Techniques for Studying Children

The basic processes for studying children are the same as the basic processes for all scientific study:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Develop hunches about its causes & how it can be solved
  3. Test one or more of the hunches:
    1. Collect evidence about the situation
    2. Try out the hunch in action
    3. See what happens (i.e., collect more evidence)
    4. Evaluate (generalize on the basis of evidence)


One source of information about children comes from first-hand information (usually, interviews). This is the easiest source of data, but it is the most difficult to evaluate. The question may not be understood the way it was intended (so the answer does not mean what you think it does). In interviewing children, the questions asked is often less important than the answer given. The advantage to getting first-hand information is that children who ostensibly have the same experiences may stress very different components of that experience.


Examples of types of interviews include:

  • Direct interview (used to identify interests, values, feelings, opinions)
  • Questionnaires (used to obtain factual information)
  • Activity schedule—which is a form of the questionnaire (used to obtain information about time, activity, with whom, where)
  • Informant interview (used to obtain second-hand opinion)
  • Review of published record (journals, autobiographies, etc.)


Examples of the use of these techniques include

  • Darwin’s diaries
  • Freud’s case histories
  • Some elements of Piaget’s work with his own children
  • Florence Ladd’s “Black Youths View Their Environment”


Second-hand evidence (observation, often) is more commonly used as the basic source of data in studying children. In some cases, it is the only source (e.g., studying infants). It is very difficult to do well. One must take into account all the relevant details of behavior, ignoring the irrelevant. To do this, one must be in the proper position to observe the behavior (both physically and subjectively). In doing this, the research must be careful to separate the subjective aspects of an observation from its objective aspects (i.e., focus on description, rather than inference). The process depends on accumulating a mass of observational evidence and letting the patterns emerge. Nonetheless, in the end, one must still infer the meaning of the “observed” patterns in the behavior (in other words, the “patterns” aren’t really given in the observation, but are inferred by the observer—a cue ball strikes a billiard ball, which caroms off the cushion, and we infer that the first ball “caused” the other to move away—at least, if we are to believe Isaac Newton).


Again, there are multiple ways to observe behavior:

  • Drawings (infer feelings & perceptions from the content of drawing; frequently tied to a specific request)
  • Archiving (collecting folklore—stories, games, songs, rhymes. Sometimes the content is analyzed; sometimes the distribution of variant forms is studied)
  • Field protocols (All observation requires a record. Each anecdote must provide enough information to understand the incident exactly as it occurred)
    • Log (free form of observation)
    • Behavior stream protocols (strict observation for occurrence of specified events)


Examples of second-hand evidence include:

  • Clare Cooper’s “Environmental Autobiographies”
  • Jeremy Anderson’s “Turf Maps”
  • Tony Schwartz’s “1-2-3 & a Zing-Zing-Zing”
  • Opie & Opie’s Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
  • Roger Barker’s Midwest and Its Children


A variant on observational techniques is controlled observation. This is in the tradition of classic experimental techniques. If it is well-designed (i.e., if it is designed to show the contrary, if it is there at all), it provides the least ambiguous of answers. The problem is its artificiality and lack of a “situation” to provide clues. There are two ways to do this: Unobtrusive measures depend, not on manipulating a child’s behavior, but on finding artifacts of children’s behavior. This permits children to behave in their normal fashion, but it is also gathering information at one step further removed from the child’s own experience. Experimental design sets up an artificial situation, one in which some children are subject to some particular stimulation (the “experimental” group) while others are in the same situation but do not receive the stimulation (the “control” group). This method permits one to structure a simple yes/no situation which would confirm or deny one’s hunch. Examples of this approach include Piaget’s The Child’s Conception of Space and Bandura & Walters’ Social Learning and Personality Development.



2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 16 April 2004