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A Different Take: Research methods to listen to children’s experiences of life on a low income

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

In this piece, a team of researchers reflect on their use of the snakes and ladders board game to understand children's experiences of living in low-income families.

Read this insightful piece to know more about the creative research method used by Chester Howarth, Camilla McCartney and Dr. Gill Main.

Last month, the latest statistics on the extent of child poverty in the UK were released. They show that 30 per cent of children in the UK were living in poverty in 2018/19, with rates of up to 55 per cent in some areas. Whilst the UK is a particularly bleak example, the prevalence of child poverty in rich countries is damning. Yet, this can only tell us so much about what child poverty is, how it affects children and young people’s lives, and – ultimately – how we can put forward an agenda to eliminate it. Rather, researchers, public officials, and the general public more broadly must listen not only to the statistics but to children and young people’s lived experiences themselves.

The extent to which people living in poverty have been excluded and marginalised from conversations about defining and solving poverty is startling. This experience is even more acute for children in poverty. Their lives are blighted not only by inadequate resources but also by their being – as Berry Mayall argues in 'Towards a Sociology for Childhood' – a minoritised social group. That is, they are positioned as inferior to, and having less valuable contributions to make than, those in different age categories. As researchers, this means we need to consider poverty from an intersectional perspective which is mindful of age and – among other things – socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, and (dis)ability.

To this end, as we explore in a forthcoming article (Howarth et al., in press) our recent research conducted in the UK sought to weave together two – hitherto largely parallel – trends that have emerged over recent decades. First, there has been increasing emphasis on experiential knowledge in understanding poverty; and a multiplication of participatory action research projects seeking to use this to engender social change. Second, the rise of social studies of childhood which recognised children as both social actors with their own experiences and interpretations of the world and as social agents who can change it. Both of these research approaches emphasise the importance of considering the marginalised as active agents whose perspectives should be included in research. Bringing them together, this intergenerational research project, therefore, sought to rectify two related injustices concerning representation and participation in research and action into poverty.

The project intended to showcase what children, young people, and parents think poverty is, and what they think should be done about it. We did this using participatory action research methods emphasising the expertise of people living in poverty. Our participants generated an impressive range and quality of ideas – more details on which can be found here. In this piece, we will focus on one particularly successful medium through which children and young people to share their knowledge – and through which peers, researchers, and public officials were able to listen.

‘Snakes and ladders’ is a popular board game in which ‘snakes’ pull the player back towards the start and ‘ladders’ elevate the player towards the finish line. We used this as a metaphorical tool to discuss the challenges posed and exacerbated by life on a low income – and the things which might help improve their lives. Snakes represented challenges that are created or worsened by poverty, while ladders represented the things that can help to improve life. It provided an engaging and creative way for participants to tell their stories and understand their experiences in relation to broader societal issues. This metaphorical tool soon became embedded in the language used by the group to talk about their experiences of managing on a low income, referring to ‘my snakes’ or ‘my ladders’. Nevertheless, despite these snakes and ladders being in some instances personal, they focused on issues that did not blame individuals.

Alongside discussions using the metaphorical tool, the group also created three information-rich, eye-catching canvas board games. Conscious of how power dynamics might influence individual contributions when undertaking intergenerational research, the decision was made to create snakes and ladders canvases in age-based groups; the children and young people within the group worked together to produce a game on the theme of education. As can be seen from the digital reproduction of the board game below, the co-researchers drew attention to a broad range of practical, emotional, and relational impacts of life on a low income. Alongside the qualitative data collected through the group’s discussions – and their own data collection – this output evidences a rich set of data to further understand the impacts of poverty on children, young people, and their families.

More than this, the board games became a pedagogical tool. At the direction of the group, the canvas board games were digitalised and professionally produced as board games. These have since been taken to conferences and several meetings. These events provided an opportunity for the creators to play them with education practitioners and policymakers from across the city. For us, what happened in these contexts showcased the potential of this approach for amplifying children and young people’s experiences and voices.

As the game is in play, players land on boxes containing text and read them aloud. This stimulates conversation about a particular aspect of the lived experience of managing on a low income. It is an invitation to share experiences and aid understanding of what living in poverty is really like – for both children and adults. More than fostering discussions that may otherwise be difficult to have, by reading these experiences aloud, those who have never experienced poverty may feel in themselves the shame and stigma so routinely internalised by those who have. Whilst these feelings are fleeting, feedback from the events has highlighted that this has transformed the way people think and talk about poverty – a key aim of the research that underpinned this project.

Moreover, situating the board games in the middle of the table surrounded by the players symbolises placing poverty – an undeniably structural problem driven primarily by low pay, low wage growth, and underemployment – in the middle of the table, separated from any individual player. We found this redirected the spotlight from the individual and towards the structural problems. The individual experiences described on the boards provide nuance and context, humanising and substantiating what could otherwise be dry and theoretical discussions. Meanwhile, the presence of the research participants – experts by experience – at the table allows them to provide clarification, information, and education to players who may lack expertise by experience.

This process of dissemination means that as the research ends, another – more open-ended and democratic – conversation begins. Our co-researchers and the people they met with are constantly developing new ideas and, importantly, translating these into policy and practice action. In the process, the group described how they feel ‘heard’, ‘empowered’, and ‘challenged’ – and it is of immense importance that these feelings do not end with the research but are leveraged to continue to create improvements to the lives of our participants and their communities. Indeed, aided by media training throughout the project, many participants continue to be active ambassadors for people living on a low income in their community.

Our experience using board games – in this instance, snakes and ladders – with children and young people points to the potential for this creative research method to stimulate conversation, create a lasting metaphor through which the group could understand and relay their experiences, and function as a pedagogical tool to disseminate research findings and foster participation beyond the research project.

An important final acknowledgment here is that in writing this, we are conscious that our voices, not the voices of our co-researchers, have been granted this opportunity to speak to a wide audience. This issue is undoubtedly complex; our participants have expertise by experience and we have different, complementary expertise – and positions enabling us to invest time in writing about these topics. Great work is being done to listen to and meaningfully embed the knowledge of experts by experience in practice, policy, and public discourse. This project is one small effort to understand and push back against the exclusion of people living in poverty – there is much work still to be done. We must continue to seek opportunities to ensure that different types of expertise – including those of children and young people – are given due weight in making progress towards the goal of ending poverty in all its forms, everywhere.


Howarth, C., Mansfield, M., McCartney, C. and Main, G. (in press) ‘A Different Take: Reflections on an intergenerational participatory research project on child poverty’, Journal of Social Work and Society.

Mayall, B. (2002). Towards a Sociology for Childhood: thinking from children’s lives. Buckingham: Open University Press


Chester Howarth

Chester Howarth graduated with a degree in Politics and Economics from the University of Nottingham and is reading for an MSc Social Research Methods and Statistics from the University of Manchester, UK. He currently works as a Researcher at the Directory of Social Change in Liverpool.

Chester's research interests centre around the social, economic and political causes and impacts of poverty and inequality, and the social determinants of health. His undergraduate dissertation drew on new social studies of childhood to develop and test a childhood-centred Family Stress Model which recognised children as both social actors with a direct experience of poverty and social agents in family processes.

Camilla McCartney

Camilla McCartney graduated with a Distinction from her MA in Childhood Studies at the University of Leeds, UK, where she specialised in child poverty and well-being, and children’s family and personal relationships. She currently works at the University of Leeds as a Policy and Public Engagement Officer within the Leeds Social Sciences Institute.

Camilla’s research interests centre broadly around child poverty and inequalities, with particular interest in participatory methods to develop a more child-centric conceptualisation, theory and measurement of poverty to more accurately capture the reality of this experience for children and young people. These understandings will complement the adult-centric conceptualisations which are currently prioritised in policy and practice but which risk oversimplifying and/or over-looking the experiences of children in relation to this issue.

Gill Main

Dr Gill Main is an Associate Professor in Childhood Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on child poverty and social exclusion, and how we can better involve children, young people and parents with lived experience of poverty in how we conceptualise and measure it. Her research is mixed methods, including surveys, ethnographic, and participatory methods.

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