Unlocking the Wonder Years: Tips and Strategies for Conducting Qualitative Research with Kids

Children can be quite influential in family purchasing decisions, and in some cases are key drivers of purchase, particularly in product categories that they have a strong interest in. Although kids may not make the actual purchases themselves, they should not be overlooked. The thought of conducting research with little ones can be quite daunting, however, but with a little preparation and creativity, it can be a fun and productive experience for all.

The rate at which children develop cognitively, emotionally, socially, and verbally varies greatly, even within just a few years, so there are important considerations to be taken when considering the research design. 

For instance, if you are conducting focus groups, size matters! Smaller groups are more effective with younger children, so the ideal design is to have four to six children in a group.        

It will be much easier managing the group dynamic while still providing space for each child’s opinion to be heard – and you know they’ll have a lot to say! Groups larger than that become much more challenging to control, making it easy for children to tune-out and disengage. 

Secondly, age matters!! Children should be within the same tight age range so that age-appropriate materials, conversations, and research questions are used. For example, a group of 3–5-year-olds and a group of 6–8-year-olds will have vastly different abilities and levels of understanding, so differentiation will be key. Additionally, children express themselves less verbally the younger they are, making this step critical. While it is always important for moderators to have a clear understanding of the guide and discussion flow before going into sessions, it becomes even more crucial when working with children as conversation is much more playful, unstructured, and not always with a consistent flow across sessions.

With age comes time considerations! The age of the children’s group will determine how long and interactive sessions should be. Kids’ attention spans are very short meaning they get bored easily and quickly! Fast, fun, and focus are the 3 F’s to abide by.  The “sweet spots” for session length by age are as follows:

  • 3–5 year-olds > 20-30 minutes 
  • 6–8 year-olds > 30 -45 minutes
  • 9–12 year-olds > 45-60 minutes
  • 13+ year olds > up to 90 minutes

In-person Sessions

Lastly, creating a fun and inviting environment for this unpredictable segment is extremely important. Research facilities are always willing to accommodate room specific requests when conducting research with children if given ample notice.  Therefore, early communication and setting clear expectations with vendors ensures successful room setup.  

Put yourself in the mind of a child for a moment.  You are coming face-to-face with a stranger in a new place.  You’re likely looking for some sign that the adult is trustworthy and non-threatening, all while wondering, ‘Why am I even here?!’ Children are used to being in classrooms or playrooms and at home. With a little creativity we can try to recreate these settings.

Formal focus room tables and chairs must go!!! Instead, consider a more relaxed environment:

  • Colorful rugs or mats on the floor for everyone to sit “crisscross applesauce”
  • Bean bags for everyone to sit on
  • Child-sized chairs and tables
  • At the very least, ask facility to set up the room “living room style” and have comfy couches to sit on

Tricks of the trade

Whether you’re online or in-person, make the sessions more engaging by using interactive and playful materials. There are tons of simple, fun, and creative tools that can help keep children engaged and interested and keep sessions running smoothly. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Bring a simple stuffed animal/toy to use with the children and set up a rule that only the person holding the toy can speak
  • Popsicle sticks with a HAPPY emoji face on one side and a SAD face emoji on the other side to react on whether they like something or not, or to express if something makes them feel happy or unhappy
  • Colored post-it notes to identify/point out/label things
  • When changing topics have little ones stand up and do a jumping jack, hop on one foot 5 times, or switch seats so everyone ends up in a different seat – any type of physical activity to regain focus, re-charge their little brains, and break-up activity pattern

Online Sessions

Remote sessions provide less flexibility in setup design and participant’s environment, but the moderator can focus on the things they can control in order to have successful sessions. For example:  

For children 6 years of age and younger

  • Since child is in their space they are surrounded by many distractions, so provide parent with guidelines for home setting
    • comfortable space with minimal distractions (couch, living room, etc.)
    • Suggest that they have snacks handy
  • Children can become extremely comfortable in their space and therefore feel they can walk away, go to a different room, or go play.  Make parents aware of the duration of the session and the importance of the child staying for the entire session.
    • More importance on time considerations for each age group (as indicated above)
    • More emphasis on making session engaging
    • More importance on breaking up session with movement
  • It is important for parents to stay with or near their child for assistance as well as to increase the child’s comfort level.

For children 6+ years of age

  • The older the child the more likely they are to cooperate for the entirety of the session. At this age it is simply important for moderators to keep things energetic, fun and light to increase the comfort level of participants and encourage openness.

Kids are the most unfiltered, honest participants who know what they like and don’t like – a dream for researchers!  So, relax, have fun, unleash your inner child, and prepare to learn so much from these little minds.  You’ve got this!


Author: Patricia Lopez - Sr. Qual Analyst & Moderator

Author: Patricia Lopez – Sr. Qual Analyst & Moderator

Patricia is a market research professional with over 15 years of qualitative research experience. She quickly recognizes patterns, easily sees the “big picture” and provides the emotional intelligence required to make the very best business decision in today’s marketplace. She has conducted thousands of focus groups with both Gen Pop and Hispanic consumers and is specialized across industries, methodologies and demographics. Her curiosity and passion for research have provided her with the ability to connect with people enabling her to obtain deep, underlying thoughts and feelings that go beyond superficial reactions.