Children’s rights research sees Brock PhD student honoured

Children’s voices matter most to Laurel Donison.

The PhD candidate in Brock’s Department of Child and Youth Studies recently shared her research on young children’s right to play at “A World Fit for Children,” the annual conference of the Child Rights Academic Network.

Donison also officially received the Dr. Joy Calkin Award at the conference after being announced as a recipient last November by the Landon Pearson Resource Centre for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights at Carleton University.

The honour, which includes a $5,000 bursary, is particularly meaningful for Donison because it acknowledges children’s rights as the driving force in her work.

“This award recognizes that my work supports children’s right to play and also children’s right to have a say in matters that impact them directly,” she says.

Portrait of Laurel Donison holding the Dr. Joy Calkin Award certificate

Donison, shown after the award ceremony.

Donison’s dissertation research is focused on children aged 30 months to four years and their perspectives and experiences of their outdoor play space at an urban child care centre.

She wanted to branch out from existing research on outdoor play and children, which is often done in ideal natural settings.

“Where we are, we have fake grass, we’re near a busy road and there’s a gas station right beside us, so children connect to nature through the fence — they watch ducks that gather in large puddles and snails on the other side— and even connect with the weeds growing at the side of the building in between the cracks.” says Donison. “They water the weeds, and when the maintenance crew comes to pull them, we have to say no because those are the children’s plants — something that they can care for.”

Because the children at the centre come from many backgrounds and have different levels of verbal ability, Donison uses various forms of art to let them share their thoughts.

Donison used the award bursary to support her data collection through the purchase of child-sized digital cameras and other art materials. The cameras, in particular, give her a child’s-eye view and help her to see what the children are focused on and how they experience their surroundings.

Her experience as an early childhood educator and long-standing relationship with the child care centre — which is not far from where she grew up — have supported her work with the children.

“The children I’m working with are some of our most vulnerable children who are often excluded, so this research is an opportunity to voice what’s really happening — not me voicing it, but them voicing it,” she says. “I’m putting all these pieces together to help elevate their voices.”

Professor Rebecca Raby, Interim Associate Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Donison’s supervisor, says it was “fantastic” to see Donison’s work being recognized.

“Laurel has consistently advocated for very young children to be heard and seen as legitimate social participants through organizing conferences, co-researching and publishing on children’s early experiences of the pandemic and now through her own dissertation,” says Raby. “I’m excited by the rich, textured data she has been collecting with the children so far — especially how the children’s engagements have been changing with the seasons — and I have no doubt that Laurel’s research will be especially valuable for advocating for children’s access to outdoor play areas and informing what those play areas look like.”

Donison, who says she has learned so much from the children, thinks we would all be better served by more research that lets children share their perspective.

“There are methods we can use to learn about children’s experiences directly from them, so I think it’s about taking those chances, like incorporating a variety of different arts-based methods, going beyond that and trying out different things, stepping away from that belief that young children don’t participate in research,” she says. “They can and want to be listened to, and they have something to say.”

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