Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth


CIRCY research is conceptualised in relation to five over-arching thematic areas: Children’s Participation, Digital childhoods, Emotional lives, Good childhoods and (extra)ordinary children, and Methodological innovation.

Our research themes were established to inform and inspire our work and build synergies, not to categorise or set boundaries between studies or thematic areas. We conceive of our themes as underpinning concerns that intersect to inform the conceptualisation of childhood and youth across space and time, and to enhance the wellbeing and participation of children and young people in family, social and public lives.

See sub-pages for details of some of CIRCY’s current projects.

Below, you can learn more about CIRCY’s research themes and how our work aligns with the themes.

Children's Participation

One defining feature of many CIRCY projects is their aim of foregrounding children and young people’s views and perspectives, particularly in respect of issues which are of central concern to children and young people and when their participation cannot yet be taken for granted. This includes working with welfare and safeguarding agencies to ensure children are able to influence decisions which are taken about their lives and to help shape both targeted and universal services (such as education) more broadly.

Children, though, are never confined just to the family or school; they are never outside of politics and history. Their experience of public life may be distinctive, in comparison to adults’ experiences, not least in the ways that adults are automatically accorded more agency to shape and control their environment. But public life is no less relevant – no less intense or formative – for children and young people than for adults. Now, especially, in our digital age, children have access to a multitude of mediated public spheres, whether they are participating from a formal forum or an online social network. With these considerations in mind, our theme of participation acts also to emphasize work that foregrounds and theorizes children’s interaction with public life, reminding us to stay attuned to the rich range of questions that emerge from the formulation of childhood as always ‘public’ and publicly constructed. 

Current projects within this theme include Imagining Resistance through Participatory Photography.

Recent work includes the exploration by Rebecca Webb and Perpetua Kirby (Education) of the use of art-based deliberative pedagogies in an English primary school. Part of the PASTRES programme, the project sought to support children to express their relationships with sustainability uncertainty. It also considered whether what was learned from their research in the Global South, 'Hope in the Present' might be adapted into sustainability curricular within the National Curriculum for schools in England.  

Digital Childhoods

This theme explores the implications of the digital revolution for childhood and youth, examining many dimensions of digital childhoods including the ways that technology impacts on parenting and play as well as the role of the digital in personal and professional boundaries in work with children and young people, confounding age and generation based hierarchies.

Through CIRCY’s collaboration with the new Sussex Humanities Lab, we seek to promote young people as entrepreneurs of digital landscapes, contributing to debates on data sharing, ownership and access as well as curators of archives and memories. Our research also engages with how children and young people may potentially be understood as having economic value within a digital economy and how participation may be associated with exploitation as well as the consequences of quantification as their educational performance and consumption practices are mapped, measured and monitored.

CIRCY projects linked to the Digital Childhoods theme include Nicola Yuill’s work in the Children and Technology Lab (ChatLab) on the role of social interaction and collaboration in learning and development which asks, how do interactions between peers support learning? How do parents scaffold children's learning at home? What role does technology play in supporting children's collaborative play and learning? And how might developmentally-appropriate technology be used creatively and innovatively to support these interactions? 

See, too, details of the project Children's Information: improving lives through better listening and better data.

Emotional Lives

The theme of 'Emotional Lives' takes account of historical and cultural contingencies, reminding us to consider the ways in which emotion expresses and confirms the materiality, relationality and sensuality of social lives. It aids the building of critical thinking about established and taken-for-granted issues in childhood and youth – whether studying young people, policy or professional practice – by thinking through the lens of emotion and affective practice.

We are interested in the positive emotions of kindness and pleasure as well as the more obvious territory of anxiety, anger and the ways in which affective dynamics structure collective and institutional lives and characterise intergenerational transmissions. Our interest includes practice and policy approaches that are emotionally engaged and which seek to build insight into emotional dynamics and development among young people and those working with and for them. We also pioneer psychosocial methods that work with and through emotion and sensuality as a route to understanding.

CIRCY directly engages with this space through projects such as The Rez: An interactive podcast and comic to support adolescent wellbeing led by Martin Spinelli (Media and Film) and Robin Banerjee (Psychology). An extensive body of work is also building with colleagues in Psychology around the building of empathy and other skills with children. For instance, Robin Banerjee, Jane Oakhill and Alan Garnham are working together on an ESRC-funded study entitled Reading Feelings: Does reading fiction improve children's empathy and pro-social skills?

Good Childhoods and (Extra)ordinary Children

This theme creates a conceptual space which lies at the heart of CIRCY’s interdisciplinary approach.

We are exploring the contribution of historical and cross cultural approaches to understanding the diverse and contingent meanings of childhood as well as the ways in which global processes may cut across these in the expression of powerful ideas of what a ‘good childhood’ or an ‘ordinary childhood’ should or could be. Research in this area also considers categories of children whose circumstances are ‘extraordinary’ placing them outside of these normative ideals – for example young migrants, child labourers and care leavers – and considers the ways in which those categorisations can neglect the ‘ordinary’ aspects of ‘extraordinary’ children’s lives, practices and relationships that are the foundation of meaning and resources.

Our research in this area is characterised by attention to the everyday lives of children, young people and families, including the ways in which they understand themselves and their lives. We are also concerned with using these insights to challenge some of the perceived wisdoms of policy discourses which may focus on vulnerability, stigma and risk.  

The projects Not Only Dressed but Dressing: clothing, childhood, creativity, The Innovate Project, and A Better Start all highlight very different ways of understanding children and young people’s lives and conceptualising childhoods.

Methodological Innovation

CIRCY has established an international reputation for methodological excellence and innovation, with recognised strengths in participatory research with children and young people, in research ethics, and creative, digital, sensual and psychosocial approaches.

Within the University, CIRCY provides a critical space in which to interrogate the meanings of methodological innovation across disciplines.  Central to our work is the pursuit of imaginative methodologies which pursue our fundamental concern with keeping the child or young person at the centre of our thinking. Sometimes we are engaged in a search for new, innovative approaches and at other times the reimagining and repurposing of traditional methods. We have pioneered creative approaches to research ethics with children in a digital age, participatory approaches to studying ethics in research with children and young people, and new approaches to data sharing and reuse. These underpin our highly praised module on researching childhood and youth to the Sussex Doctoral Training Centre

Looking outwards, CIRCY engages continually in international advisory work and collaborations, including hosting a series of ESRC National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) awards for methodological innovation and advanced training.

The Everyday Childhoods repository, and the Reanimating Data project highlight different ways in which children and young people engage in the world agentically and how their voices may be heard.