Aim: In nursing homes, nursing staff have a key role in the use of restrictive measures. However, their active role in reducing restrictive measures has so far been limited. The aim of this study is to explore how and when the application of restrictive measures in nursing homes occurs including underlying factors, together with nursing staff. Design: Participatory action research was chosen for a bottom-up understanding of the use of restrictive measures. Method: Two Dutch nursing homes participated in 2016/2017 with 18 nursing staff members in the action research team. Nursing staff carried out 33 observations followed by a reflective interview. Results: Nursing staff observed a wide range of restrictions, including restrictions in freedom of choice, not being able to go outside, not being in charge of medication, and a directive/unresponsive care attitude. Factors influencing restrictions included habits and institutionalization, cognitive ability of the resident, availability of personnel, and responsibility for safety. A responsive care attitude and raising awareness were seen as good practices to enhance freedom. Conclusions: By taking a distant view on their work, nursing staff discovered a broad range of restrictions, including ‘less obvious’ restrictions. Active forms of learning may position nursing staff to discuss and reduce restrictive measures. Impact: What problem did the study address?: Restrictive measures are still common in nursing homes. Despite their key role in using restrictive measures, nursing staff's active role in research has been limited. What were the main findings?: By participating as researchers, nursing staff gained a broader perspective on restrictive measures. Many ‘less obvious’ restrictions were related to routines and institutionalization and were considered as eye opening by nursing staff. Where and on whom will the research have impact?: Active forms of learning such as observing and reflecting has the potential to position nursing staff as ‘agents of change’.