"We run a range of research projects exploring ways in which play contributes to children’s education and development...however, there is still much to learn about the ways in which play contributes to children’s happiness and success."

Paul Ramchandani, LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning, and Director of the PEDAL Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Summer of Play - examining the role of play in children’s lives

The Summer of Play was a campaign to give children across the UK the space, time, and freedom to play in the summer of 2021 as the Covid-19 restrictions were eased. British Council Denmark spoke to Euan Wilmshurst, Head of Advocacy & Communication at the LEGO Foundation in Denmark, and to Paul Ramchandani, LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning, and Director of the PEDAL Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

What is the PEDAL Centre at Cambridge?

PR: The PEDAL Centre at Cambridge is a research centre focussed on the role of play in children’s lives, particularly in relation to their education, learning and development. We run a range of research projects exploring ways in which play contributes to children’s education and development. Play is a central part of childhood and has a key role in how children successfully develop and live the fullest lives that they can. However, there is still much to learn about the ways in which play contributes to children’s happiness and success. These are the areas that we study.

Can you share a bit about the PEDAL Centre’s latest research?

PR: We have a wide range of projects, but to highlight just three.

First, we are working hard at trying to establish the evidence for guided play in schools and early years settings. Guided play is where teachers and other educators allow children to make choices in their learning, but with a clear learning aim in mind. It brings play and fun into the centre of learning and shows some clear benefits for some areas of learning, such as maths. In some others, there is less clear research and so there is more to be done.

Second, we are looking at the role of play-based intervention for children with early signs of behavioural difficulties – helping children’s parents/carers to help their children develop skills of self-control and to manage their emotions (sometimes called self-regulation). In a large trial we recently demonstrated that a brief intervention could have important positive impacts on the behaviour of even quite young children (aged one year and upwards).

A third area we are working on with colleagues in Denmark is the role of play in hospitals, trying to understand how play can best support children in hospitals to maintain those aspects of normal life and relationships that they are able to do – this is difficult, especially for very sick children, but extremely important.

How can key audiences around the globe, such as educators, parents and caregivers, or children best learn from, and engage with your scholarship? 

PR: We try wherever possible to make our research, and the work of others, accessible to educators and parents and carers. Most of our research is published in educational and psychological journals but we also post summaries and blogs about the work on our website – we call them Play Pieces and they are all available for free.

What is the Summer of Play?

EW: Kids across the globe, including in the UK, have spent lots of time indoors over past year, often being inactive and isolated. The Summer of Play is a campaign supported by 250 organisations, child development experts and educators to find a way to deal with this issue. It’s been vital for us that the campaign has also drawn attention to the idea that spending more time in school is the only way to learn. Actually, play is a key way to learn. For the LEGO Foundation it is important that it’s a campaign focussing on how children are going to cope as they come out of Covid, and how play is going to have a pivotal role in that. How are kids going to get the space, time, and freedom to play as the restrictions are eased? We feel that the Summer of Play has been a great way to join forces with all these other organisations to call out the importance of play.

PR: It has been wonderful to see the focus on children and play in this campaign. It has brought together a wide range of people and organisations to focus on play and has allowed a broader range of conversations about what children catching-up after the pandemic might mean and a fuller and better understanding of what children really need most. Now the challenge is to take that campaign forward beyond the summer to ensure that the important place of play in children’s lives is recognised.

How and why did the LEGO Foundation get involved in the campaign?

EW: We’ve seen the mental health challenge deepen through loneliness and reduced physical activity, and for us at the LEGO Foundation, learning through play is key because we see it as one of the key vehicles to help children – and not just children – cope with the effects of the pandemic. We’ve seen through our own research that it’s critical for building children’s social-emotional skills, which is extremely important right now. But it is also is a great way to boost their broader skills base and the holistic skills that they may need to thrive in the 21st century: their cognitive, physical and social-emotional development is crucial. As well as joining the campaign, we were eager to make sure that play is not just regarded as something frivolous and fun. It absolutely should be fun, but there is a strong link to learning, and I think that some of the narrative we’ve often seen has been that learning happens in school and play is something you do outside of school to have fun. We are very clear that children learn best through play, and that they can learn in very different environments.

Is the LEGO Foundation supporting any similar initiatives around the world?

EW: While the Summer of Play campaign is UK-specific, for many years we’ve been engaged in funding and working with partners all over the world when supporting children’s learning through play. We currently support programming work and partners in 32 different countries; that includes everything from putting quality early-childhood education on the global agenda, to engaging with parents and carers through what we call our Play Movement so that they understand the benefit of learning through play. For example, last year we went out and spoke to a number of parents and caregivers in India, Mexico, the UK, and the US to understand what they needed during the pandemic to engage their children in play. As a result, we came up with something we call the Playlist, which is exactly that: a list of resources online, which can also be accessed through a phone, which parents and caregivers may use to find great play activities that are either suited to the age of their child, or the particular skills they want to develop. This makes it very easy for them to engage in play with their children. Another example of our work is in Denmark, where we’re based; we partner with the university colleges that are specifically delivering pre-service teacher education in order to help them facilitate play across the whole education spectrum. This is really about levelling the playing field and getting better transitions from early childhood into school. It is also about driving the motivation for learning amongst pupils. So again, putting play at the centre of learning.

You recently commissioned a national survey in Denmark titled ‘Det gode børneliv – ifølge børnene’ (The good life – according to children). As the summer holidays are approaching in Denmark, what, based on the survey, do you think is critical when ensuring children’s fun and learning over the holiday period?

EW: The way in which we’ve tried to answer this question is to ask children themselves. The agency of the child is often forgotten, and what’s central for us in this survey is it’s the first of its kind to really examine children’s own understanding experience across all levels of primary and lower. The survey questionnaire was conducted among more than 1,700 children and the results really suggests that those that do fun things with family are often going to have a higher life satisfaction. This is not least because it reduces loneliness and it creates optimism. The survey shows that children really wish for their parents to prioritise talking, playing, and engaging in activities with them. So, the results stress that play is not just a pastime, but essential to children’s development. The message we’ve identified here, and everywhere, is that having more opportunities, particularly for parents and caregivers, to engage with their children in play, or to encourage and create the opportunities and the space for that, is key. We know that when children play, they explore and engage in the world around them. In Denmark and other Nordic countries, self-led imagine play is very valued. How do we encourage that, and how do we put in the support and culture-specific content to allow children to grow independent and take part as community members? The overall message is around how we need to assist children in play in all contexts. That’s the case in Denmark and it is the same anywhere else: play is critical for learning, for resilience, and for holistic skills development.

Can you describe some of the thinking behind making the Summer of Play as accessible as possible?

EW: Inclusion has been a determining value and principle for us in all of our funding and work, and it applies to all children. Unlike other organisations who may be focussed solely on the most marginalised in certain low-income countries, we’ve always been clear that our work is about all children everywhere. Covid has affected many children in an unequal fashion, so if anything, it’s heightened and worsened many inequalities that exist for learners, families and communities as a whole. What’s good about this campaign is that it’s about levelling that situation. How do you create more opportunities for children everywhere, while also finding solutions for disadvantaged or minority-background children who’ve been disproportionately impacted? We think it’s important that that’s underlined from the beginning, and that we’re really focussing on inclusion reducing inequality, and not just providing play opportunities that are accessible to certain demographic groups. A report we’ve produced around learning through play has shown that achievement gaps can be closed between children when they’re engaging in learning through play. Play doesn’t just help children learn, it supports inclusion and it reduces inequality.

It's currently a debatable issue, but do you think longer school hours would plug the learning gap?

EW: There’s no debate that the pandemic has had a huge impact on education, children, and systems, thus adaptation has been and remains critical. We’ve never faced a time like this – it’s challenging but has also created a huge opportunity to re-evaluate how we teach students, and what and where they’re learning. We think this is a good time to rethink education in totality. How do we bring in and guide children to hands-on creative, engaging experiences that develop skills and a passion for lifelong learning? We think there’s a bigger question here: how do we rethink education and learning and the notion that “school is where you learn, outside of school is where you play”? School is critical, but I don’t necessarily think that a singular focus on longer hours is going to solve much unless we have the debate about learning creatively. Before the pandemic, the Education Commission had already estimated that, by 2030, more than half of the world’s children and young people – that’s 800 million – won’t have the required skills or qualifications to participate in the workforce. And what we know is those are the types of skills that learning through play will drive – they are the rounded, all-inclusive skills: cognitive, creative, social-emotional and physical. We really need to create a system, a culture, and a mindset around the child that is focussed on that holistic learning. The issue of school hours can be debated forever, but we think it’s a distraction from a bigger opportunity that we are currently faced with. 

In recent years, there’s been a lot of focus on liveable cities, smart cities, green cities. How, in your opinion, could cities serve children better?

EW: We know that within 20 years, 70 per cent of children are likely or expected to live in urban environments. As such, cities are a critical focus that needs to continue. As part of the Real Play Coalition, where we partner with several other organisations, we’ve launched something called the Urban Play Framework. The aim of this is to better understand the complexities around urban play, and how we can work with and support city-based stakeholders and decision-makers to develop play-based interventions around children’s learning and development. I think this is an ongoing question, but as we consider the whole system around the child, we need to examine how we can make cities fit for this. How do we create the spaces and environments that allow critical skills development, the collaboration and the thinking? For the LEGO Foundation, access to play spaces in cities is paramount, and not just traditional parks and playgrounds but within homes, communities and wider urban systems. We’ve got to think of infrastructural changes, what’s there in the shops and cultural institutions, but also within formal learning environments in urban schools. We also need to think about the breadth of opportunities for engagement, materials, play types, and so on. How do we make sure there are various modes of accesses to play? How do we ensure that play is not just seen as being solely about the fun, but the physical, creative, and social aspects that are all present? How do we increase the capacity of play workers, public and private actors? How do we ensure that more people understand and facilitate learning through play and make the connection to learning and skills development? As we’ve already touched upon, another valuable component is that we recognise the place of diversity and various needs of different stakeholder groups. To design cities with the needs of the child at the centre would be interesting, and move away from the notion that urban spaces are passive environments through which citizens are directed. Perhaps we could support more active engagement for kids and adults to more creatively explore and develop their own activities, and facilitate more collaborative projects. We think it’s critical that this work is happening now; it’s urgent and it needs new approaches as well as the involvement of multiple stakeholders.

With so much of the focus being drawn by cities, can you explain how you think some of the resources behind the Summer of Play could be applied in a rural setting?

EW: Learning through play is for all kids, everywhere, so it’s absolutely key that we don’t just focus on one particular environment even if that’s where 70 per cent of kids will live. There will remain the 30 per cent who won’t live cities, so of course it is inherent to think about non-urban settings, too. As explained, we need to put the child at the centre of our thinking. Kids are the experts at play and, as I think as we all know, they’ll play almost anywhere and with anything. We need to take into account those tools, that freedom and that permission. Every setting should count; it doesn’t matter if it’s a park, a field, a back garden, playgrounds or other public spaces. Wherever kids are, the most important thing is that they’re given that time and space to reconnect and that there’s a range of activities that they can continue to learn. It is worth emphasising when we talk about learning through play we say it has five key characteristics. One is that it’s experienced as being joyful. Two is that it helps children find meaning in what they’re doing or learning – so it’s meaningful. Three is that it involves active engaged minds on thinking – actively engaging. Four is that it involves iterative thinking, such as experimentation or hypothesis-testing. And finally, that it’s socially interactive within the setting. These are the five characteristics that we identify as fostering a playful mindset and that define how children learn best. They are as applicable in an urban as in a rural setting.

Once summer is over, what about the winter of play?

EW: Children need fun, friends and freedom. They need to feel connected and loved, and they need to nurture their language skills, problem-solve, and explore. Obviously, that doesn’t just happen in any particular one season. We believe that learning through play can happen anytime, outside of school, in any environment and anywhere in the world. While it’s great to have this focus right now, perhaps a bigger issue has been brought to the fore: what we would wish to see is an eternal Summer of Play? We think you should never stop playing, and that’s why the Playlist and other resources that we have out there are available all year round rather than being summer-exclusives.

Paul Ramchandani, LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning, and Director of the PEDAL Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.
Euan Wilmshurst, Head of Advocacy & Communication at the LEGO Foundation in Denmark. 

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