Playing Out with IoT

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment


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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Dylan T (2021) Lanterns

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Dylan T (2019) Play Poles

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Torres P (2021) A systematic review of physical-digital play technology and developmentally relevant child behaviour in International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction

Description Playing Out with IoT conducted a range of participatory design work with children, schools and children's' groups. Our research outputs explore possible roles for IoT in outdoor play by running design activities with children. We are also evidencing the ability of IoT to engage children meaningfully and creatively through the evaluation of resulting designs. Our Project Blog will give you an idea of our activities and the kinds of IoT devices we are making with children. Throughout the project, we have been working with and responding to children in local communities so we can align our designs as closely as possible with their own play interests. Relatedly, we are putting together a range of resources as Instructables that will allow children and parents to create and use some of our IoT play inventions. We aim to make our work as accessible as possible by using off the shelf IoT devices alongside our own kits and guides that make use of freely available materials.
Exploitation Route Postdoc TD has now gained a permanent academic post at a UK university and is seeking to shape their EPSRC NIA application in this space.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

Description Playing Out with IoT was a project grounded in community collaboration and activity. Extensive research in the wild was done with children from our two community group collaborators - the Cedarwood Trust at Meadow Well in North Shields and BeChange in Aylesham, Canterbury. Dozens of engagements with these two partners were conducted, many - but not all - are documented in the project's research publications. Throughout the project, we worked with and responded to children in these local community places so we could align our designs as closely as possible with their own play interests. We aimed to make our work as accessible as possible by using off the shelf IoT devices alongside our own kits and guides that make use of freely available materials. This enabled us to share our designs to a wider audience and make them available for download and home build. These are documented for instance on researcher Tommy Dylan's webpages here and here A lasting relationship in particular has been built with the community at Meadow Well. Researcher Gavin Wood has continued to develop digital playing out prototypes based on inexpensive off-the-shelf devices such the BBC micro:bit. Streetimals for instance are pocket sized digital play-objects made using craft materials and electronics and again are designed to encourage children to play outside. Streetimals can be used in games, such as hide and seek and tag, games that require balance, for example, on balance beams in adventure playgrounds, or just used by children to better understand their environment. Gavin has used the concept of Instructables to allows community groups, parents etc to download the resources necessary to build the game prototypes. These are available here We worked extensively on the project with the activist group Playing Out, based in Bristol. One of the end points of the project was to be a policy influencing "round table" event. The initial plan was to hold this in London in May/June 2020 prior to the close of the project at end of July 2020. We had booked a room in central London and had a list of 20 invitees, including representatives from the project. Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England had agreed to chair it. Because of lockdown however this became impossible. We considered moving it to an online event but the pandemic was occupying everyone's attention and also it would have lost too much in terms of discussion and complexity. Playing Out as an organisation conducted some policy related work part-funded by the project and continue to be an active voice in raising awareness of the need to restoring children's freedom to play out in the streets and spaces where they live.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Centre for Digital Citizens - Next Stage Digital Economy Centre
Amount £3,797,252 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/T022582/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 10/2025
Description Worksop at CHI 2019, Glasgow titled""Wantae Come Oot tae Play?": Designing for Outdoor Play" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This workshop will bring together a diverse group of people to explore outdoor play for all ages by drawing on participants' design and research expertise. We will venture into Glasgow to find inspiration, experiment with new design opportunities and plan actionable research in this exciting and challenging domain.

Gavin Wood, Northumbria University, UK
Jon Back, Uppsala University, Sweden
Jaz Choi, RMIT University, Australia
Thomas Dylan, Northumbria University, UK
Julie R. Williamson, University of Glasgow, UK
Marti Louw, Carnegie Mellon University, USA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019