Exhibition gives insight into children’s play in pandemic

New research from the University of Sheffield, University College London (UCL) and play specialists from Great Ormond Street Hospital has revealed the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on children’s play.

An image of the digital origami house featured in the exhibition.
An image of the digital origami house featured in the exhibition.
  • From Covid-testing teddy bears to celebrating birthdays in Minecraft, new research from the University of Sheffield and University College London (UCL) uncovers children’s creativity and resilience in the face of Covid-19 pandemic
  • Insights from the Play Observatory study are being showcased in the Young V&A’s first online interactive exhibition 
  • The exhibition demonstrates how play brings out resourcefulness in children and their families, and fosters wellbeing in difficult times
  • Play In The Pandemic opens two years to the day when ministers announced the first round of Covid-19 social restrictions

New research from the University of Sheffield, University College London (UCL) and play specialists from Great Ormond Street Hospital has revealed the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on children’s play.

Contributions to the collaborative Play Observatory study have been used to curate the Young V&A’s first ever online exhibition, Play In The Pandemic, which will be launched on Wednesday 23 March 2022, exactly two years on since the prime minister announced the first national lockdown. 

Spanning 2020 to 2022, the Play In The Pandemic research project invited children, their families, schools, groups and organisations to submit their experiences of play during the period through the Play Observatory’s online research survey led by the University of Sheffield School of Education. 

The public call-out generated 100s of global submissions from the UK to Australia ranging from music videos to digital magazines and artworks created by children, alongside films by parents showing their kids splashing in puddles or making snow angels.

Dr Julia Bishop from the University of Sheffield School of Education, said: “The research showcases how children responded to the challenges of social restrictions experienced all over the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Children used digital technologies to innovate new ways to engage with, and learn from objects, settings, and the people around them. Creating ways to connect to each other through performance, art and online interaction, as well as updating traditional games such as ‘tag’ for a digital setting, with the ‘chaser’ now being a coronavirus.”

She added: “We also found children explored alternative ways of connecting with others closer to home, recording their experiences interacting with the outdoors by adapting traditional games like scavenger hunts to explore nature and wildlife in their communities.

“We found that children expressed their understanding of the world and the events happening around them by incorporating them into their play, using their recreation time as a way to transcend some of the pandemic’s constraints  or find humorous moments within the situation mirroring children through the ages inventing their own games and rules to make sense of their world.”

The research project, which is still accepting contributions from children around the world, and exhibition show how resourceful and creative children and their families were during the successive national lockdowns, and their experiences give invaluable insights into the pandemic for future generations.

Dr Yinka Olusoga from the University of Sheffield School of Education led the online research survey for the project. She said: “Our survey aims to preserve information about children’s experiences during the pandemic which can be used as a historical record. We placed the child at the centre of our design as we want to hear about children and young people’s play from them, and their families, in their own words.

“One source of inspiration for the study was the work of Iona and Peter Opie and their surveys of play and folklore in the second half of the 20th century. 21st century technology means that as well as children’s own words, contributions have also included drawings, photographs, and films. These illustrate the numerous ways in which children have maintained and adapted play to connect, communicate and create.”

The interactive online experience, a first for the Young V&A, is based on contributions from the research project and takes the form of an unfolding origami house. Inspired by children’s activities, the playful design reflects how homes were the settings for many pandemic experiences.

Capturing moments of fun and light-heartedness including Barbies taking part in Joe Wicks’ PE classes, face painting, and beach walks, the exhibition juxtaposes these with expressions of anxiety and grief recorded in children’s art and poetry from the time.

The exhibition shows that even the youngest contributors were aware of Covid-19 and how the pandemic became integrated into their playtime, including toddlers Covid-testing their teddy bears and creating make-shift face-coverings for hospital role play and finding extreme escapism though dress-up and imaginative play.

Katy Canales, Online Exhibition Producer at the Young V&A, said: “The devastating effects of the global pandemic have impacted everyone – especially children and young people, who saw their lives upended as schools and playgrounds closed, were isolated from their friends and extended families, and restricted to their homes. 

“Championing, co-curating and co-producing with children is central to Young V&A’s approach – and the Play In The Pandemic project strives to capture and amplify their voices and experiences, celebrating their resourcefulness, creativity, and empathy through a new playful online interactive experience. By collaborating with families and working alongside researchers at UCL and University of Sheffield, this project has caught a unique moment in children’s lives, providing insights into the pandemic for generations to come.”

Project lead, Professor John Potter, from IOE and UCL’s Faculty for Education and Society, added: “I am immensely proud of this project, the work of the whole team and our collaboration with Young V&A, the University of Sheffield and Great Ormond Street Hospital. We owe a great deal to the contributors, the children’s parents and carers who shared their experiences with such honesty and enthusiasm. We have put the spotlight on play as something which can foster wellbeing and resourcefulness of children and their families in difficult times.

“We’ve also heard about when things didn’t go well and about the deeply mixed feelings and strong emotions children felt since Covid started affecting their lives. This project has enabled us to move the discussion on from ‘learning loss’ as the only effect of the pandemic on childhood and given us a chance to reflect on how children may respond now and in the future to crises and emergencies. I hope the exhibition and project will move those who interact with it and help to illustrate how play is not just ephemeral and transient, but something which is central and essential in our lives.”

About Play In The Pandemic

  • The research collaboration included the University of Sheffield, UCL’s Faculty For Education and Society and Institute for Education (IOE) and play specialists from Great Ormond Street Hospital. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The exhibition is organised into four themes: Constructing, Imagining, Exploring and Innovating, with each theme exploring three different modes of children’s play.

Constructing looks at how children use play to build their understanding and control situations that they find difficult to process. During the first and second national lockdowns, children created safe spaces, like dens, to play in. They made artworks that conveyed hopes, joys and fears, as well as small worlds with their toys, often playing out real-life scenarios in a safe setting. Highlights include a sitting room den created by Sheffield-based Rosie Whitehead’s children aged one and three and a poignant lino print I Don’t Want Life To Go Back To Normal I Want It To Go Back Better and film submitted by eight-year old Woody, who is autistic, and his father Sonny Adorjan.

Also displayed is the drawing Germs and Hand-Sanitiser by 4-year-old Cadi from Pontarddulais, shown alongside Young V&A’s Study of a gas mask made between 1939 and 1942 by Byron Dun, aged between 11 and 14 at the time. These works speak to how art has been used to respond to crises over time – and how items such as masks, protective equipment and hand sanitisers have become normalised everyday items for children.

Imagining explores how during the pandemic, children used their imaginations to conjure up moments of escapism and comic relief. Making and using props, telling stories and creating performances enabled children to play with reality and immerse themselves in alternative scenarios. Highlights include the poem All Alone by 9-year-old Austin Coolin from North Walsham and 11-year-old Leo Kelly’s music video Lost Without You, juxtaposed with objects from Young V&A’s Eileen Brock Archive packed with theatre programmes, sheet music, costume and plays. Growing up between the Wars in the 20th Century, and following the loss of her father, Eileen and her mother found happiness in performing.

Exploring focuses on how outside exploration makes for happier, healthier, and more confident children. During the UK’s first and second national lockdowns children’s access to places and playmates outside the home were restricted. In response to these limitations, play became more localised. Families began exploring their neighbourhoods during their daily walks. Gardens, window boxes and parks provided fertile ground for seasonal play and some communities devised activities like scavenger hunts and nature trails for families to engage with and explore while following restrictions. Highlights include photos and films documenting children and their families taking part in outdoor treasure hunts, nature trails and building forts in the snow. The exhibition also includes examples from the Donne Buck Archive of Play and Playgrounds archive, which have been used to highlight the ongoing importance of having dedicated spaces for children to play.

Innovation explores how children are constantly exploring and innovating new ways to engage with and learn from objects, settings, and the people around them. During the national lockdowns, many children who were fortunate enough to have access to digital devices used them to transform their school and recreational activities into more stimulating, and enjoyable pursuits. They developed ways to connect socially with friends, family, and peers, and to voice their ideas with a broader audience. For other children, this was a period to disconnect from digital technology. A time in which to devise and discover activities and interests away from the screen and to explore alternative ways of connecting with others. Across history, children have been inventing their own games and rules for friends and family to enjoy – submissions show that families came up with games including ‘Chase’ and ‘Café’ and played old favourites like Monopoly together during the pandemic. These instances sit alongside a cricket-inspired game from the Young V&A collection, which was created, developed and played by generations of the Ellerman family from the 1930s onwards.

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