Children’s Imaginative Play Environments and Ecological Narrative Inquiry
The methodological inquiry developed here about the natural environments in which children play extends the theory and practices of narrative inquiry in educational research, in particular, Clandinin and Connelly’s extensive scholarly work in that field. This ecological approach hinges on the inclusion of young children and uses multimodal methods (such as mapping, drawings, and memory boxes) to prompt in children a self-questioning of the stories they told and retold about playing in different environments, the incorporation of a historical/temporal and comparative intergenerational sensibility that demonstrates the complexity of the children’s telling of stories, and, subsequently, an extension of Clandinin and Connelly’s (Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, CA: Joseey-Bass, 2000) three-dimensional narrative analysis model via the analysis of contextualized re-stories and mind mapping. Of central importance to this ecology of inquiry was a revealing of the ontologically temporal (and spatial) nature of how the children’s stories shifted and deepened over the course of four iterative conversational interviews as the participant-researcher relationship developed. Notably, this temporal process was enabled spatially and geographically through the children’s preferences for playing outside in “naturally” perceived places such as a tree, a clump of bushes, or a creek and being reinterviewed in that ecologically imagined and “played” space. This ecology helped children engage in deepening their ongoing conversations with the researcher in relation to the affordances in nature they preferred to use for their self-constructed imaginative play places. Children’s rich, sensory experiences with these aspects of nature were observed ethnographically during the conversations, which added further depth and meaning to their stories and what that might mean for childhoodnature ecological, pedagogical, and research development.
KeywordsNarrative inquiry with young children Researcher reflexivity Ecological narrative inquiry Temporality, spatiality, and affect in nature Storytelling Imaginative play places
The central aim of this narrative inquiry was to examine any changes in contemporary and historical children’s imaginative play places over time. In conceptualizing imaginative play, researchers have found that young children are capable of understanding the difference between reality and imagination through their play, where they purposefully “transcend time, place, and/or circumstance” (Taylor, 2013, p. 3) to enable “border crossings into other worlds” (van Manen & Levering, 1996, p. 32). The findings from this intergenerational inquiry indicated that the children’s physical and/or symbolic places they consciously constructed in nature for their imaginative play have changed little over time, despite contemporary deficit discourses that suggest otherwise and despite contextual constraints placed upon contemporary childhoods (Moore, 2015). While this chapter, and indeed this version of narrative inquiry, does not produce generalized, universal claims about childhood imaginative play or the places it is enacted, it does illustrate the complexity of children’s storytelling and their capacity to participate in a narrative inquiry.
The empirical “testing” of this unorthodox methodology of narrative inquiry generated further dimensions of researcher-researched reflexivities. Some key findings are described briefly for illustrative purposes only but set the stage for ongoing methodological inquiry. Grounded in the extensive work of Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly’s narrative inquiry methodology, this more ecological approach to narrative inquiry enabled young children to engage in emotion-infused storytelling about their deep relationship to aspects of nature they “live” and “play in” in a way that other research methodologies do not always achieve.
This chapter begins with a brief overview of the insights involved in developing researcher reflexivity and its relevance to this narrative inquiry with young children. Next the historical foundations of narrative research are outlined and how the emergence of narrative inquiry has shifted the field through the extensive work of Clandinin and Connelly. My own interpretation of their work is then discussed and how it informed the ecologically relational narrative inquiry this chapter is based on. The context and multimodal methods used in the inquiry are then outlined; followed by an explanation of the key touchstones of the study. The final section of the chapter provides examples of individual stories told by young children and shows how the analysis of these stories demonstrates both the complexity of their storytelling and the construction of their relationship with/in nature. This in turn leads to an emergent temporally and spatially alert conceptualized and contextualized version of childhoodnature.
The Shifting Positions Within Research
Grix (2002) argued that once the ontological and then epistemological position of the researcher has been acknowledged, the methodological position for the study “logically follows” (p. 177). In searching for an appropriate methodology to identify and interpret children’s ecologically imaginative play places, I needed to develop a methodological approach that aligned with my understandings about ontology (multiple realities rather than one fixed “truth”), epistemology (as socially constructed and changeable knowledge), and axiology (valuing the subjectivity of the researcher and participants). More specifically, the visibility of emotion or feelings or affectivities was important to me in educational research with young children. Neumann’s (2012) argument for including emotion as an integral part of the research process rather than trying to deny its existence resonated with my own search to accommodate emotionality and a reflexive stance within the methodological approach developed for this research.
Researcher reflexivity is characteristic of qualitative research paradigms in which the researcher acknowledges how their own values and assumptions can impact their interpretations of the phenomenon under study and their research interactions with participants (Denzin and Lincoln, 2001). Drawing on Denzin’s (2001) claims, I was keenly aware that my interpretations of the participants’ stories throughout this inquiry were influenced by my own experiences, feelings, and assumptions. Of increasing relevance therefore were Fontana and Frey’s (2008) contention that a “powerful way in which to accentuate reflexivity” was through the narrative research use of where “in trying to understand the ‘other’ we learn about (our) selves” (p. 141). Given my research was focused on investigating the meanings of children’s imaginative play places over time and the decision on how best to invite; then interpreting these meanings influenced the final methodological choice. Subsequently, a narrative inquiry emerged as providing a clear “fitness for purpose” for this study (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 115) with its inherent capacity to enable and deeply examine the meanings of participants’ lived experiences playing in nature and re-storying it over time while acknowledging the researcher’s subjective position within the research.
This chapter is representative of the shifts in position that the research, the researcher, and the research participants experienced throughout the study. The times and timing of researcher-researched experiences were a prominent concern. Running parallel with my starting position as a researcher engaged in narrative inquiry based on Clandinin and Connelly’s extensive work was an evolving approach that has moved narrative inquiry to a new ecological level of inquiry. This evolution can be seen through the research processes, and stories embedded in this chapter juxtaposed against my own shifting position as I realigned my research approach to be more attuned to young children’s ecological awareness with/in nature. The research participants also shifted positions, as they told and retold stories that they questioned and changed over the course of the inquiry, so that the “stories they lived by” were reinterpreted into new story lines (Clandinin, 2013).
Narrative Inquiry: A Relational Methodology
When I look back on my decision-making about the methodological approach to use, I recall strongly resonating with Clandinin and Connelly’s work on narrative inquiry, in particular, their respect for the multiple voices of others while encouraging the inclusion of the researcher’s own voice and the significance of temporality, spatiality, and geographical/topographical place in the analysis of the stories (re)told by participants to the researcher. On further investigation, the underlying principles of a narrative inquiry linked well with my world view of reality as multiple and understanding of knowledge as socially constructed and voiced, experiential and embodied. The following section shows how the field of narrative research has shifted over time toward the inclusion of a number of complimentary forms of research including the evolution of narrative inquiry. Clandinin and Connelly’s contribution to the field has similarly evolved over a number of decades, with this study providing a stronger ecological dimension to their original foundation of narrative inquiry.
From Historical Foundations Toward Narrative Inquiry
Stories have always played an important role in helping people understand their lives (Elliott, 2012), with storytelling seen as a way to communicate important cultural practices between generations and over time (Rogoff, 2003). Narrative scholars have described this phenomenon as “living a storied life” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Traditionally, stories in narrative research were positioned within a more formal investigation of linguistics and narratology, until a shift in the 1960s heralded a new way of looking at “ordinary people’s oral narratives…as worthy of study” (Chase, 2008, p. 63). Following on from these shifts, a swing toward postmodern thinking in the 1970s and 1980s prompted a “narrative turn” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008) within social science research away from purely scientific statistical data to “honor[ing] people’s stories as data” (Patton, 2002, p. 115).
More recently, narrative researchers have collectively reinforced the value of stories and storytelling as worthwhile data and data generation methods in research. For example, Kramp (2004) explained how lived experiences can be made more meaningful through storytelling, suggesting “[s]tories preserve our memories, prompt our reflections, connect us with our past and present, and assist us to envision our future” (p. 106). Squire (2013) also argued that the process of storytelling enables the feelings and emotions attached to experiences to “become part of consciousness” (p. 48). With the continued recognition of the value of stories, the field of narrative research developed many diverse forms which have oscillated between the process and the product of narratives (Riessman, 2008). Among this diversity, narrative inquiry has evolved to provide an analytical investigation beyond an analysis of the words used or a description of stories (Bell, 2002). While narrative inquiry shares some common features with other forms of qualitative research (Clandinin, Pushor, & Orr Murray, 2007), its difference lies in the need to “do something” with the stories not just report or curate them (Riessman, 2008).
Clandinin and Connelly’s “Alternative View” of Narrative Inquiry
Clandinin and Connelly have been instrumental in developing the methodological theory and practice of narrative inquiry through their extensive work over the past three decades and, more recently, in collaboration with other scholars. During this time, they have continually redefined their understanding of narrative inquiry from a “form of empirical narrative in which empirical data is central to the work” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1990, p. 5) to a “way of understanding experience” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 20). Their theoretical links to a Deweyan interpretation of experience and continuity are apparent in their understanding of lived experience along a “personal and social continuum” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Clandinin and Connelly (2000) considered that their “alternative view” of narrative inquiry was emphasized in their stance that research should not be an accumulation of categories or codes taken from stories but rather the use of questions and conversations between the researcher and the participants as “a way toward deepening the inquiry” (p. 55). In this way, “the particular of each participant” is still evident within the inquiry rather than being reduced and possibly lost within generalized categories (Polkinghorne, 2007, p. 634).
Story is not so much a structured answer to a question, or a way of accounting for actions and events, as it is a gateway, a portal, for narrative inquiry into meaning and significance. Story in this sense, is complex and may be analysed in inquiry. (p. 356)
In this definition, the depth of investigation into meanings of experience is positioned as a critical point of difference. Stories, therefore, can be seen as a way into the inquiry rather than the foci of the research as is often the case in other forms of narrative research examining spoken narratives.
Recently, Clandinin (2013) has rearticulated the “key touchstones” (p. 212) which shape, inform, and align a study to the principles of a “relational narrative inquiry” (p. 81). These “key touchstones” focus on the formation of an ethical relationship between the researcher and the participants as essential elements of a narrative inquiry. Further to this, Caine, Estefan, and Clandinin (2013) have argued that a narrative inquiry is intrinsically aligned to the researchers’ epistemological and ontological “commitment” to the research participants by holding “responsibilities and obligations for, and toward, the people whose stores are lived and told” (p. 56). A relational narrative inquiry therefore seeks to understand lived experiences through a reciprocal, interactive, and highly ethical relationship between the researcher and the participant (Clandinin, 2013).
Narrative Inquiry with Young Children?
Despite research with children gaining interest since the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1989) and the onset of the sociology of childhood paradigm (Dockett, Einarsdottir, & Perry, 2009), there are limited examples of the use of a narrative inquiry with children 7 years and under in age. This is especially the case in research where storytelling is invited through conversational interviews. Some narrative researchers have used children’s naturally occurring language during play to examine their lived experiences (Puroila, Estola, & Syrjala, 2012); while others have focused more on the developing linguistic patterns of children’s speech (cf: Tsai, 2007). However, very few studies are available in the literature where researchers have used the essence of a narrative inquiry approach with young children.
Despite an apparent acceptance of children’s stories providing “authentic, rich, and respectable data” (Cohen et al., 2011, p. 455), there appears to be a dichotomy between the rhetoric and the reality in believing that young children are capable of providing “valid” stories for research purposes (Kirk, 2007). Skelton (2008), for example, argued that although there is a need for all research with young children to be “ethical, sensitive, and respectful” (p. 23), she also argued that young children were “not…fully competent” to participate in interview-based research (p. 24). Another example of this dichotomy is evident in Barrett’s (2009) narrative inquiry into young children’s musical engagement in which the children were not asked about their experiences. Instead, observations were taken of the children in conjunction with parental interviews to provide qualitative data. Notable exceptions are Farquhar (2012) and Richards’ (2014) narrative inquiries where 4-year-old children were interviewed and seen as fully capable of telling important stories relating to the phenomenon they were examining.
While in past inquiries Clandinin and Connelly have invited the participation of children, the children were typically well over the age of 8 years (cf: Huber & Clandinin, 2002). Of particular relevance, Clandinin, Huber, Menon, Murphy, and Swanson (2016) recently investigated early childhood research methodologies and found that it is rare to find young children as active participants in narrative inquiry. They surmise that this is because researchers tend to be overly influenced by a “dominant discourse” which implies that children are not “trustworthy participants: that is, children may be thought incapable of storying the ‘truth’ of their experiences” (p. 251). The authors acknowledge that young children need to be offered the opportunity to be participants in more narrative inquiries in the future. In personal communication with Jean Clandinin (10 March, 2017), she confirmed this gap in the field and noted that little had been written about how the environment informs the stories the children tell in an inquiry. This study, therefore, provides a new, ecologically attuned way of conducting and interpreting narrative inquiry that includes young children as active participants while examining the influence of the natural environment in which they play on their stories. The “Companion” in this handbook on childhoodnature offers more examples of children as co-researchers and able representers of their experiences.
A New Interpretation of Narrative Inquiry with Young Children
In this section, the context of the inquiry is briefly outlined followed by an explanation of the multimodal methods chosen for this study adapted from Clark and Moss’ (2011) “participatory tools” when researching with young children.
Context of the Inquiry
As the key aim of the study was to examine any changes to imaginative play places over time, four families consisting of three generations in each family were invited to tell stories about their childhood experiences of places they chose for imaginative play (Moore, 2015). Each family included one grandparent, one parent, one primary school child (6- or 7-year-old) and one preschool child (4- or 5-year-old) and lived in different geographical areas around Melbourne, Australia. A pseudonym was assigned to each family to symbolize their various geographical locations, that is, the Beach family, the City family, the Farm family, and the Bush family.
The participants were individually interviewed over a series of four iterative storytelling conversational interviews. The University Ethics Committee deemed it problematic for me to visit the children’s homes in case the children’s imaginative play places were made visible to others, so the conversational interviews with the children were held at their respective educational settings. The same range of multimodal methods were available to the children and the adults to invite and prompt storytelling and questioning throughout the conversations. For this chapter, however, only the research interactions with the children will be illustrated with brief reference made to the intergenerational findings.
Multimodal Methods to Invite Storytelling and Questioning
It is of particular importance in a relational narrative inquiry with young children as participants for the researcher to reveal their philosophical “orientations” at the forefront of the study (Baptiste, 2001). This is because methodological design is strongly informed by the researcher’s ontological world view as well as their epistemological understanding of knowledge construction, their “image of the child” and perception of childhood, and, therefore, how children are positioned within a researcher/researched relationship (Clandinin et al., 2016; Moss, 2016). As a consequence of my ontological commitment to the children in this study (Clandinin, 2013), multiple interpretations of imaginative play experiences were sought and valued rather than expecting one “single kind of [knowable] truth” (Pinnegar and Daynes, 2007, p. 30). Similarly, my understanding of knowledge as a social construction of meanings informs my belief that children are highly capable of constructing their own knowledge of their lived experiences. The young children were therefore seen as active participants who were respected as capable storytellers with valuable knowledge in the form of unique, subjective stories. Underpinning this was an ethically based understanding that children could negotiate the research agenda in terms of time, place, and levels of participation in ways they chose throughout the research.
Telling stories then drawing the place/s their imaginative play was located
Continuing to tell stories while on a walking tour, with an invitation to take photos of imaginative play places in their educational setting (and at home) and later, the use of these photos and a collection of three dimensional materials for further storytelling while mapmaking of imaginative play places
Each child collecting imaginative play artifacts from home into a memory box to tell, retell, and question their stories
Finally, negotiating which stories could be used for the inquiry and/or if they wanted particular stories deleted, changed, and/or retold in any way
The purpose of these methods was not just about the creation of field texts but to provide a communication platform for the children to represent their storytelling in multimodal ways. Therefore, each child was given the choice to engage (or not) with the method in their own unique approach to the inquiry. To do this, I first invited each child to “tell a story” about their imaginative play places they created at home, early childhood setting, and/or school, and then offered the other methods of communication for their use if they so desired.
It was interesting to note how each child responded differently to the methods they were offered, choosing to decline or engage with each one. While most children chose to take up the offer of drawing while extending their initial stories, 4-year-old Harry (Beach Family) firmly told me “I don’t do drawing.” The map making was approached by the children in a wide range of ways from declining entirely, some only attaching their photos, to others creatively constructing a complex map of places. This was evident in 4-year-old Georgia’s (Farm family) decision to spend more than an hour constructing and telling an intricately woven network of stories around the places she created on her three-dimensional map. All of the children eagerly engaged in “walking” storytelling while showing me around their outside places at their center or school, with their stories becoming increasingly complex with each subsequent conversation. The children’s memory box storytelling was noteworthy in the way it triggered sensory-based memories and stories in a way no other method enabled. This was seen in 4-year-old Harry’s (Beach family) overwhelmingly positive response to showing me his half-brick representing his steps up to the fig tree cubby and again, in 6-year-old Sonya’s (City family) tentative disclosure of her “babyish teddy” hidden among other artifacts in her memory box, whispering, “I don’t usually show people.”
In providing four distinct opportunities for conversational interviews rather than only one “storytelling occasion” (Riessman, 2008), the children were given the time to tell stories in the first conversation, then subsequently question, change, and deepen their stories in the following conversations. Over time, each of the children demonstrated their rich knowledge of imaginative play places as well as their substantial capacity for storytelling.
The “Key Touchstones” Embedded in This Inquiry
As a starting position, this narrative inquiry was grounded in Clandinin and Connelly’s extensive work. There is a clear alignment to the relational “key touchstones” Clandinin (2013) articulated in the way the study demonstrated an ethical commitment to the participants in relationship with the researcher; an acceptance of the trustworthiness of the stories, the inclusion of the researcher’s voice, and re-storying and taking the re-stories back to the participant for renegotiation. This starting position is illustrated in this next section and how my interpretation of these touchstones lifted the study to a different level of inquiry.
The development of a relationship between the researcher and the researched is seen to be central to a relational narrative inquiry. A close research relationship is encouraged by acknowledging “emotions and personal meanings” in an interview, rather than avoiding them as is typical in a more traditional form of interview (Ellis & Berger, 2001, p. 851). I was surprised how quickly a research relationship formed between myself and the children and how intense my emotional response was to their stories. I was constantly surprised how trusting and open the children were to telling me confidential stories of their places for play and that the research relationship developed in such a reciprocal way. For example, when the young children spoke in hushed, impassioned voices about how they made their cubbies in any “hidden” place in nature they could find, these stories instantly returned me to my own search for these significant places in so many different places throughout my childhood. On further reading, I was relieved to find other researchers had similar emotional experiences. For example, Kramp (2009) found the participants had “invited [her] into their lives” realizing she was not an “objective bystander or observer” (pp. 10–11); while Tanner (2009) revealed she had “found [her]self crying and struggling to find the right words” during an interview (p. 71). My strong emotional connection with the children was heightened when their emotion-infused stories intersected with my own experience of childhood imaginative play and the importance of natural places.
Trustworthiness was frequently questioned in the use of young children’s stories as “data,” with many asking, “How do you know if the stories the children told are true?” Stories told by young children are commonly dismissed when adults believe that the “truth” cannot be found in a child’s subjective view (Frank, 2010). I started to sense that it was more important to focus on what the children wanted to “express” through their stories rather than if the stories were “true” or not. For example, 4-year-old Georgia’s (Farm family) story about the “snake eyes” that she and her friend found in their bush cubby was a co-constructed story based on past experiences, questions she asked me during her storytelling and her emotional state while in the bush. It was not important that this may have been a fictionalized story; instead it was Georgia’s sense of agency and independence she was expressing that was more noteworthy. A narrative inquiry is not “simply a factual report of events,” rather, an examination of the meanings participants wanted to convey through their storytelling at that time and in that place (Riessman, 2008, p. 187).
Continuing the reciprocal nature of a narrative inquiry, the researcher’s voice is also audible in the conversational interviews and subsequently visible in the written research text. As the researcher, I had initially assumed I needed to refrain from expressing my emotions and thoughts when a participant’s story resonated with my experiences; however, I quickly realized this was not necessary in a narrative inquiry. For example, when 6-year-old Laura (Beach family) told stories about her cubbies up a fig tree, under the tea tree, and behind the stand of wattles, tearfully I asked her what would she do if she did not have these trees to build her cubbies. The complexity of a narrative inquiry is clearly seen here and shows its point of difference in which the binary between the researcher-researched is blurred and messy rather than fixed and objective.
While the practice of the researcher re-storying participants’ original stories into a co-constructed story including the researcher’s voice is common in narrative inquiries, it is not common practice when researching with young children. In the creation of a re-story, the researcher interprets and reconstructs the participants’ stories into a more contextually situated version of the original story (Ollerenshaw & Creswell, 2002). The re-stories are rewritten using the researcher’s voice as the narrator, with direct quotes from the participants embedded as “an integral part of the re-storied narratives” (Beal, 2013, p. 700). An important, but difficult, part of the re-storying process is the “taking back” of the re-storied versions to the participants (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). This is not to “check” if the stories were correct but to ask participants if these new versions captured what they had wanted to express through their stories. The complexity of the “taking back” process was evident when 4-year-old Frank (Bush family) insisted “I didn’t say that” when I read out my re-storied version of his story. Despite the use of his own words quoted within the re-story; Frank was not happy with the inclusion of this particular story, and so it was deemed unacceptable for use in the inquiry. At times, a similar pattern occurred with other children, and as a consequence, many stories were not able to be included in the inquiry. Despite this, I found this process an additional and valuable opportunity for the children to further extend their stories in a way that was more meaningful to them. Although this could be seen as a limitation of the study, it is also a stark indication of the ethical foundation of this relational narrative inquiry with young children.
Narrative Inquiry Extended
In this section empirical examples are provided to show how this study has extended Clandinin and Connelly’s work into an outside-orientated, ecological approach to narrative inquiry. In addition to the oral and visual multimodal narrative methods available to the children to invite their storytelling, additional layers of inquiry evolved and became apparent the further we progressed into the study. It is through these additional sensorial layers of inquiry encountered in different outside environments that the children’s heightened emotional responses to their imaginative play experiences with/in nature were heard and seen.
Sensorial Layers in an Ecological Approach to Narrative Inquiry
On looking again at the children’s stories and re-stories through an ecological lens, there are many instances in which the children’s interrelationship with nature featured on a deeper level than was first apparent. These deeper levels or layers consider temporality in a different way that included the shift or persistence in children’s stories over time, layers of spatiality which included the children’s conscious choice of a place in nature for the physical enactment of storytelling, and the layer of affect in nature which referred to the children’s heightened sensorial awareness of place which informed and influenced the stories chosen to be told. Extracts of four young children’s stories and re-stories are retold here to illustrate the complexity and continuity of these additional layers of an ecological narrative inquiry.
Laura’s Story of the “Little Nest Cubby”
Once I found like a little cubby, and it was near like the driveway going up. And I found some bricks to make like stairs to go up a tree and step in there and I found a ladder and a chair… and it didn’t have any legs on it. So I put it on a branch that I liked to sit on and then I put the ladder on there so I could climb up and sit on there… it was like a very old tree … there’s like a little nest made up of all lots of sticks in it… I found it first and there’s like a little nest and my brother climbed up it and sat in there. And I asked him if it was comfortable and he said it was …. (Laura, Telling & Drawing, 5.6.13)
Sometimes I run outside when people are trying to look for me inside…and then I go and sit up there [when I feel] a little angry and sad and a little emotional…I get some more happy thoughts into my head and feel much better when I am up there… (Laura, Mapping, 19.6.13)
We wouldn’t really have any place to be ourselves and play together in special places, and we would have to find really tricky places and it would be really hard to get in there.... (Laura, Mapping, 19.6.13)
It is evident in these brief story extracts that 6-year-old Laura’s stories were fundamentally influenced by the physical environment she chose to tell her stories. The desk-bound stories were stilted and distracted; while conversely, Laura chose to tell the rich, insightful, and deeply emotional stories about important places for imaginative play when she was storytelling among the wattles. In consciously choosing this place in nature to tell these particular stories rather than when inside was indicative of Laura’s heightened awareness of the sensorial attributes of this place.
Collectively, scholars such as Hart (1979) and Moore (1986) found that children have a strong attachment to the “spaces” they subsequently construct as meaningful “places.” Following these earlier studies, Rasmussen (2004) and, later Lim and Barton (2010) have concluded that place is important to children and,that children are highly capable of constructing their own symbolic places for play. Pink’s (2009) work on sensory ethnography takes this notion of a sense of place further by suggesting the “materiality and sensoriality of the environment” markedly influences the experience of place (p. 25). These theories of place were evident in Laura’s stories where her finely attuned sense of place together with her capacity to question her story lines to explain her relationship to natural places was illustrated. In many ways, the place Laura chose to tell her more emotional and sensory-infused stories was a symbolic representation of the “quiet, uninterrupted, and hidden” places that were consistently identified in the stories told within and across generations that the historical and contemporary children constructed for their imaginative play (Moore, 2015).
Ted’s Story of the “Secret Tree Base”
I don’t really know… [long pause while looking intently at an old tree stump] … but sometimes I do play over there…that’s the other place I hide. That’s our secret spot, secret stuff sometimes happens here and there…it’s not just mine, its mine and my friends, and it’s actually a tree.... (Ted, Telling & Drawing, 17.6.13)
What was of particular note in the shift in Ted’s story was his whole change in body language with this new storyline. Instead of the dominant discourse of Pokémon-infused play surrounding a contemporary 7-year-old boy at school, Ted had moved beyond the expected storyline and revealed the hidden “counter narrative” (Bamberg and Andrews, 2004) of his play in nature that was still happening even though he was seven. Seemingly to reinforce this shift in his story, Ted hugged the tree trunk and then smiling broadly, rubbed the bumpy bark in an affectionate way to demonstrate the depth of his relationship. Remarkably, Ted’s grandfather, Bob, had a similarly emotional response when telling a story about his favorite childhood oak tree. Bob had nearly leapt over the table with his affirmative reply when I asked him if this old oak tree was still an important place for him (Moore, 2015). It seemed as though this connection with particular trees had been passed down through the family, though no family member mentioned this pattern.
In walking up toward the “secret tree” on a later visit, this place and the natural affordances within it appeared to trigger an overwhelming emotional response in Ted as he decided I was now trustworthy to reveal his “secret tree” story. Had we not had the time and opportunity to establish a trusting research relationship in which the questioning of story lines was encouraged and emotional responses were welcomed, Ted’s new story would not have been heard in this inquiry. While Marsh (2013) maintains that “toys reflect the zeitgeist of a given era” (p. 59), I argue that children, as Ted had shown, are highly conscious of this expectation to only play with “popular toys” among their peer group and within society. Ted’s experience is mirrored in Cross’s (2009) study, where a small group of 9-year-old boys fiercely protected their “real version” of a popular online game that they enacted under a stand of oak trees well away from their peers (p. 133). Collectively, the children in this narrative inquiry have shown that they were able to move beyond peer group expectations at least in their imaginative play in private and natural places.
Sonya’s Story of the “Old Tree Behind the Gates”
To illustrate children’s relationship with nature is not always geographically predicted, such as in Ted’s semirural playground or Laura’s bushy backyard; the stories 6-year-old Sonya (City family) told about her concrete-dominated school supports this argument. Sonya was in Grade 1 in an inner-city primary school, and I was asked to meet with her during an out-of-school-hours program so as not to interfere with her schoolwork. From the very beginning of our first conversation, Sonya wove stories in and around our conversations so well I could hardly think of anything else to say or ask, so I just listened much of the time.
That’s my favourite tree there” said Sonya pointing to an ancient peppercorn tree hanging heavily over the fence, but locked behind a high gate. I asked Sonya how she felt about her favourite tree being behind a gate that was never opened and she replied that it was “a bit bad because the seats are … you are supposed to…it’s actually not supposed to be behind gates. I don’t know why it got in a gate, how it somehow got behind the gate…. It’s my favourite tree in the whole school… it’s nearly the tallest… and its very old” she said in a perplexed voice... Standing there behind the gate, Sonya disclosed that she frequently “talked to the tree” and that the tree was from a time when “the school was a castle”, many years before she came there. (Sonya, Mapping, 13.6.13)
In this re-story, Sonya’s strong relationship with her “favorite tree” is evident, although she experiences this connection from behind a gate. While the material affordances of the tree are only symbolically accessible to Sonya, its presence was still felt and named as an important character in many of her stories. These re-stories show that despite her contextual constraints, Sonya’s relationship with nature was keenly sought in any creative way possible.
She started to answer, “No” she said, “I don’t care if anybody hears us talk to the tree…” then paused mid-sentence and dramatically changed her answer, saying instead “…but…because when I hear some people that are going around I sometimes start to stop because I think they are going to be laughing, because sometimes we do some games that are a bit private to me and my friends, that’s why I wait for them to go first.” (Sonya, Memory Box, 26.7.13)
In this re-story extract, Sonya’s shift in thinking was clearly audible as she stopped talking and appeared to question her own thinking about the “stories [she] lives by” (Clandinin, 2013, p. 21). In this way, Sonya could be seen to be moving beyond the “everyone must play together” discourse expected of children in educational settings (Skanfors, Lofdahl, & Hagglund, 2009, p. 107), to a narrative where privacy and an emotional response to imaginative play was able to be expressed. Although the stories around the importance of the old tree persisted throughout the whole inquiry, it was interesting to note how Sonya’s metacognitive thinking about her imaginative play deepened over time and so changed her meaning-making of her experiences.
In the analysis of Sonya’s field texts and re-story extracts, the significance of enacting a relational narrative inquiry with young children is foregrounded. The research relationship that had formed over time between Sonya and myself was clearly influential in the trust she displayed in telling me about her imaginative play while “talking to the tree” that was not possible in our first initial conversations. Golombek and Johnson (2004) claim that a narrative inquiry allows the participants to “question” what they thought they knew about a phenomenon. Questioning their own stories was possible when the children were given time and opportunity to think about, change, and shift their thinking over time rather than telling a story that remained as one “fixed entity” (Huber & Clandinin, 2002, p. 792). This empirical example illustrates young children’s capacity in questioning their own stories and retelling a deeper, more emotionally meaningful story over time.
Harry’s Story of the “Tree Cubby”
For the final story retold in this chapter, I have chosen Laura’s little brother, 4-year-old Harry’s (Beach family) version of the family story of the old fig tree, partly because it shows the nonlinear, voluntary processes of this narrative inquiry. I have also chosen this story to retell because it provides an example of both the limitations and the successes of this narrative inquiry with young children.
Four-year-old Harry did not want to fully engage in the research process with me. During my first few visits to his early childhood center, Harry vaguely pointed out various “places” where he played “pretend” in his playground – “this is the place for playing dogs” – he said in a monotone voice as he nodded in the direction of a “built” cubby house. Harry was neither interested in talking and drawing nor making a map of the places he played. While the idea of taking his own photos was initially exciting, Harry found the use of the digital camera frustrating. Another day he firmly stated I was “not allowed” into a particular place where he and his friends were “playing fighting,” he declared. While Harry had ticked the assent form to be involved in the study at the start of every visit, his body language and the words he used told another story, and this was the one I was ethically bound to listen to. I walked away most days wondering if I should continue trying to establish a research relationship with Harry.
This re-story extract illustrates Harry’s heightened emotional connection to his “fig tree” at home, linked to his creative act in making his “own place” for imaginative play in this significant tree. I am not sure if it was the connection with home that made this method so appealing to Harry, but it was clear it was Harry’s decision when, where, and to whom he would tell his private and important knowledge about his “tree cubby.” This was confirmed when other children approached our “talking-place” and Harry held up his hand and loudly called out, “Stop, we’re talking here…come back later” (Fig. 5).
Harry chose a place for us to sit next to the creek, but hidden behind a bush, to talk about his memory box saying “You remember this place Deb, we’ve been here before.” This was surprising as I had not thought Harry had taken much interest in me trailing behind him on previous visits. And now, as we sat down, other children started coming up the hill to look at his memory box too. In an amazing shift from his earlier attitude, Harry held up his hand and called to the other children, “Stop, we’re talking here… come back later.” With our privacy assured, Harry then enthusiastically showed me what was inside his memory box – a leaf, a twig, a matchbox car and, significantly, half a brick. On asking Harry about the brick, he triumphantly replied, “This is the stairs up…I made the stairs, but Laura made a lot…up to the tree cubby…it has a ladder and a balancing thing and a bed and a little chair…all those things… and do you know where the little chair is? It’s in the tree! It’s just for me and Laura and no one else goes in there… they don’t find out about it.” (Harry, Memory Box, 14.8.13)
Also significant was Harry’s insistence on telling this important story in a specifically chosen place in nature which closely resembled the natural place he was emotionally describing in his story. This did not appear an ad hoc choice but one that was consciously chosen with natural affordances and sensorial elements in abundance to enrich Harry’s experience of storytelling. Linzmayer and Halpenny’s (2014) study suggests that children learn to “define their interactions, and make meaning of their relationships with nature” (p. 424). While Harry’s stories also illustrate this point, I argue further that it is a child’s decision as to if and/or when they share their knowledge of their places in nature; and if they decide not to tell their stories, it does not mean this close relationship with nature does not exist. It is, as Goodenough (2003) contends, private information they have decided not to share with others.
Ecological Narrative Inquiry and Childhoodnature
Young children under the age of seven years of age are traditionally not considered “competent enough” to engage in an “interview-based” methodology (Skelton, 2008, p. 24), such as a narrative inquiry (Clandinin et al., 2016). However, through the use of this ecological narrative inquiry, young children’s storytelling and their capacity to question and reinterpret their own stories were highly valued, providing multiple interpretations in a partial account of children’s experience in/as nature. The complexity of the young children’s storytelling and the stories they told were seen in the stories and the analysis of their re-stories shown in this chapter.
It is interesting to note that Clandinin and Connelly most commonly conducted their conversations with participants in classrooms, though they were always careful to find “safe [inside] places for sharing secret stories” that were negotiated with the participants for their storytelling (Huber & Clandinin, 2002, p. 795). Similarly, although Clandinin et al. (2016) stated they “negotiated time and space outside school hours,” their conversations were still held inside an “unused classroom” (p. 188). This current study has demonstrated an extension to Clandinin and Connelly’s work on narrative inquiry by providing empirical evidence of an outside, more ecological approach to the methodology.
The idea of interviews conducted in an outside environment is not new; it is often the basis of an ethnography or case study. However, what is of significance in this inquiry is the conscious choice children appeared to be making to choose a “place in nature” for their storytelling. This may have been due to the need for privacy to overcome the threat of being overheard. Or perhaps, the provision of sensorial affordances in outside, natural places resonated with the storyteller and informed the story content which in turn added to the depth of the emotion-infused stories chosen and told by the children. Or importantly, it may have been that these places in nature aligned most strongly with the children’s “need” to construct their own “emotionally safe” places for imaginative play in natural places. This “need” was persistently identified in the historical and contemporary children’s stories and subsequent analysis, indicating the continuity of this phenomenon over time (Moore, 2015). The inherent relationality of this ecological mode of inquiry with its layers of temporality, spatiality, and affect have enabled the slippery and permeable blend of childhood imaginative play places with/in nature to be seen and heard in a way that other research methodologies may not be able to achieve.
At first glance, these findings and this summation may appear to stem from a romantic view of the construct of childhood as “innocent” or “the young child as nature” in which children need to be protected from the realities of contemporary life (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 2007). Or it may appear to have arisen from a moral panic discourse in which adults fear the loss of childhood as they knew it, and so, a “natural childhood” needs to be preserved at all costs (Adams, 2013). Other readers may find a human/nature binary apparent in this inquiry where children are referred to “in” or “with” nature as potentially problematic suggesting the externalization of nature from children. However, I argue, it is much less adult-driven and contrived than these issues suggest. In providing an inquiry space for young children to question their stories, to go beyond the dominant discourse of contemporary children’s play, the young children in this inquiry have subsequently been given time and space and experientially playful opportunity to articulate their deep relationship with/in nature in a way that emotionally resonated with them.
This ecological narrative inquiry avoids universal claims about childhood imaginative play and notions of nature. It is not possible to make such claims, given the study was located within four particular families in a particular place, at a particular time. Nor is it possible to claim that the researcher now “knows” the “unknowable” child and, therefore, what a child definitively thinks and understands (Moss, 2006). Nor is this chapter able to provide generalizations on how every young child would respond to the invitation to be involved in a narrative inquiry. Instead, what this chapter has provided is an example of how an ecological approach to narrative inquiry was able to push back against the contemporary deficit discourses on marked changes in young children’s imaginative play and showed that play in natural environments is important for contemporary young children. And, of relevance to this handbook, a narrative inquiry developed in this ecological way has provided some empirical evidence into children’s episodic lived experiences of their preferred local environments and their relationship “with” and “in” nature, which, potentially and mindful of the limitations of the study, might say something about children as temporally/spatially/affectively “as nature” in an emergent version of childhoodnature.
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