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Why Cambridge University is appointing the world’s first professor of play

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Dr. David Whitebread, Acting Director (External Relations), Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning, (PEDAL), University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr. David Whitebread, Acting Director (External Relations), Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning, (PEDAL), University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. Picture: Keith Heppell

A new senior academic figure will be joining the University of Cambridge in the autumn – its professor of play, the world’s first.

The role will be funded by Lego
The role will be funded by Lego

The Faculty of Education, based in Hills Road, has been awarded £4million to fund the professorship and the faculty’s newly-established unit, PEDAL (Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning).

It sounds like an enjoyable job – but a strictly necessary one? After all, common sense tells us that plenty of play helps children to mature into smarter, better-adjusted adults, doesn’t it? Up to a point.

PEDAL’s interim director, Professor Anna Vignoles, says that while common sense may well be right, there’s remarkably little actual evidence to support it.

Enter the Lego Foundation. It will have no say in the new professor’s appointment or in the research PEDAL undertakes. But it has a clear idea of the sort of person it hopes to see chosen: a candidate with “a childlike mindset”, an academic “who is playful, extremely curious, open-minded, imaginative and creative”, says Bo Stjerne Thomsen, the foundation’s global head of research.

The foundation also knows what changes it would like to see. Stjerne Thomsen says it wants to “encourage more playful learning in schools, rather than testing. If children are being taught with standardised assessments and results, those children will expect to receive assignments and be led towards pre-defined goals for the rest of their lives.”

But Professor Vignoles says that’s not how PEDAL will work: “This is a research and teaching role, not an advocacy role... We’re going into this to investigate it.”

Her colleague, Dr David Whitebread, PEDAL’s acting director of external relations, agrees. With more than 30 years of experience as a developmental psychologist behind him, he says: “I’m most excited when I make an unexpected discovery.

“We wouldn’t be researching this if we didn’t believe there’s something really important in it. That’s why we have to achieve a high level of scientific rigour. We’re not trying to prove a point – we’re trying to find one.”

Studies have shown that trying to teach children literacy and numeracy too early can set them back if it denies them opportunities for play. So, too, can limited chances to play at school, excessive homework, too much structured time in classes or lessons outside school – and iPads.

“Our generation used to have much more unstructured, unsupervised time,” Dr Whitebread says. “Studies show that children with more unstructured time settle into school more easily, can think more independently and become more self-regulating earlier.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years the mental health of young children in the US and the UK has deteriorated, and we know there’s a correlation between play and mental health.”

But applying scientific rigour to studies of children presents its own challenges: “We can do observational analysis in our own lab here, videoing children as they play, analysing the context, the frequency of events and so on. We use software which gives us accurate measures of frequencies and identifies repeated patterns of behaviour.

“Another method involves using GPS to monitor outdoor play and seeing how this supports the children’s interactions. We fit the children with specially designed trackers and follow their movements very precisely.

“You can see, for example, how the size and configuration of the play space affects a child’s interactions with one or more peers, and how groups relate to one another, or the different impacts on how children use the space, their levels of movement and activity.

“But in this field, where everything is linked to everything else, you just cannot experimentally isolate variables. So for instance, you can’t tell children they cannot read for a month or alter how often they and their parents speak, although these are factors which may be having a significant effect.”

The painstaking observation required has its parallels in non-human activity. “It’s similar to what the ethologist Jane Goodall has done for years with chimpanzees”, Dr Whitebread says.

That prompts a possible lesson from William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, where schoolchildren marooned without adults on a desert island descend into savagery and murder one of their number.

“Children aren’t adults; they’re learning. You do need some level of supervision. And context matters: we’ve found that there are far more incidents of social conflict in a barren playground, perhaps just bare concrete, than where ‘loose parts play’ is possible – in other words, where there’s less fixed equipment and more objects available that can be used in a variety of ways. You’ll find a lot of happy children there.”

PEDAL describes its work as “serious research about play” and it is looking for answers to some serious and practical questions. Is participation in adventurous and outdoor play decreasing in our urban centres, and if it is, what are the likely consequences? Are playful children more academically able or is it the other way round? Will a playful baby grow into a creative adult?

And in an age when research undertaken purely for its own sake seems often harder to justify than knowledge pursued to increase our health or wealth or some other specific end, PEDAL’s team wants to find out the contribution of some of the skills demonstrated during play – critical thinking, problem-solving, emotional resilience, teamwork and creativity among them (and then there’s digital play).

These all benefit the economy and society at large. So a key question – should play rank higher on a school’s curriculum?

The research needed to find some answers will rely on the increasing application of science, with its growing ability to illuminate hitherto dark corners.

Recent findings within brain research, for example, show that reading – in particular, reading fiction – helps children’s cognitive, emotional and social development, prompting the education faculty to organise a conference next May on the implications.

Dr Whitebread sees new opportunities ahead: “There’s an emerging neuroscience of play,” he says, “using new technology, such as a wireless EEG [electroencephalography] cap, that can potentially help us to find out what’s happening in children’s brains both while they’re playing and when they’re not.

“As a species we face many problems, among them rapid technological change, the world economy and climate change. So we need imaginative, creative problem-solvers, able to think for themselves and to work with other people, going beyond literacy and numeracy.

“We’re a very adaptable species, and if playfulness contributes to our adaptive, problem-solving abilities, we should use it.”

Vanishing games

Cambridgeshire children used to enjoy a range of vanished games. Many were played to the accompaniment of songs sung by the group, such as The Big Ship Sails and Round and Round the Village.

Another was collected in 1911 at Ten Mile Bank, Littleport, by Cecil Sharp, famed as the founding father of the English folk song revival early last century.

One Year 5 pupil at William Westley Church of England Primary School in Whittlesford misses what’s gone: “There’s different words that we wouldn’t use, like in one called Draw a Pail of Water. We don’t have pails of water nowadays...”

And she likes the Littleport song: “It’s really fun learning old things because our games are pretty simple and in the olden days they had really complicated games, like Cock Robin is Dead, and they had all these fascinating things.”

Another Whittlesford game, Pig in a Gutter, played on Shrove Tuesday, might raise eyebrows at health and safety HQ today.

The children would spend early spring days removing the prickles from bramble branches to use to form tunnels through which they would run, crying: “Open your eye, Open your eye, Let the King and me come by”.

The game could go on for a long time. Sometimes the brambles were replaced by weeping willow – safer, but nowhere near as spectacular.

:: Alex Kirby is a member of the Climate News Network. Read exclusive Science features from the team every Wednesday in the Cambridge Independent.

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