The Play Observatory - The Story So Far

As of August 2021, we are two thirds of the way into the data collection for the Play Observatory and we're delighted with the range and diversity of contributions we've been receiving about children's and young people's play experiences during lockdown times. John and Michelle reflect in this post on the story so far and invite people to keep contributing (or do so for the first time!)…


We are incredibly grateful to our contributors who have offered stories, songs and snippets, photos, drawings and films, and more, documenting the playful moments that have mattered to them in difficult, lockdown times. In this blog post we'd like to press pause for a moment and take account of all the Play Observatory activities that have been running in parallel, and keeping the research process vibrant, secure and responsive.

We have been excited to hear about all forms of play that have been going on, throughout lockdown and beyond. People have been telling us about: iPad Hide and Seek, Playground shadow tag, Risk-taking & trying new things - jumping, running, Skate-boarding, TV exercise, Intergenerational play on iPads, Film-making & editing, Video game-play with friends, Special lockdown celebrations, Missing friends and relatives, Home-schooling, and more…

People have uploaded examples of: Bedroom & Living room dens (so many dens – there will be more about his later in the year!), Outdoor walks & cycling, Making with Lego and Duplo, Rainbow drawings, Craftwork – marbling, Street art, Outdoor chalk work, Magazine publishing, Video games stills, Family gatherings online, Water play, Football skills, Musical interludes, Cooking and baking, Paintings and drawings, Experimentation with sound, Song writing, Poetry writing, Performance rap, DIY costumes and toys (marble run / cooker / dragon) and more…

Followers of our blog have read about pandemic-play from individuals, groups, organisations*_ and projects, all offering insightful thoughts and impressions. Thanks to all those who have shared accounts of their creative practices, novel experiences and domestic routines related to play. It seems that whatever the context - community or school-based, familial or academic - there's a common thread of fascination, and a hunger for more stories. These narratives, along with annotated contributions to the survey, are helping us to flesh out how children and adolescents have inhabited and negotiated this period of disruption. Although many of us have experienced isolation, loss and possibly sadness, the message we're getting is one of hope and resilience, and a thirst to express our feelings.

*Please do get in touch at if you too have gathered some thoughts on play in your own context. [Please check out our resource packs, specifically designed for groups, organisations and schools to engage productively and imaginatively with the project.]

We are also, as many of you know, active on social media. If you use Facebook, we’ve been on there since April and you can find our page and join in here. Our Twitter account has close to 1000 followers and is updated regularly, mainly by Kate Cowan! Find us there @PlayObservatory and via the tweets in the sidebar on the homepage and help us get to 4 figures!

During the past few months we’ve taken part in a series of peripheral events and activities including podcasts, conferences and communication with international colleagues interested in the role of play in particular settings. We have sought to gather a range of perspectives, not only in terms of data from different age groups, geographic regions and demographics, but also through the medium of blogging.

Behind the scenes, the archive is steadily growing and has been take forward by great work from Valerio Signorelli, Julia Bishop, Steve Roud, Cath Bannister and Yinka Olusoga. We believe that the overall research design may provide a model for future qualitative projects that manage the collection of intimate life history data that is willingly donated by the public. The project simply wouldn't be viable without secure server and storage arrangements. This is an important ongoing operation ensuring the long term preservation of our digital data so that it remains safe and accessible, and Valerio has been working really hard on these aspects, supported by research data services at UCL.

The survey itself is extensive and there's a great deal of activity in the archive camp cataloguing and indexing the data, and also deploying software that ensures sustainable future retrieval. Like many social research projects involving folkloric content (see Playing the archive), the written and material outputs mask a hive of industry in the form of technical and creative problem-solving: the Play Observatory, and the wealth of history it is generating, is no exception. All the while attention is being paid to issues of ethics, consent, copyright and privacy, and we look forward to saying more about this at our forthcoming BERA symposium where team members will detail decisions made during the development phase and beyond.

One of the key methodological approaches has been our recent series of onscreen interviews with people who have indicated they would like to engage with us further. Kate, John and Michelle have recently enjoyed talking to children, parents and young people who have all offered up rich and generous accounts of play experiences - in the home, in the garden, in the kitchen, with friends, in local/digital spaces, on/offline and in the wider community – all of which will be turned into a series of case studies.

Later in the year, we look forward to working with our partners, The V&A Museum of Childhood, Great Ormond Street Hospital and The British Library to bring this vital collection of human stories and artefacts to the public imagination in memorable, creative and compelling ways. We will keep you updated here and on social media about our efforts. The project was conceived from the beginning to be outward facing, with contributions gathered in and shared amongst everyone taking part. Please do continue to engage with us, consider making a contribution, if you have not already done so, and please spread the word about us… Thanks for all your support so far!

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