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This event was held on Thursday 23rd June. The recording is available below.

In this Nesta talks to… Dr Jenny Gibson, Chief Scientist at Nesta, is joined by Dr Yinka Olusoga, a lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield and co-investigator of The Play Observatory. Jenny and Dr Olusoga explore the changing role of play in children’s development throughout a pandemic and an increasingly digital age.

For parents, caregivers and childcare workers, it can be a daunting task to try and work out which activities – online or offline – contribute positively to a child’s development. Dr Olusoga’s interdisciplinary research and commitment to understanding the lived experiences of children has led to new insights on how the practice of playtime can help children to socialise, learn and grow.

The discussion began with exploring Dr Olusoga’s findings from her most recent research, The Play Observatory, which explores how children’s play has changed in recent years. It examines the effect of the pandemic on children’s developmental play in order to improve wellbeing. Dr Olusoga discussed her ethnographic research, which involved collecting data about children’s play practices from a variety of rich sources such as video, drawing and in-depth interviews.

Despite gloomy news headlines on the damaging impact of the pandemic on children’s development, the results of the study were very hopeful, Dr Olusoga explained. Children were very productive in the development of play practices, playing in new spaces, with new people and combined skills to generate new ones, both online and in person. There were many notable instances of children recontextualising rituals they had experienced (birthdays, funerals and others) into digital spaces, challenging the idea that digital play is impoverished and showing children are preoccupied with contemporary ideas in their play.

It is in an adult’s nature to underestimate the power of children’s play, says Dr Olusoga. In reality play is deeper and more complex than many adults realise. Children spend a lot of time processing emotion and rehearsing things they are exposed to in their everyday lives during play, Dr Olusoga explains. Play has also been shown as an effective way for young children to process trauma.

As the discussion came to an end, Jenny and Dr Olusoga turned to the future of the study of play. Dr Olusoga is hoping her research will help to change narratives around play and encourage us to be more open about the idea of adult play. When we refuse to label any fun activities we do as adults as ‘play’, we serve to devalue how children play, she explains. Research consistently demonstrates the value of playing to both adults and children.

The session ended looking to the future of education in the UK. Dr Olusoga hopes to see the UK adopting an education system closer to the Scandinavian model, whereby children stay out of “formal” education (that focuses on traditional subjects such as numeracy and literacy) until the age of seven, allowing more time for children to develop through experimental play. This system draws less of a sharp distinction between play and “academia” and consistently produces excellent educational and wellbeing outcomes. She hopes that her research will help to draw policy-maker’s attention to the importance of play in children’s development.

The opinions expressed in this event recording are those of the speaker. For more information, view our full statement on external contributors.


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Dr Yinka Olusoga


Dr Yinka Olusoga is a lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield, Co-Investigator of The Play Observatory and previously a primary and nursery teacher in Birmingham, Liverpool and London. Dr Olusoga has led and taught on initial teacher education courses in Bradford and Leeds, specialising in the early years 0-7 age range. In 2019 she moved to the University of Sheffield where she co-leads their interdisciplinary undergraduate degree, the BA in Education, Culture and Childhood. Dr Olusoga’s researches children’s play and cultural worlds, past, present and future. She is the Director of the British Academy Research Project Childhoods and Play. Her current research interests focus on intergenerational and intercultural play and storytelling and on the co-construction of inclusive networks and spaces for play.


Dr Jenny Gibson


Dr Jenny Gibson is Chief Scientist at Nesta and Associate Professor in Psychology and Education, University of Cambridge. She leads the Play and Communication Lab (PacLab) at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, a team investigating the role of play, language, cognition, and neurodiversity in human development. She also leads Nesta's practice teams in a number of areas, bringing these methods together, ensuring rigour and leading methodological innovation.