Parent as field collaborator when interviewing the pre-verbal and early verbal child

By Donell Holloway and Kylie Stevenson, ECU University, Perth, Australia

This blog features two research strategies developed for interviewing pre-verbal and early verbal children (0-3s) for our research project titled Toddlers and Tablets. These strategies (among others developed for the project) recognise the competence of even the youngest touchscreen users as informants and utilises modified, ethnographic research strategies that echo (as far as possible) the child’s everyday life in the family home. The project, funded by the Australian Research Council, is investigating family practices and attitudes around very young children’s Internet use in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The main aim of the interview process with the parent and the child was to capture the child’s digital multi-literacies around touchscreen devices as they happen in their process of maturation, not in a conclusive question-driven narrative but instead by sketching a picture that echoes their everyday life through a fluid ‘free narrative’ (Cameron, 2005, p.601) interview conversation with the child.

The two strategies outlined below involve the use of parents as field collaborators in the research process: how the child’s proximity to their parent during the initial parent interview help develop researcher/child rapport (albeit in an indirect or vicarious manner); and how the parent’s proximity to the child during the child interview helped to scaffold understanding between the researcher and child.

Child proximity during the parent interview


We found that conducting the parent interview with the parent’s very young child in close proximity was a crucial element for rapport building with the preverbal and early verbal child. Held at the beginning of the family visit, the parent interview tended to echo an everyday, at-home interaction, as it was usually held at the kitchen table or other communal space over a cup of tea. In this way, the interview mimicked a conversation that parents may have with other adults visiting the home. A parallel activity was provided for the young child while the interview took place, freeing the mother’s attention somewhat and creating rapport with the child. The child often moved on and off their parent’s lap throughout the parent interview, and was free to interact in the interview space with the parent or the interviewer during this time.

The informal conversational style of interview with the parent also confirmed to the child that this person (the interviewer) was safe to engage with. This made the unusual (the interview) usual for the child by echoing an ordinary occurrence that the child is familiar with.

Isabelle, mum of Emma aged 2 ½, was interviewed by Kylie at the kitchen table of the family home before Emma and her siblings were interviewed. Emma sat beside her mother during the parent interview, enjoying a colouring-in activity provided by the interviewers. Isabelle was initially somewhat shy of Kylie but gained confidence as Isabelle and Kylie continued their conversation.

Parental proximity during the child interview

The interview with the child flowed seamlessly on from the parent interview. This was a very fluid, dynamic and child-led process. Picture cards depicting various devices and other non-digital play activities were used at the interview outset. The interview then flowed into the child demonstrating their use of their favourite devices and apps. This play-led strategy established for the child the interviewer’s interest in the child’s own play world.

Some children, particularly those 0-1, chose to sit on their parent’s lap. Others were happy to sit side-by-side with the parent. In all these instances parents tended to act as field collaborators who facilitated communication and play between the interviewer and child. They encouraged and praised their child and joined in with the play activities.

Emma began her interview on Isabelle’s lap. With a security blanket and dummy in her mouth looked at the cards Kylie showed her. Two minutes into the interview, Emma took out her dummy, smiled and began to converse with Kylie. She still held on to her security blanket. At some stage, Isabelle slipped Emma onto a chair beside her, but remained close and supportive. When she judged Emma was comfortably engaged with Kylie, Isabelle moved away but stayed in kitchen area. Emma happily continued with the interview.


Parents also tended to scaffold their child’s understanding of the interview process and the interviewer herself by reinterpreting things for the child. They also translated (for the interviewer) their child’s own responses and communicative efforts—in order to add further depth and completeness to the interview process. Parents both scaffolded the child into the interview context but also scaffolded the interviewer into the child’s discursive world. This field collaboration by the parent enhanced the child’s confidence, by improving her ability to understand the interview/play process and to communicate effectively to the researcher.

Sometimes, the parent slipped away once they are happy that the child was fully engaged and comfortable with the interview process and it then became a one-on-one interview with child and interviewer.

Emma 2½ showed Kylie her favourite iPad app, a Mickey Mouse storybook app. Emma then tried to show Kylie another favourite activity, laughing baby videos on YouTube. She opened the app but was not able to find the laughing baby videos. She turned to her mother indicating that she needs help. Isabelle stepped in momentarily, put ‘laughing babies’ in search box, then Emma used the side menu to choose her videos.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 08.14.21.png

These two strategies take advantage of the social and physical world that pre-verbal and early verbal children live in. They utilise the everyday home environment and a supportive framework provided by the parent who acts as field collaborator in the research process.



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