Diane Hofkins reports on a research project which uses different media to study how youngsters interact and grow with each other, and how they can best be helped to develop
laying With Words is the kind of research project that is hard to write about in a newspaper. It does not have quantifiable outcomes or hard-hitting conclusions. Its aims are open-ended. Its evidence consists of things such as pictures, films, narratives and souvenirs.
It is about the minutiae of the things little kids do, but the question at its heart is enormous: how do we build a future fit for children? Playing With Words started three years ago after the Gatsby Charitable Foundation expressed an interest in improving services for children with speech and language difficulties. The research and development initiative that resulted works with a network of 20 local early-years partnerships which include these children (about 30 per cent) alongside others. Most of the children are aged three or four.
Its rules begin with an unusual guideline: "We live in an unequal and often non-inclusive society, which must be radically changed if we are to build a future fit for children.
"While it is beyond the scope of Playing with Words to make change on this scale, change is still necessary if we are to achieve our aim. In particular, this means changing traditional forms of personal and professional relationships so that all of the participants take an equal part and have equal voice in the project."
Parents, practitioners and children work as co-researchers, designing experiments to explore children's communication. A national group directed by Ann Jamieson, former head of the National Children's Bureau's Early Childhood Unit, and based at the Gatsby Children's Communication Project in Cambridge, supports them and brings findings together. Being with children is the spark for discussion, and groups work to "get a deeper understanding of what children are thinking and saying".
At the launch of PWW's website and a CD-Rom, Our Seaside Adventures, video footage was shown of small children on an outing to the coast. As two children played, Mary Jane Drummond, of Cambridge University - a consultant to the project - talked about what was going on. She thought they were exploring the twin concepts of "same" and "difference".
A little girl who already could walk toddled over to join a boy who was crawling, then got down on the ground and crawled with him. "I walk; you crawl. If I crawl too, we are together", was her interpretation. The concept of "together" was a big one for children to investigate.
Two children will imitate each other. When one falls, the other follows.
"Now we know that children are absolutely enraptured with each other," says Ms Drummond.
The notion of "we" is a powerful new idea for small children. Jo Gowar, a parent-researcher from Bognor Regis, East Sussex, had similar observations.
She said the project had changed the way she understood and noticed the things her child did. For instance, she spotted when children were willingly sharing, rather than just seeing generalised play. The project brought the community together, she said.
Lisa Inker, another parent, said she had been "knocked for six" when her son Dylan was born with special needs. The PWW group was the first where she had felt welcome.
She said: "They treated him as a human being." The children accepted Dylan as just another child, and he himself had grown in confidence. Dylan is proud that he can put words together. His mother no longer feels afraid and isolated.
WHAT ONE GROUP DISCOVERED
* Kids enjoy space and find their own ways of using it for what they want to do. They need to haveoutside space to play in, to let off steam in a safe place and to allow them to explore.
* Children do not necessarily need adults to lead them in their play.
Sometimes adult-provided activities do not encourage children to communicate or to use their imaginations.
* Parents realised that you do not necessarily need much money to give children an enriching experience.
* They also realised that they did not always allow children enough space in which to play, and so they changed this.
* Through watching a video of the children in action, they realised that they were experimenting with the concepts of "in" and "out", so they decided to build their next activity around this theme.