Phase One -Sensory Play Research Project - 2009
From early on in their lives, babies, toddlers and young children use their senses (hearing, vision, touch, smell and taste, together with the vital inner senses) to literally make sense of the world around them. We know from research that the sensory experiences, which children enjoy in their environment, shape their brain and influence their development and learning. We also know that, over the years, children have fewer opportunities for sensory play experiences as TV, computers, console games and the increased fears of child safety outdoors may mean that children's sensory experiences have decreased.
With this in mind, Play to Z launched a pilot project in May 2009, in conjunction with Anglia Ruskin University, (and part funded by the East of England Development Agency) to research children's sensory play experiences through observations and questionnaires. Professor Theodora Papatheodorou from the Faculty of Education - Anglia Ruskin University, oversaw the design of the Sensory Play Research project. Together with her team she was also responsible for analysing the research findings. A key aspect of the research was investigating children's responses to Treasure Baskets, baskets of sensory rich natural and everyday objects that are believed to be great for brain and physical development and encouraging problem solving and creativity.
Phase One Questionnaire Results
146 questionnaires were returned completed which makes a response rate of 22.46%. The questionnaires were collected within a period of 22 June to 10 July 2009. The SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) was used for the analysis of the quantitative data to produce descriptive statistics.
An overwhelming 82% of those surveyed believe that play has changed. Reasons for this range from technological advances, more things for children to choose from, the media being influential as to what children want to play with and children having less freedom to explore outside. The research showed that the majority of children are playing indoors, and this is considerably higher when compared to where their parents used to play. Only 24 % of the parents played indoors. With fewer children having the opportunity to play outdoors, they are not provided with the experience to explore the world of outdoor play which has been an integral part of parents childhood's when they have recalled their favourite memories.
68% of parent's most memorable experiences were recalled outdoors. They recalled vivid, descriptive memories of being outside in the woods, making rose petal perfume and mud pies. Although parents recalled their favourite and memorable experiences as being outside, it seems their children have less opportunity to forge similar memories from play outdoors. Such sensory experiences have had a powerful influence on adult’s memories and have even been linked to forging positive relationships with nature and the outdoor environment in. A wealth of research also supports the positive health and emotionally restorative benefits of accessing green spaces and water (e.g. Evans and Wells 2003; Kuo and Taylor 2004; Barton and Pretty 2010) and yet children today are substantially missing out on these benefits.
Children are playing more with plastic & manufactured toys
Adults reported that the toys they had as children were made mostly from natural resources (72.6%), followed by plastic materials (67.1%), with recycled materials in the third place (47.9%). In contrast children’s toys today are made mostly from plastic resources (76.0%), followed by natural resources (65.1%). Recycled materials are still in the third place, but there is a slight increase considering respondents’ generations (52.1%).
Children are playing with less with their siblings & parents
The respondents reported that as children, they played mostly with other children/friends (76.5%), followed by siblings (67.1%) and on their own (58.9%). Their children, today, continue to play with other children and friends (64.4%), followed by playing on their own (56.8%) and siblings (52.1%)
Children are playing less outside, especially in ‘wild/natural’ spaces
The respondents reported that as children they played mostly in the garden (81.5%), followed by indoors (63.5%) and parks/open spaces in the neighbourhood (61.6%). Their children today play mostly in the garden (75.3%) and indoors (67.1%). Local equipped facilities are in the third place (43.2%) with parks and open spaces following in the fourth place. Play in the garden and at structured areas inside or outside appear to have taken the place of free play outside.
Children are playing more inside
Children today play mostly in the garden (75.3%) and indoors (67.1%), however considering the respondents’ generations the frequency of playing indoors has increased with playing in the garden being reduced.
Phase One Observation Findings
The observations were conducted in four early years settings (2 nurseries, 1 Children’s Centre and 1 Primary school) as well as one home over a period of a week, commencing 15 June 2009. Observations were of the duration of 20-30 minutes or of the duration of children’s play with the treasure basket, in the case of the home observations, an hour or longer. In total 25 different observation sessions took place observing 77 children throughout the country. The research project revealed the following:
As with research generally it also identified lots more questions than answers!
Phase Two – Pilot Neuroscience Research
In 2010/11 a pilot neuroscience research project was instigated by Play to Z in conjunction with Games for Life (a not-for profit organisation specialising in brain mapping technology) and the University of Hertfordshire. The research focussed on mapping brain activity in 3- to 4-year-olds during Treasure Basket play (Khan 2011) helps cast a lens on the wonders of the brain. As a small scale pilot project utilising cutting edge brain equipment the sample size shrunk from seven 3- to 4-year-olds in the preliminary stage, to one child providing useable data. As such it is not possible to draw any conclusions. However, the project did highlight further areas to be explored with a larger sample size. Watch this space to read a summary of tentative findings, coming soon.
Phase Three – Activity Centre Observations
In 2011 Sue Gascoyne carried out weekly observations of Treasure Basket play in an Activity Centre over a 6 month period. The data from over 20 observations of Treasure Basket play sessions with children across the ages was used to test emerging thinking. A treasure basket behaviour observational template was developed for practitioners and parents to use as a basis for identifying a series of typical Treasure Basket behaviours. If you would like to take part in the ongoing testing of these findings download the observation sheet here. Return (copies) of any completed forms to Play to Z Ltd, PO Box 9978, Colchester, CO1 9FTfor analysis.
Many of you have contacted us about being involved in ongoing research. A number of discrete observational-based research projects are currently underway. If you would like to be involved please contact us at email@example.com.
Finding Out More
If you would like to read more about the various research findings you can do so in Sue’s latest Open University book - Treasure Baskets and Beyond – Realizing the Potential of Sensory-rich Play link.