Playing Out with IoT

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Computer Science


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 as well as continued international calls-to-action to address the issue. Factors behind reductions in playing-out include an increased reluctance of 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 play outside less and less, children play online more and more. The under 9s use the internet to search for information, to socialize and to play games. But, while the under 9s are readily understood to consume 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, where parents and society share many concerns around children's internet safety, and where formal services such as YouTube Kids emphasizes the child as a content consumer, rather than producer.

We respond to these real-world interrelated problems by investigating the opportunity for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to enable children to transform their neighbourhoods into digitally enhanced playgrounds and adventures. IoT refers to the idea that objects within our environments can be continually connected with the environment and the internet to offer new kinds of services. We think about IoTs as an entirely new mode of digital content that children (or anyone) can create and share. We imagine, for example, how IoT technologies can scaffold a child's play - e.g. a child can create an IoT to augment bricks in a wall to provide temporal targets for her football practice - as well as provide alternative modes to document and share play - e.g. a child can share media of her football practice, and her play's meta-data can be used to program another child's IoT to test and compare their own skills. We propose that by creating new opportunities for play which draw on children's interests and use in digital and social technologies that we can motivate children to play out more. In order to facilitate these kinds of interactions we need to understand and test the kind of support children would need to set-up their own IoTs for playing out, as well as how children would negotiate and create stories around this content which they could safely share. We think making use of the data sensed and collected about a child's play with IoTs could be an interesting way to both record the experience of a child's play while preserving a child's anonymity, and help them share that play with others to try out.

This project will pursue 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. Together we will co-design and develop technologies which support the under 9s in creating digitally-augmented outside play. We will use participatory design methods to achieve this, working closely with under 9s in both communities to design the tools and the kinds of play they facilitate. We are keen to know whether our 'Playing Out' IoT changes children's play behaviours, changes a child's relationship with their neighbourhood, impacts on the play opportunities in a community, or improves parent-child interactions. To help us understand the impact of our technology we will undertake observations, interviews and questionnaire surveys in both locations. We will also undertake a content analysis of the kinds of play created.

Planned Impact

There are numerous potential direct beneficiaries of this research:

The Public: This project is focused on working alongside three currently under-served communities to design and develop new IoT technologies and an infrastructure to encourage under 9s in 'playing out'. It will enhance play service provision for the under 9s and their families, providing new opportunities for parent-child interactions, child-peer interactions and child development. Our Play Engine will enable children and communities to share their play with one another, this will serve to increase creativity around playing out, creating ever more motivation to be outside and to play. It is highly likely that this research will enhance quality of life, health and wellbeing in these areas, as well as improve social welfare and social cohesion in the participating communities. We anticipate that our work with these communities will bring positive media attention, enabling these stigmatized communities (for example Meadow Well is still most well-known for riots in the early 90s) to emphasise the creativity and community spirit embedded in their neighbourhoods. By documenting our activities online (through social media and a project website), alongside pursuing regional and national press coverage, we will highlight the ways in which Internet of Things technologies can enhance the play assets of a community, creating rich evidence of the kinds of play children want supported in their communities, and cost-effective strategies for supporting this.

Third Sector Organisations: This project is committed to leaving the developed toolkits and infrastructure with both Cedarwood Trust, BeChange and Playing Out CIC after the project ends, and providing ongoing technical support for these tools until end of 2020, thereby directly increasing the assets available to these organisations. We will also work with organisations to produce a play-led computer science curriculum which can support those organisations in developing the technical capabilities of their community, as well as support local schools in delivering a computer science curriculum. Through working together, we will be able to develop action research case studies to provide exemplars of digital enhanced outdoor play offering rich evidence to support the strategic transfer of these highly contextualized results to other similar community-based charitable organisations. Based on deepened working relationships with these organisations we will be able to develop future research collaborations and funding opportunities.

Businesses: Working with SAMLabs we will develop an extension of their existing toolkit which incorporates outdoor play, thus demonstrating new opportunities for IoTs. Our Play Engine will be made available to SAMLabs to support the development of their online community, and to enable continued investigation of the use of meta-data for sharing experience and re-programming IoT. Additionally, the guidelines and digital toolkit we produce will support other organisations and businesses in the development of platforms and services which support the under 9s in content consumption, creation and sharing. We will also work with the EDUCATE project led by Luckin, which starts in November 2016. EDUCATE is a unique physical and virtual co-working space for researchers, research spinoffs, technology startUps/SMEs and beneficiaries. It is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and supported by Nesta, F6S and the Education Foundation. EDUCATE translates research investment into new and better technology products and services, stimulates demand for products, and enables researchers to commercialise their research. SMEs are mentored to work with researchers and beneficiaries (their customers) to evaluate the value of their products. The EDUCATE project will enable the Playing Out team to meet with over 50 companies during the project's lifetime to foster routes for commercial exploitation.


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