Photograph © Raymond Townsend

The Play Observatory: A National Observatory of Children's Play Experiences During COVID-19

The Play Observatory (November 2020 - March 2022) was an Economic and Social Research Council-funded, UKRI rapid response call project that brought together researchers from the UCL Institute of Education, the School of Education at the University of Sheffield, and The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children's play. 

Recognising that the coronavirus pandemic was having a huge impact on children and young people, affecting where, when, how and with whom they can socialise and play, the Play Observatory set out to learn more about their experiences during this unusual time in history. By combining what began as a nationwide (but which became, through contributions, an international) survey of children's play across a range of settings with ethnographic research, the project sought to act as an 'observatory', seeking a panoramic view of young people's play, peer cultures and social lives. 
The study followed in the footsteps of Iona and Peter Opie's mass survey of schoolchildren from around Britain from the 1950s onwards, in its intention to prioritise children's voices and centre their experiences, including their feelings, during their play and leisure activities. Children were invited to act as observers and reporters of their own play by submitting examples to the Play Observatory online survey. The interdisciplinary team collected examples of indoor, outdoor and imaginary play, including digital play. Contributions were also invited from children's families, and other adults, from schools, youth groups and organisations.  

The project asked

The project outcomes include


Cowan, K; Potter, J; Olusoga, Y; Bannister, C; Bishop, J C; Cannon, M; Sigorelli, 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) pp. 8-17. 

Cowan, K., Potter, J. and Cannon, M. (forthcoming 2022). Researching Children's Play Using Online Ethnographic Case Studies: Insights from the Play Observatory. SAGE Research Methods: Doing Research Online. 

Olusoga, Y., Bannister, C., Bishop, J C. and Signorelli, V. (forthcoming 2022). Preserving the Present: Designing a Child-Centered Qualitative Survey for a National Observatory of Children's Play. Sage Research Methods: Doing Research Online

Project Team:

University College London
John Potter (Principal Investigator)
Kate Cowan (Co-Investigator)
Michelle Cannon (Co-Investigator)
Valerio Signorelli (Co-Investigator)

The University of Sheffield
Yinka Olusoga (Co-Investigator)
Julia C. Bishop (Research Associate)
Catherine Bannister (Research Associate)

Archival Consultant
Steve Roud, Independent researcher 

Project Partners
Young V&A
Great Ormond Street Hospital
British Library