Centre for Creative Media Research > Video Critical

Analysis B: Theme analysis

A more systematic approach to the video material produced by the children involves theme analysis, a procedure intended to reveal a set of common concerns. The pursuit of cultural themes is a familiar component of ethnography and anthropology, and involves the discovery within a culture or subculture of widely-held and approved assumptions or beliefs, whether implicit or explicit, which may restrict or stimulate behaviour (Spradley, 1979). In this case, our concern is rather more limited to identifying those environmentally-related aspects of these upper-primary children's culture that are sufficiently common for them to be represented in videos made by different children in different schools.

Some common aspects are obvious, such as the concern about litter expressed in all of the videos, but others are of interest since they seem to be of greater concern to the children than we would expect them to be to most adults:

Ten common elements

  Appreciation of the locality
  Environmental responsibility
  The Council's responsibility
  Litter & pollution
  Parks, and the city
  Audience-oriented performance & entertainment

A theme analysis also reveals conflicts which were common to the productions:

Two central conflicts

Being environmentally responsible


Having an easy time

Childrens' own responsibility to change things and improve the environment


Adults' responsibility to change things and improve the environment

These elements and conflicts are discussed in more detail below.


Appreciation of the locality

Whilst some of the pupils may have felt it was the video-maker's 'duty' to make a 'balanced' assessment of their environment, weighing up the pros and cons, an appreciation of their local areas shone through. Indeed, rather than the presentations consisting of a list of good things alongside a list of bad things, the line adopted in all of the videos can be expressed as 'We like our area (or parts of it) - although it is let down by certain aspects'. This stance appeared with such commonality that it can be seen as the defining theme of the videos when taken together, with the remaining themes appearing within the structure circumscribed by this prevailing thesis.

Whilst being critical is often easier, funnier, and - advantageous for many of the boys - 'tougher' in appearance, none of the children in the sample wanted to condemn their whole area absolutely: it was always, at least, 'alright'. Having criticised their nearby field, the Royal Park pupils were keen to emphasise the advantages of the superior park up the road; and the Brudenell and Beckett Park videos are warm evocations of a 'place we live', where the negative aspects are seen, as in most cases, as avoidable. The other videos noted otherwise nice parts of their areas being spoilt, often by litter or vandalism, and in Burley, a location which seemed to hold one of the lowest levels of physical attraction for its resident children, the pupils when interviewing each other nevertheless revealed a quite strong attachment to the place where they had grown up, and where their (often extended) families lived. The children at Weetwood, a more scenic suburb, to some extent 'discovered' a less agreeable underside to an area which they had always found pleasant, and Fiona's statement of what she had learnt at the end of the project expresses this defining theme: 'I learnt that the environment round us can be nice, but the problem is sometimes you find there's pollution as well'.

Environmental responsibility

Flaws and problems in the local environment were rarely seen as just 'the way things are'; the children's forceful sense of environmental responsibility - their own, and, often rather more emphatically, that of others - was a strong theme throughout the video productions. Messages such as 'Save the environment now, it's up to you' (Burley) put environmental fate into people's hands in a rather optimistic way, whilst other comments such as Vinesh's forlorn 'Why are they doing this to our world?' (Brudenell) identify people as the relevant agents in rather less happy terms. Sometimes the blame would fall close to home, such as when Charlotte at Blenheim told the video audience that litter is 'all because of people like you'; and this culpability was felt even more emphatically at Beckett Park, where the pupils directly accused each other, on camera, of contributing to the very problem that they were purporting to be concerned about.

In addition, the children's sense of environmental responsibility was reflected in the uses to which they felt their completed video could be put, characterised by Hannah at Weetwood as being 'to show other people what they can do, and what is actually happening to their environment'. Whilst of course the children were making their videos because it was good fun and because they had been invited to, this sense of the end product having a message worth conveying was evident, to varying degrees, in each of the groups.

In some cases, the need for responsibility blended into more authoritarian ideas. The litter problem, for example, brought calls for fines from Chabu at Blenheim school, and for a police clampdown from Aaron at Burley. In general, though, local environmental problems were seen as a collective predicament which should ideally be solved by more responsible behaviour from the whole community.

The Council's responsibility

Whilst the community would ideally be expected to treat their environment more considerately, for some of the groups it was quite clear who should be resolving problems and cleaning up the area until such a time: 'the council', Leeds City Council. The two youngest groups did not declare much of an awareness of the Council's potential role (although Vicky at Little London gave thanks to its invisible hand - 'I don't know who planted these trees, but they're very good to plant them'), and the middle-class children at Weetwood seemed to tacitly hold a more privatised view of such responsibilities. For the older working-class groups, however, the Council was a salient if rather impotent force, which was charged with responsibilities such as cleaning up waste ground (Royal Park, Blenheim), and clearing litter from streets and parks (Burley, Beckett Park). Its failure to fulfil these duties prompted as much bitterness, for some, as that directed towards those who produced the messes in the first place.

Litter & pollution, and traffic

Pollution in its many forms, most particularly as litter, was the environmental problem of greatest practical, local concern to the children in this study, and was a strong element in all of the videos produced. This reflects the findings of a 1993 MORI poll which found that litter was the most important local environmental issue for children aged eight to twelve (Social Trends, 1995, p. 188). The amount of litter was central to how much a location was appreciated, its presence producing expressions of disgust (such as in the field at Royal Park, the village green at Burley, the streets around Weetwood, or in the school grounds of Little London or Blenheim), whilst its absence in the better parks was noted with appreciation.

Pollution from noxious substances was also not only a concern, but something which most of the groups found visible evidence of to show to camera. Children in all of the groups drew attention to large amounts of traffic which were seen to be producing pollution, as well as being a safety hazard - traffic thus qualifying as a distinct common theme in the videos - but this was not the only example. The pupils from Burley were all too aware of the contamination of their local canal, whilst the warning signs in Weetwood's nearby park concerning the presence of raw sewage in the otherwise attractive streams prompted some alarm, as well as making good footage. Concern about needles discarded by drug users was also expressed in two of the groups. Additional resources were deployed to show what might otherwise be a difficult subject to film, such as books (Little London), and a frieze about acid rain (Weetwood).

Parks, and the city

The enthusiasm for parks demonstrated by children in this study suggests that such verdant public spaces may be of greater importance to young people than they are to the general adult population. Every group that could get to a park eagerly filmed there at some length (Royal Park, Burley St. Matthias, Weetwood, Beckett Park); those which could not leave the school grounds nevertheless spoke of nearby parks (Little London, Blenheim), and the remaining group discussed the loss of a major park which had since been built over (Brudenell). The four groups who were able to film a park described their park's merits in unparalleled detail, through comments, interviews and admiring footage. Royal Park's video is particularly centred around the comparison between a park that the children all enjoy, and a field which they feel is a missed opportunity for development as another park.

All of the groups suggested local parks as important places to be filmed almost instantaneously, and were not prompted with leading enquiries. This response seems likely to exceed the value which most working adults might think to place on public parks, although perhaps these areas become more important again for those unemployed or retired. The children seemed to value their parks not only as places to play, but also as pleasant and quiet areas for relaxation and general enjoyment of the environment.

The prominence of parks in the videos is also a key to the 'unspoken' theme of the city, which is hidden within each of the productions. The city is wholly taken for granted, but is present inevitably in and around each film, and at times quite literally looming over the actual shots, with heavy traffic, dilapidated housing and tower blocks appearing in most of the videos. Nevertheless, these rather fundamental environmental ingredients go largely unremarked: at Little London, for example, where the school is most obviously dwarfed by multiple ageing residential blocks, as well as the giant cylinders of a gas works, the children's focus was instead on the trees and green areas around the school.

Parks are appreciated, then, partly as a respite from the city. Colin Ward (1994) notes the generally unremarked trend by which children's freedom of mobility in the city is becoming gradually eroded due to parents' growing concerns about safety, with research suggesting, for example, that the number of children allowed to cross roads on their own has fallen from three-quarters in 1971, to just half in 1990 (p. 151). Ward suggests that 'if we are attempting to evaluate the opportunities for childhoods in late twentieth-century Britain, we are bound to conclude that something precious has been lost in the range of environmental experiences open to children' (p. 152). Whilst the 'outdoor child' was regarded positively as recently as a couple of decades ago, today that characterisation is more likely to conjure thoughts of a troublesome delinquent; whereas the 'indoor child', taking advantage of the same consumer home comforts as adults, is at least a known quantity. With such pressures growing from concerned parents and teachers, the park may have become one of the few outdoor places where children may legitimately pass the time.


Whilst cosmetically similar to the appreciation of parks, trees form a separate common element since each one of the video productions included mention of trees as an appealing aspect of the environment. Almost all sections describing the appeal of an area such as school grounds or a park drew attention to the trees - Celie in the Little London video even gives one a loving embrace - and they are clearly an environmental feature which is actively valued.


The theme of community appeared in the videos both as a latently valued presence and - perhaps more strongly - as a regretted absence. Local facilities, particularly parks, were noted as an asset for everyone in their areas, and some of the videos - most notably that set in the Asian community and shopping area around Brudenell school - affirm (and, it must be said, in a sense construct) a positive picture of life in the district. In a greater number of cases, however, some community responsibility was perceived more as a need than as something already present. Laura's suggestion in the Beckett Park video, for example, that 'people who live round here should do, like, a meeting or something, and pick [all the litter] up', is something which she is aware is not likely to happen. At least the possibility of community action is considered here, though, whereas in Weetwood's middle-class suburb, as noted above in regard to expectations of the Council, the notion of collective or social action seemed weakest of all.


A more lightweight but nevertheless clearly an important theme to the children, play appeared wherever possible in most of the videos. One of the key assets of local parks was evidently the play opportunities which they afforded, for all of the children in the 7-11 age range sampled here, and they were quick to demonstrate these facilities for the camera. Play was also seen as important for others, as reflected in the 'activities' planned by the Blenheim children for the hypothetical, mostly adult residents of the community centre which they suggest could be built on the neighbouring waste ground site.

Audience-oriented performance & entertainment

Finally, a theme of what is perhaps best described by the word 'showmanship' prevails in all of the videos. The youngest group of all, at Little London, launched from the first week onwards into spontaneous, energetic singing and dancing routines in any spare moments, which they never tired of viewing later. Like the other groups, they also - without any instruction - addressed the imaginary viewer directly through the camera, introducing themselves, asking hypothetical questions of the audience, raising warning fingers and making gestures, producing materials to show to the camera, and presenting information whilst performing in a visually interesting manner. Those in front of the camera often led the video operator from one point to another, a stylish example being the following of Chabu from his classroom to the Blenheim school office, where he telephoned the Council. The Blenheim children also produced a song, with instrumentation, for use in their video, whilst Burley, Brudenell and Weetwood pupils recorded interviews with local people to add another perspective to their productions. It was the desire to video interesting material which led the Weetwood pupils to ask a man using boomerangs in the park if they could question and film him, which also provided the opportunity for them to try out the unusual playthings.

All of the groups experimented (of their own accord) with shots which moved from one place to the presenter, or static shots into which the presenter would step or jump - small details, but adding some visual interest. As should be clear from these examples, and the video descriptions, the children's approach to video-making was imaginative both in terms of content and presentation. The age of pupils did not seem to be correlated with this theme.


Being environmentally responsible, versus having an easy time

Whilst the children did not, on the whole, associate environmental concern with having a bad time, there were some obvious conflicts between the impulse towards lazy enjoyment of life, and a more responsible attitude. This conflict is related to the more general tension between individual self-interest and the collective good, which can be seen to underlie many social choices. Tendencies towards one or the other have been related to pro-environmental behaviour (Karp, 1996).

The most obvious example for the children in this study involved litter: the desire to simply drop it, versus the 'chore' of finding a bin or taking it home. The children did not expressly complain about the 'effort' of being environmentally faithful, and indeed the negligence of those who drop litter was frequently lambasted. However, the children did in most cases admit that they had dropped litter sometimes, or had done so in the past, and the more honest discussions or arguments between the children tended to reveal that they - like most people, no doubt - were not one hundred per cent environmentally friendly at all times. In short, they could not always be bothered. This did, however, seem to cause them some embarrassment in front of each other, and so represents a seam of internal conflict running throughout the video productions.

On a broader scale, active environmentalism presented other conflicts as to use of time. The children would suggest things to be done - such as local people getting organised to improve the area and tidy the streets - but seemed more inclined to spend any substantial portions of their own time in the traditional childhood activities of leisure and play. Such inclinations are not unreasonable, of course, particularly as children are generally brought up to expect adults to perform the 'responsible' activities. Nevertheless, the conflict lurks within the videos, and is a clue, perhaps, to a wider perception - that it's a problem, but it's someone else's problem - which means that the environment is rarely ever improved by children or adults.

Children's own environmental responsibility, versus that of adults

A related conflict is that between knowing that it is the role of adults to be responsible, as noted above, whilst also being aware that adults have not been the environment's best friend so far, from the children's point of view, so that there is a need for young people to take on the task instead. Apart from basic decent behaviour towards the environment, the children perceived their other main role as a campaigning one; whilst local physical changes were left to adult authorities, the children did seem to believe they had some degree of power in changing attitudes or providing information.

There was a degree of confusion, however. Childhood is, after all, socially constructed as a period of dependency, with no need to worry about responsibilities (Morrow, 1994), and the children here knew for a fact that they were powerless in the face of any problem which was not small and local. Questions they asked each other along the lines of 'What are you going to do about these environmental problems?', encountered some difficulty when the basic answer was 'I'd like to do something, but I'm not old enough'. The clash between children being called upon to save the planet, by television programmes and other sources, whilst also being fundamentally powerless, as noted above, led to difficulties. As with the previous conflict, the children 'coped' with this problem, worked around it, but it nevertheless appears at times in each of the videos as a rather inescapable quandary.

Summary of theme analysis

Within the framework of an appreciation of their locality, despite its defects, the children emphasised the responsibility of individuals to look after the area and not contribute to its environmental problems. Given the problems which were found to exist - chiefly centred around pollution, litter and traffic - it was felt that people in the community, as well as the Council in some cases, should work together to clear these up. The unlikelihood of this happening caused dismay. Public parks were frequently celebrated for their combination of appealing, restful scenery and play opportunities, and the children seemed to value parks more than other sectors of the community, although their value to all was emphasised by the video-makers. The videos were made with some panache, and even the youngest children seemed well aware of the hypothetical audience for whom they prepared stimulating and entertaining audio/visual presentations.

It is notable that the kinds of environmental problems focused upon in the videos - litter and some pollution - are generally 'old-fashioned' in the sense that they do not reflect the media attention given since the late 1980's to issues such as global warming, the ozone layer, acid rain, the rainforests and so on. This seems, however, to be due to the obvious reason that these are problems which are global, or apparent only elsewhere, and so could not be easily filmed - although it must be admitted that the children could have illustrated them with models and illustrations, but did not generally seem to think of doing such work. Being unleashed around and about the school with a video camera had led to more 'modern' environmental concerns falling, to an extent, by the wayside, although the interviews showed that the children were usually aware of them.

The two primary conflicts identified in the videos were both centred around responsibilities. The children had been able to reconcile liking their areas whilst also recognising the defects and problems which could be found there, so this did not present a conflict, but environmentalism comes hand-in-hand with a need to do and change things, and naturally this need struggles against others. Children both wanted to take things easy, and leave responsibilities to adults, whilst also often quite strongly wanting to help the environment in any way they could. At the same time, they knew that they were largely powerless in the face of the bigger environmental picture. These conflicts are identifiable in each of the seven videos produced, but - by their nature - are not resolved.

The text and images on this site are by David Gauntlett, © 1997, 2004.
Back to > Video Critical home.