IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Playing Out with the Internet of Things (IoT)

Technologies to enable children to transform their neighbourhoods into digitally enhanced playgrounds.

Boy playing outside using imagination

Nov 2017 - Dec 2020 | Funded by: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Fewer and fewer children now play outside. This reduction in outdoor active play - or 'playing-out' - has led to a whole range of concerns around health, wellbeing and development causing international calls-to-action to address the issue.

A team of researchers from UCL, University of Newcastle, University of Northumbria and University of Kent are investigating the opportunity for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to enable children to transform their neighbourhoods into digitally enhanced playgrounds and adventures. 

Project team

A contributing factor behind the reduction of outside play is an increased reluctance amongst parents to allow children to be unsupervised outside due to concerns about the safety of their neighbourhoods, and in particular, increasing traffic and 'strangers'.

As fewer children play outside, neighbourhoods, towns and cities are becoming 'play deserts': places where there are neither formal nor informal opportunities for outdoor play, and where play is simply not welcome anymore.

While children are playing outside increasingly less, they play online increasingly more. The under-9-year-old age group are understood to use the internet to search for information, to socialise and to play games. However, while they are consuming increasing amounts of content online, they continue to have little opportunity to create and share their own digital content about their lives.

This is made worse by an extensive focus on video media for sharing experiences using social media platforms such as YouTube and Vine. Parents and society alike share concerns around children's internet safety causing formal services, such as YouTube Kids, to emphasis the child as a content consumer, rather than producer.


With various factors leading to this shift in children's play, such as neighbourhood safety concerns and an increased internet consumption, this project aims to respond to these real-world interrelated problems by utilising the technological and societal changes that confront it.

The research project aims to discover whether the 'Playing Out' IoT changes:

  • children's play behaviours
  • a child's relationship with their neighbourhood
  • impacts on the play opportunities in a community and/or
  • parent-child interactions.

To gain the most accurate understanding on the impact of the technology, observations, interviews and questionnaire surveys will be undertaken in both locations. A content analysis will be undertaken to analyse the kinds of play created.

  1. To develop an IoT toolkit and infrastructure which supports the under 9s in creating outdoor play interactions and experiences outside their own front doors in their own neighbourhoods.
  2. To develop a play engine where under 9s can safely create and share digital stories through their actions and interactions driven by meta-data collected about their IoT-based play. The action generated meta-data about a child's play is used to index into other children's play-based stories. Children can re-program their IoT based on story's created by other children's play.
  3. To develop and test a conceptual framework which links child development, theories of play and narrative learning to specify new forms of IoT-based play.
  4. To develop an evaluation framework for investigating the relationship between digital content creation, child development and learning.
  5. To generate empirical evidence of the impact of digital content creation in the under 9s, in terms of both child development and community interactions.
  6. To stimulate community discussion and debate about children's voice within society, the role of play in childhood and to change the acceptability of unstructured, outdoor play.
  7. To facilitate transfer of learning related to augmented children's play at a local policy level through Policy Roundtables in two communities.
How IoT works

IoT refers to the idea that objects within our surroundings can be connected with the environment and the internet to offer new kinds of services; an entirely new mode of digital content that children, or anyone, can create and share.

For example, a child can create an IoT to augment bricks in a wall to provide temporal targets for their football practice. The technology then allows the user alternative modes to document and share play, taking the meta-data from their play to program to another child's IoT to test and compare both their skills. 

The research team proposes that by creating new opportunities for play that draw on children's existing interest and use of digital and social technologies, we can motivate children to play out more.

Research process

The project pursued an action orientated 'in the wild' program of research, working directly with the Cedarwood Trust in Meadow Well, BeChange in Aylesham, Playing Out CIC in Bristol and SAMLabs.


In order to facilitate these kinds of interactions the team seeked to understand and test:

  • the kind of support children would need to set-up their own IoTs for playing out
  • how children would negotiate and create stories around this content which they could safely share.

The data collected from a child's play with IoTs could potentially be a method to:

  • record the experience of a child's play without compromising their anonymity
  • help them share that play with others to try out.


Following testing, the technologies were co-designed and developed to support the under 9s in creating digitally-augmented outside play.

Using participatory design methods, the team worked closely with under 9s in both communities to design the tools and the kinds of play they facilitate.