Forest and Film Club / Wild Films Courageously (Re)Present

Sharon Watson, Birmingham City University

Two participatory research projects working with children

Context for research The research was carried out as part of my PhD study, jointly funded by the School of Architecture and the School of Health. What attracted me to a practice-based PhD was the opportunity to investigate aspects of landscape and well being using immersive, in-situ investigation, and the chance to develop analytical skills.

Disciplinary background(s) My research adopted a multi-disciplinary approach, and was influenced by other research in geography, visual anthropology, art and landscape.

When did the research take place? I carried out pilot studies during my first year in 2010, to test the methods I wanted to use for data collection during the second year. I am now entering my fourth year and writing up the thesis.

Aims of research To investigate children’s imaginative responses to nature in urban wildspaces.

Description of creative research method

I approached a number of schools and playschemes to recruit participants for the research. From which, two ‘host organisations’ agreed to take part and provide a platform for the research projects. Working collaboratively with school staff and volunteers, I led a programme of investigative outdoor adventures for groups of children, aged between 5 to 10 years old. These trips took place during the school holidays or after-school, when we ventured out to explore local parks and nature reserves.

The trips offered participants the opportunity to play and explore different outdoor sites, led by their own interests. On each trip, we bought small digital cameras for the children to use to capture their responses if they wished. In addition, children had access to the camera equipment back indoors, and compiled ‘souvenir’ dvds to take home.

Using the cameras facilitated the collection of experiential, in-the-moment responses and produced an array of narrative streams – interviews, self-narratives, stories and silences – which traced participants’ responses and interaction, from in-situ to indoor locations.

The projects lasted 12 weeks in duration, with individual trips lasting between 2 to 5 hours, depending on the time available. My analytical framework traces how imaginative responses travel and transfer from outdoor to indoor locations, by building in-depth case studies from the films the children created, using discourse analysis tools to interpret their meaning.

Why did you choose to use this method? 

Other researchers, such as Edith Cobb for example, have written about the impact of play in natural spaces and subsequent creativity in later life by asking writers and poets to reflect on their childhood experiences in nature. Piaget’s work also reveals the role of the imagination in children’s understanding of the world and natural phenomena. Both are inspiring precedents, however, with the development of easily transportable cameras, this enables children to capture their imaginative responses by themselves.

What did you learn from the research process? 

By handing control of the cameras over to the children and letting the children move away from the researcher and other adults, this creates the distance needed for their own eloquent, articulate responses and techniques to emerge. For example, they can quite literally challenge adult perspectives by avoiding commonly accepted ways of framing landscapes. Also, how they incorporated their own silences and chose not to speak added a dimension that may have been obscured if it was not something they had control over.


The two practitioners whose work with children and young people that has influenced me the most are Wendy Ewald and Miina Savolainen, for the generosity and curiosity they bring to the relationships they are able to establish in their work.

Further information

Please email me at bootsandbrollies[at] if you would like to know more about the research.