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Exhibition launches exploring how Covid-19 impacted children’s play

23 March 2022

A new online exhibition highlighting children’s experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic has launched today (23 March), exactly two years since it was announced that the UK would enter a national lockdown to combat the spread of the virus.

Child sat in den playing xylophone

The Play in The Pandemic exhibition showcases contributions to a collaborative research project involving IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, the UCL Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and the School of Education at the University of Sheffield.

From 2020 to 2022, the Play Observatory research project invited children, their families, schools, groups and organisations to submit their experiences of play during the pandemic through an online survey. The public call-out generated hundreds of submissions from the UK and across the world, ranging from music videos to digital magazines and art created by children. There were also films by parents showing their kids splashing in puddles or making snow angels.

Launched by Young V&A and hosted on the Play Observatory website, the exhibition is organised into four themes: Constructing, Imagining, Exploring and Innovating, with each theme exploring different modes of children’s play. The exhibition takes the form of an unfolding origami house – inspired by children’s activities, the playful design reflects how people’s 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.

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Katy Canales, Online Exhibition Producer, 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.”

Dr Yinka Olusoga from the School of Education at the University of Sheffield led the online research survey for the project which is still seeking contributions from children. She said: “Our survey aims to preserve for the historical record information about children’s experiences during the pandemic. 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 was the work of Iona and Peter Opie and their surveys of play and folklore in the second half of the 20th century. Twenty-first 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.”

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Professor John Potter (IOE, UCL’s Faculty for Education and Society) added: “I am immensely proud of this project, the work of the whole team at UCL and the University of Sheffield, and our collaboration with Young V&A, Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the British Library. 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.”

The research project ‘A National Observatory of Children’s Play Experiences During COVID-19’ was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash