The Play Observatory

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‘A National Observatory of Children’s Play Experiences During COVID-19’ is a research project funded by the ESRC, running from November 2020 to January 2022, bringing together researchers from UCL Institute of Education, the School of Education at the University of Sheffield, and The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on children and young people, affecting where, when, how and with whom they can socialise and play. We would like to find out more about their experiences of play and games during this time and how these differ from - or continue - their earlier practices.

We are asking young people and adults to share examples of play and expressive culture, through descriptions, photos, drawings, sound recordings and video clips contributed to an online survey and in-depth case studies. The Play Observatory will preserve these contributions and make them publicly available, providing insights into the experiences of children and young people at this unique time in history and informing future generations’ understandings of young people’s lives.

We are trying to find out:

  • How have children and young people been playing during the pandemic, from the outbreak of the virus, through lockdowns and school closures, and during ongoing social distancing?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic featured in play and expressive culture (including language, humour, festivals and rituals, beliefs, stories, and making) and what insights does this give into children’s unique experiences of it?
  • How does this play and culture compare with that of the past, and between different communities?
  • How can different scholarly approaches (such as history, folklore, multimodality, education and cultural studies) help us better understand the significance of play and expressive culture for well-being during times of crisis, struggle and change?

The project will produce:

  • A searchable online collection of examples, a multi-media archive held in UCL and University of Sheffield repositories, with selected material deposited with the British Library, preserving a record of children’s play for use by future generations
  • An online exhibition, developed with the V&A Museum of Childhood, showcasing children’s experiences of play in the pandemic through photographs, drawings, sound and video
  • Play Wellbeing Toolkits, designed with the play services team at Great Ormond Street Hospital, offering advice for supporting play and understanding its importance, particularly during uncertain and stressful periods

We are building on the team’s earlier studies of play including Childhoods and Play, Playing the Archive, Children’s Playground Games in the New Media Age, and Changing Play. We are influenced particularly by the work of folklorists Iona and Peter Opie and their collection of children’s play, games, lore and language collected in the UK during the third quarter of the 20th century.

We will be sharing our findings in media articles, academic publications, at conferences and through an end-of-project symposium.

To stay up-to-date with the project, follow us on Twitter @PlayObservatory