Benefits, challenges and lessons learnt from a participatory action research study
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The article delves into a four-year Participatory Action Research (PAR) study on a UK sports program for children from low socio-economic backgrounds, spotlighting its benefits, COVID-related challenges, and lessons learned, advocating for PAR in Sport for Development's research-based practices.
This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

In this article, I’d like to reflect on the benefits and challenges of participatory action research (PAR), in addition to lessons learnt, based on a study that has recently been completed. 

I, along with my colleagues, Dr. Verity Postlethwaite from Loughborough University and Dr. Katherine Raw from Swinburne University, undertook a four-year PAR project (2019-2023). This research study explored the referral processes in a sport for development (SFD) holiday programme for children from low socio-economic backgrounds in the UK. 

As context, the research study started with a process and outcome programme evaluation, which consisted of free drawing from the children and focus groups with parents/carers of the children attending. This provided recommendations for future research and practice. One recommendation was to better understand how children were referred into the programme. Specifically to explore how and why (or why not) those most marginalised engaged with the programme, which we wanted to further explore. 

This second stage of the project was a document analysis to understand who was referring children into the project and then interviews with key stakeholders, including referrers, those who worked at the programme sites and those managing the programme. During this second stage, informal conversations throughout with those managers about the changes made, helped develop our (and their) thinking about the referral process. The project ended with a reflective workshop with those managing the project, to critically reflect on the changes made and develop an action plan to embed further changes. 

One key benefit of doing PAR was the opportunity to embed learnings in real time, which as we know, is really key in SFD. It also gave the opportunity to reflect on what did and didn’t work and then make further changes. Another interesting benefit was to explore any resistance to some changes and work out how to mitigate this, which may not be possible with a one-off research project.

There were a number of challenges when undertaking this work, as per any research project. Unsurprisingly, a major influence here was Covid. A main impact of Covid was the lack of face-to-face meetings/engagements. This really affected the ability to develop the relationships required to get good engagement in the research process, particularly with referrers. The use of online/hybrid meetings appear to be a permanent feature ‘post-Covid’, which has many positives such as inclusivity. However losing the ability in these settings to informally develop relationships, is likely to have negative consequences on SFD practice and research. So alternative ways of developing these relationships need to be considered. 

Another interesting perspective for poor referrer engagement in the research, was to consider how referrers engage with SFD more broadly. We wondered whether a reason for their poor engagement was that they may not perceive themselves as key stakeholders in such projects and so may not have seen the relevance/importance of their involvement in the research. It would be interesting to understand if our experiences of engaging non-SFD stakeholders in PAR studies resonate with other colleagues. 

From this PAR study (and others), there were a number of lessons that could be learnt:

  • Carefully plan out all aspects of PAR at the start of the project and ensure those you’re working with understand the process. Many organisations may not have engaged with PAR before and may not fully understand what this process entails, so clarity on the process and also time required, is key
  • Plan in more reflective workshops throughout the process. We had informal conversations throughout and a workshop at the end, which provided great data. However the study could have been improved with more organised workshops throughout (another unfortunate consequence of Covid!)
  • Be prepared to be flexible. As I’ve mentioned a few times, we were impacted by Covid but also staff changes, so being adaptable is key
  • PAR take a lot of time and energy to do well. Ensure this time and resource is factored into any project planning 

PAR is an excellent methodology to use. It can result in really useful research being embedded, to ensure good quality, research-based practice occurs in SFD. There are numerous challenges to this, but we would thoroughly recommend using this approach for future research studies. 

If you would like to know more about our experiences or chat about this project/PAR more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch ([email protected]).

If anyone wants to learn more about PAR in SFD, the following open access resources may be useful:

About the author

Dr. Claire Jenkin is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Development at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. Her research specialisms are sport for development, sports diplomacy and community sport development.


Senior Lecturer in Sport Development
University of Hertfordshire


United Kingdom
Does not apply
Sustainable Development Goals
4 – Quality education
Target Group

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