18 November 2021

The Play Observatory: Researching and theorising children’s lived experience of play in pandemic times

This event was part of the Digital Child Seminar Series Engaging(socio)materially: Critical literacy, children and media.

The ARC Center of Excellence for the Digital Child acknowledges the First Australian owners of the Lands where this seminar was recorded and the Lands where presenters and participants work, live and walk. We pay respect to their Elders, lores, customs and creation spirits. We recognise that these Lands have always been places of teaching, research and learning. The Centre acknowledges the important role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people play within our communities.


Professor John Potter and Dr Kate Cowan, University College London Institute of Education


Chief Investigators Professor Michael Dezuanni and Professor Annette Woods

About the seminar

This seminar will reflect on the methodological and theoretical challenges involved in developing a collaborative online research project focused on capturing children’s play experiences and wellbeing during the pandemic. The project, funded in the UK by the ESRC under its COVID rapid response call, combines both archival and ethnographic approaches and is partnered with the Young V & A, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the British Library. It builds on previous research into children’s play and expressive culture (e.g. The Iona and Peter Opie Archive and subsequent projects) in order to chronicle the pandemic as an historically significant moment in the lives of children.

There are particular challenges around facilitating children’s involvement in research and including their own contributions when research cannot be carried out in person. In our previous play research in school playgrounds we worked with children as co-researchers who documented their play with us through multiple modes over a sustained period (Potter & Cowan, 2020). This seminar will explore how the essence of this participatory, ethnographic and multimodal research might be preserved when carrying out research with children entirely online.  As part of the project methodology the later phases are concerned with detailed case studies which would usually feature  in-person interviews and related methods. The presenters will discuss how they have used video calls with children and engaged them in the remote creation of artefacts (e.g. drawings, photographs and digital media texts) carried out as part of the Play Observatory project’s case studies. Both the challenges and potentials of online research with children will be considered, including ethical issues, with lasting relevance for research design beyond the pandemic.

The presenters will also consider how to frame the instances of play we are seeing in relation to the examples of play in the past, and in recent years, collected in previous projects. There are continuities and discontinuities to consider as texts, practices and artefacts come into specific kinds of relation in play in pandemic times.

About the speakers

John Potter is Professor of Media in Education at University College London (UCL) Institute of Education. His research, teaching and publications are in: new literacies, media education, play on and offscreen, curation and agency in social media, and the changing nature of teaching and learning in the context of digital media.  He is a founder member of the DARE research centre at UCL, recently re-launched as ReMAP (Researching Media, Arts and Play) and is currently directing the ESRC funded National Observatory of Children’s Play Experiences during COVID-19.

Dr. Kate Cowan is a Senior Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education. Her research explores children’s play and communication from a multimodal perspective, including aspects such as literacy, creativity and digital technologies. She is currently working on the project A National Observatory of Children’s Play Experiences During Covid-19 funded by the ESRC. Kate has a background in early years teaching and she remains committed to connecting research and practice. In addition to academic publication in books and papers, Kate has written for teachers, students and the general public.