Grant holder
Caroline Guard, University of Roehampton
Project status
In Progress

A study exploring how infants convey their voice/s in nursery provision across a small sample of settings in England.

Research aims

The overall aim of this study is to explore how infants convey their voice/s in nursery provision across a small sample of settings in England. Considering the voices of children in research is not a new concept, accelerating in the last decade (Clark & Moss, 2012), yet there remains a void where ‘marginalised’ (Greve & Solheim, 2010) infants are ‘out of reach’ from researchers, who grapple with the ethical and methodological dilemmas of how to frame and interpret infant worlds with rigour and validity.

Psychological and scientific approaches have dominated research, drawing from an array of theory to strengthen, analyse and evaluate findings and there are very few studies which have documented children’s real-life experiences naturalistically (Datler et al., 2010; Music, 2012). Even fewer have adopted a grounded theory approach to generate new theoretical concepts. This study challenges that perspective by embracing Froebelian principles of starting with the child by combining ethnographic case studies and grounded theory to explore an area in ECEC that has been relatively untouched.

Little exploratory research specifically in the UK, has documented interactions between infants and adults, other than their parents, in alternative natural environments such as nurseries. Each child attending a nursery setting will bring with them their own life narrative, influenced by their previous experiences and this will act as a basis for any socialisation encountered within their new environment (Stern, 2010).

This study assumes the position that there is a reality of infant knowledge and experience to be seen, concerned with, not what they can do, but how they experience alternative familiar environments. It places infants at the very heart of scholarly understanding by listening to their communicative encounters, with practitioners through naturalistic observation in an ordinary context.

Multiple factors will influence infant social experiences in nursery. These are likely to be pedagogical, or organisational, cultural and personal. Despite attempts to standardise pedagogy through the organisational structure (Barros, et al., 2016), nursery culture and policy initiatives, each child and their family will experience the reality of the ‘baby room’ in different ways, resulting in each child constructing their own social understanding from each experience. Staff too will be shaped by their own stories, pedagogical principles and nursery culture.

This array of perspectives is yet to be investigated together in one study. This project proposes that they could be explored through adopting a multimodal interpretivist methodology which will aim to give expression to the social narratives of multiple children’s experiences through thick, rich descriptions (Geertz, 1973) of daily life, whilst reflecting on the multidimensional context of wider nursery provision using reflective dialogue and researcher field notes.

Research design

This study intends to add to international discourses of infant voices in research, acting as a platform to document the ordinary occurrences of infant day-to-day life in natural surroundings, whilst investigating aspects that may influence how and if their voices are heard and responded to.

The study will be underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. What are the patterns of communication that infants employ to express their voice in nursery provision?
  2. How are these patterns of communication used to initiate and sustain interactions with practitioners in a nursery environment?
  3. How do the observed patterns of communication in nursery relate to parent’s descriptions of patterns of interactions in the home?
  4. In what ways do practitioners respond to infant voices in the setting?
  5. Do practitioners think the culture of the wider nursery environment influences their interactions with infants - and if so, in what way?

The findings of this study - one of the first of its kind in England - will emerge from exploring infants’ lives away from the family home assuming Froebel’s philosophical notion to place observation at the heart of scholarship (Froebel cited in Lilley, 1967:43). Most studies emerging from England have focussed on the role adults have in shaping infant experiences in nursery environments (Page, 2011; Powell et al., 2013) and the influence this has on pedagogical principles in infant care (Goouch et al., 2012; Elfer et al., 2018) rather than the infant experiences from their perspective.

Some progression in this area is evident with scholarship emerging internationally, exploring elements of infant dialogic encounters (White & Redder, 2015, Barros et al., 2016, Salamon, 2017; Degotardi et al., 2018), although not always through employing naturalistic approaches, which can obscure the image of the child’s true experience. Datler et al., (2010) conducted a single case study of a child settling into a nursery setting in Austria, employing a psychoanalytical approach through young child observations.

The findings were powerful, illustrating how lost a child can become without consistent reassuring interactions with familiar adults. This only adds to the need to further investigate the interactions that take place in nursery settings, considering the differences in English pedagogy which will be shaped by a multitude of factors.

This is an important study as it proposes an original, naturalistic methodology aiming to bridge the gap between what can be seen and what is known about young children’s ordinary lives, investigating the reciprocal interactions between infants and practitioners across a cohort of case studies. It will facilitate further scholarly discourse about what occurs in the baby room, whilst representing the voices infant’s use in settings away from their families.

As well as contributing to our scholarly understanding of infancy away from the home, the study is likely to have implications for practitioner education, such as continued professional development, along with a possible review into appropriate group size for very young children in day care. It is anticipated that evidence derived from this research project will provide an opportunity for a professional development framework to evolve, aiming to support sensitive, sustained interactions between infants and adults in nurseries, with Froebel’s ethos underpinning any training opportunities and scholarly dissemination.

A final report is expected in 2022 and will be published here.