International Perspectives: ‘It’s just things happening over time’ – What can we learn from the Play Observatory?

Written by John Potter

Some stones painted with rainbows and left on a doorstep, a child mirroring the cosmic yoga class on YouTube, a joint birthday party held in Minecraft, a video made by a 10-year-old which spelled out a simple truth: ‘It’s not a rap / It’s not a rhyme / It’s just things happening over time…’

These and other images, texts and videos were submitted to the Play Observatory, a project funded in the UK by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) from October 2020 through to March of this year, 2022.

The Play Observatory was simultaneously focused on being a social science research project and on collecting and curating an archive of play experiences for future generations, in the tradition of previous work on the Opie archive (Childhoods and PlayChildren’s Games in the New Media AgePlaying the Archive). Our research could, inevitably, only be carried out online, beginning with a survey and collection tool, carefully designed by the Sheffield team and UCL CASA, and followed up in interviews and filmmaking workshops.

We had four main research questions focused around uncovering what and how children had played during the pandemic; finding out how the pandemic itself was referenced in play; learning about continuities and discontinuities with the past and between different communities and, finally, exploring how different perspectives from cultural studies, folklore studies, history of childhood, media literacies, multimodality and education could help us better understand the role and value of play for wellbeing during times of crisis.

Minecraft Birthday Party © Play Observatory PL170A1/S007/p2

We found children had played in many ways in adapted forms: Outside, inside, onscreen, offscreen, with toys, household objects, in homemade dens, hiding spaces, alone, with others, with relatives at distance. We found examples of children referencing the pandemic in their play which were imaginative and suggested coping resourcefulness and coping strategies, but which, on occasion,  also spoke to their fears; it was not all celebratory by any means.

We collected a diverse range of films from single shots to edited productions, many of them acting as direct personal testimony of complex emotions and issues, highlighting the potential of digital media in children’s multimodal meaning-making. Not for the first time and certainly not alone among media projects in recent years, we have found that digital worlds are enfolded in more complex ways into people’s lives than is recognised in formal educational systems. We can arguably use the findings of the Play Observatory to support efforts to think about learning in a post-pandemic world.

At this point, we are beginning to explore the ‘network of relations’ (Burnett & Merchant 2021) before and during COVID -19, the interconnectedness of the spaces inside and outside the home and the screens therein, but essentially the relational value of them, not privileging one over another but viewing ‘hybridity’ as a way of being in the world. ‘Hybrid play’ in the uses of the digital in the evidence, alongside material toys, playscapes in the home and outside, suggests a far more nuanced experience beyond the simple binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ play (Cowan et al, 2021). 

In short, the evidence we are collecting speaks back to the fixation on ‘learning loss’ as the sole impact on children’s lives and allows us to ascribe value to the moments of play during the pandemic, to the apparently ephemeral. We hold central the value of the child’s knowledge of themselves, their communities, their worlds as a fact of both being and becoming, held in trust for whoever is watching and reading in the future. This is our connection to archives and histories of childhood as well as our connection to lived experience in the submissions.

Because our research could only be carried out remotely, the families we reached were those with the material resources, time, and interest to make contributions. It was a diverse group, but we are acutely aware of the people we did not reach, though we had planned at the outset to visit schools and engage more comprehensively with families. We have always sought ways to place the voice of the child at the heart of our research, with children as co-producers, and co-narrators of our findings as in previous projects (Potter & Cowan, 2020). If we carry on, and I hope we will in some form (perhaps internationally?), this would be a key aim for future observing and collecting.

The ‘things happening over time’ alluded to at the start of this post suggest much for our understanding of play, but also perhaps for learning in the future. It is clear that children and families need time for affect, pleasure and agency in their actions which mirror how they are in the world, including in their hybrid interactions with digital texts and artefacts. The implications of all this for a future curriculum are profound and suggest that systems based on atomised assessments and the recall of powerful knowledge won’t provide what’s needed.  In fact, the datafication of our educational systems drawn from such narrow and partial accounts of children’s skills and dispositions mean the detail of lived experience is absent in the process.  This won’t do in a world which can be turned upside down so quickly by a tiny virus, nor in one which will be altered permanently by climate disaster.  We need more research which pays attention to lived experience in our communities at a granular level and researching play is a rich location for studying ‘things happening over time’ and for considering what this means for our collective future.

The Play Observatory was a collaboration between the following research institutions and researchers –

  • University College London’s Faculty of Education and Society (John Potter, Kate Cowan, Michelle Cannon)
  • the School of Education at the University of Sheffield (Yinka Olusoga, Julia Bishop, Cath Bannister)
  • the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (Valerio Signorelli)

External partners included the Young V & A, Great Ormond Street Hospital play team and designers at Episod Studios.


Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2021) Unsettling critical literacy in digital childhoods Presentation to ARC Centre for the Digital Child, Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology, 2021-09-22

Cowan, K., Potter, J., Olusoga, Y., Bannister, C., Bishop, J.C., Cannon, M., & Signorelli, V. (2021). Children’s Digital Play during the COVID-19 Pandemic: insights from the Play Observatory. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, 17(3), 8-17.

Potter, J. & Cowan, K. ‘Playground as meaning-making space: Multimodal making and re-making of meaning in the (virtual) playground’ in Global Studies of Childhood, 10:3, 248-263,

Follow up

  • Find out more at the Play Observatory and follow us on Twitter.
  • External partner links: Young V & AGreat Ormond Street Hospital play team and designers at Episod Studios.
  • Visit the online exhibition of some of the submissions co-curated with the Young V & A here (best experienced on a laptop in Chrome).
  • View two days’ worth of thinking across 19 presentations from the Play Observatory team and other researchers around the world at our January 2022 symposium online here.

Feature image
Cosmic Kids’ Yoga
© Play Observatory PL65A1/S007/p1

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