Involving children as competent social actors in research is increasingly acknowledged as a way of including authentic perspectives on childhood and enhancing our understanding of children’s experiences. Engaging directly with children can inform the development of targeted policies and programs for them.
As part of UNICEF’s research on the Akelius language learning platform across primary schools in Italy, our researchers conducted visual storytelling workshops that captured children's stories through collage making.
To understand students’ perspectives on childhood, school, and learning, we held workshops with children enrolled in Italian classes across 2 different schools. The participating students were between the ages of 7-10, and included migrants, refugees, and Italian-born children with disabilities.
Why Visual Storytelling?
Visual storytelling overcomes the limitations of focus group discussions (FGDs). Interviewer-driven dialogue can create power asymmetry, which can leave children feeling unheard or undervalued, and cause them to disengage from the conversation. Additionally, reliance on oral communication may exclude specific groups of children, particularly those with limited language proficiency, younger and shy participants, and children with disabilities.
Children can express their experiences with greater autonomy through visual storytelling. In our research on digital learning, visual storytelling enabled children to communicate meaningful narratives and personal interpretations concerning digital technologies, language learning, their school life, and their sense of belonging. This was achieved with minimal researcher guidance or reliance on a structured interview topic guide.
How does it work?
Preparation and collaboration were key to the workshop's success. The workshop was prepared jointly between UNICEF Innocenti, UNICEF Europe and Central Asia’s national response office in Italy, school teachers, and an expert in visual storytelling from the University of Bologna. Involving experts who have experience working with newly arrived children and children with disabilities was key to ensuring that the workshop was tailored to the participating schools and students.
To stimulate storytelling, 90 images were printed and cut, to serve as visual prompts for the students. These pictures portrayed familiar objects from school, home, environments, and a variety of emotions. These visual prompts contained black, white, and colorful images and included realistic photographs, sketches, and fairytale illustrations. The diverse selection of materials offered children multiple prompts to help them tell their story.
During the workshop, children cut, assembled, and adhered the images that best reflected their story onto a piece of paper. After developing their individual collages, children described and explained their creations.
“When I came on the first day, I was very sad because I couldn't speak Italian. Then I started to like it, I found many friends. This is my family; I like being with my family. I like the teacher. I like using the computer and playing games in Italian” -- A girl from Ukraine, 7 years old
Afterwards, participants gathered in groups to create a collage and story featuring a fictional character. This process aimed to provide a safe and imaginative space for children to express their stories by projecting them onto a third person.
Exploring Deeper Meanings
Interpreting children's narratives may pose challenges due to blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality. To gain insight into children's perspectives, we approached their narratives by focusing on their internal logic and meaning, placing less emphasis on strict adherence to factual accuracy. Through narrative analysis, we mapped key elements of each child's world and their connections, facilitating the identification of common patterns.
Friendship emerged as a significant theme in all collages. The involvement of friends is pivotal in children's adaptation and language acquisition, as friends serve as valuable mentors in introducing and explaining a new language. These findings indicate that children invest considerable time in learning outside formal lessons, primarily through play and social interaction with peers, underscoring that the experience of school is about much more than lessons inside the classroom. For digital learning, these insights emphasize the importance of leveraging non-classroom time in order to optimize program effectiveness.
“Teachers teach how to speak Italian. I use the tablet to learn Italian. I do homework at home. My family speaks Chinese. I play soccer. I speak Italian with my friends. When I don't understand, my friends help.” -- A boy, 7 years old, born in Italy
By allowing children to speak for themselves though creative methods, researchers can unlock new dimensions of data and gain deeper insights into the lived experiences of children. This research is part of a global trend to develop evidence on the use of digital learning on children’s education and wellbeing, especially in low resource and challenging situations. Creative participatory methods, such as visual storytelling, can enrich the research process.