, 2008). Children can be shy, wary of school-related adults, and unused to being listened to seriously (Hargreaves, 2017). Eliciting children’s subjective experiences therefore requires a distinct approach; not only must interviews be supportive, fun and developmentally appropriate (Linzmayer & Halpenny, 2013), but they should avoid relying only on verbal responses. Doing so risks marginalising the voices of those who are least confident and articulate with adults, and therefore has classed, raced and gendered implications for research. This blog post outlines some activities developed for a longitudinal study on low-attaining children’s experiences of primary school (Hargreaves et al., 2022), drawing on play and drama therapy techniques (Jennings, 2005) and the multi-method MOSAIC approach (Clark & Moss, 2011).

Working in metaphor proved particularly effective for exploring sensitive topics such as attainment labels. It provided ‘psychic distance’ (Drewes & Schaefer, 2015, p. 39) from the subject matter, making it easier for the child to express feelings or experiences they found difficult to acknowledge as themselves (Pernicano, 2015). For example, we introduced a dolls house classroom occupied by toy animals on the morning of a test, and participants chose animals to represent people, including themselves, before playing out the action. This threw up new themes that had not emerged in more traditional interview activities and often proved a rich source of exploration. Sam dithered between choosing a snail and a tortoise to represent him, before settling on a chameleon. His explanation of his choices and each animal’s skill at hiding – protected by a thick shell or camouflage – revealed his fear of tests, his anxiety about being slow and the humiliation of finishing last. Michael, who had previously said only good things of his teacher, cast him as a spider, explaining: ‘he hates spiders, he’s scared of spiders, so I will put him as a spider’, an act we interpreted as punishing his teacher, who had just read his low test marks aloud to the class. Clara, who maintained she enjoyed tests and did well in them was, as an animal, able to shout that she hated tests and storm out of the doll’s house classroom.

However, working in metaphor was only useful with those who avoided owning their feelings and added nothing to interviews with Ellie, who was keen to explain how much she hated tests and how ‘dumb’ she felt. With her, stimulated recall – watching a video of herself in class while explaining what she had been feeling at the time – proved more valuable and could trigger an outpouring of emotions impossible to deduce from simply observing her.

Stimulated recall was also fruitful with Michael. Watching a film of his teacher announcing his low test marks aloud to the class, he tried to explain away his undeniably miserable expression, telling us: ‘on the outside I look worried but on the inside I’m not.’ This revealed a commitment to being always positive and denying negative feelings which we were able to further explore with an activity where he took photos of places in school associated with particular emotions. His ‘scared place’ was not somewhere he’d felt scared but a PE shed he imagined it would be scary to get locked in; his ‘anxious place’ was the road by the football pitch, where he imagined a mis-kicked football could be ‘popped by a car’; and he flatly denied having an ‘unhappy place’, instead taking a second photo of a happy one.

‘Research with children that relies on conventional dialogue risks over-representing those most confident and articulate, which can lead to class, race, gender and perceived ability bias.’

Research with children that relies on conventional dialogue risks over-representing those most confident and articulate, which can lead to class, race, gender and perceived ability bias. Expanding the repertoire of activities enables participants to recognise and explore their feelings and is a way of bringing the voices of marginalised pupils to the forefront of educational research.


Clark, A., & Moss, P. (2011). Listening to young children: The Mosaic approach (2nd ed.). National Children’s Bureau.

Drewes, A. A., & Schaefer, C. E. (2015). The therapeutic powers of play. In K. J. O’Connor, C. E. Schaefer & L. D. Braverman (Eds.), Handbook of play therapy (pp. 35–60). John Wiley & Sons.

Hargreaves, E. (2017). Children’s experiences of classrooms: Talking about being pupils in the classroom. SAGE Publications.

Hargreaves, E., Quick, L., & Buchanan, D. (2022). Persevering for a cruel and cynical fiction? The experiences of the ‘low achievers’ in primary schooling. British Journal of Educational Studies, 70(4), 397–417.

Jennings, S. (2005). Creative play with children at risk. Speechmark.

Linzmayer, C. D., & Halpenny, E. A. (2013). ‘It was fun’: An evaluation of sand tray pictures, an innovative visually expressive method for researching children’s experiences with nature. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 12(1), 310–337.

Mayall, B. (2008). Conversations with children: Working with generational issues. In A. James & P. Christensen (Eds.), Research with children: Perspectives and practices (pp. 125–140). Routledge.

Pernicano, P. (2015). Metaphors and stories in play therapy. In K. J. O’Connor, C. E. Schaefer & L. D. Braverman (Eds.), Handbook of play therapy (pp. 259–275). John Wiley & Sons.