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.

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.”