Lego Foundation's £4m grant for play research

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A new research centre dedicated to the role of play in the early years is being established at Cambridge University, thanks to a grant from the Lego Foundation, the toymaker’s charitable arm.

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Jenny Gibson, Sara Baker and Dr David Whitbread from the PEDAL team, at the launch

The Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), which has just launched, will initially be working with children from birth to three in local nurseries and health clinics, to develop research about the role of play and how play develops.

Another strand of the research will examine the potential of using play-based approaches within schools.

Dr David Whitebread, PEDAL’s acting director, told Nursery World, ‘One of the motivations for setting up this centre is that there’s a crisis in childhood at the moment and productive play opportunities for children are very curtailed - within their homes, communities and schooling.

'The kinds of skills and accomplishments that are widely recognised as being vital components of 21st century educational provision, including critical thinking, problem-solving, interpersonal abilities, emotional resilience and creativity, have all been linked theoretically and empirically to playfulness and playful learning.

'The centre is hoping to provide serious scientific evidence that hopefully in the long run will persuade people that we need more of this within educational context.’

Pilots are already underway in Reception and Year 1 classes in selected Cambridge schools to look at the role of play in education. The work currently focuses on children’s early understanding of science and researchers are setting up exploratory play opportunities to find out if a playful approach to early science can enhance their understanding of the physical and biological world in a way that normal teaching does not.

The other driving force behind the centre’s work is the fact that play remains a ‘relatively under-researched area within developmental science’ with ‘many fundamental questions still unanswered’, said Dr Whitebread.

He added, ‘An invigorated research effort in this area will constitute a significant contribution to understandings about the importance of play and the development, internationally, of high quality education, particularly in the area of early childhood.’

A new post of Lego Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning has been created to lead the current team of six. The appointment has not yet been made, but will start at the beginning of the next academic year. The Lego Foundation funding allows for the cost of support and research staff for an initial three-year period.

Cambridge University and the Lego Foundation have a history of collaboration. PLaNS, a playful writing project, is a recent example of their work together. It looks at how writing using Lego bricks can help in the teaching environment.

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