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PLAY Symposium, 20-22 April 2021

Why do children play? What is play? How can playful learning environments be cultivated?

In this three-day Symposium on play research, researchers from PlayTrack (Aarhus University), PEDAL (University of Cambridge) and Pedagogy of Play (Harvard University) ask the ‘Why, What and How’ of play. Each day, a great line-up of speakers from a variety of disciplines will attempt to answer each of these questions in turn, followed by collective discussion and reflections.

See below the full programme, separated for each of the three days.

For each of the three days, the program is between:

  • 2.00 PM - 5.30 PM Central European Time (CET)
  • 1.00 PM - 4.30 PM British Summer Time (BST)
  • 8:00 AM - 11.30 AM Eastern Standard Time (EST)  


Contact Information

If you have any questions, ideas, or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch with Mihaela or Marc.

For more information of the involved Research Groups, please see: 

Program Overview

Program Day 1

Tuesday April 20 CET 14:00-17:30 pm / BST 13:00 - 16:30 pm / EST 8:00 - 11:30 am (times below are listed in DK time)


Day 1. WHY do children play?

Organised by PlayTrack, IMC, Aarhus University


On day 1 of the symposium, we will explore this question from a series of perspectives over the course of two sessions. In the first session, we will explore a recently proposed neurocognitive theory of play as well as a perspective on play as a socially optimised learning context. In the second session, we will consider how play can uniquely support children in their development of coping skills as well as considering the relationship between play and essential forms of meta-cognition. For both sessions, attendees and speakers will discuss these perspectives on why it is that humans in general, and children in particular, play.  

Time CETPresenter/ActivityTitle
Session I
14:00-14:10Mihaela Taranu & Andreas RoepstorffWelcome
14:10-14:30Marc M. Andersen"Play and Prediction Error Minimisation"
14:30-14:50Jenny Gibson"Why do we play? Play as a social learning context"
14:50-15:10Breakout rooms DiscussionsSmall groups discussions based on the presentations
15:10-15:30DiscussionPlenary discussions
Session II
16:00-16:20Lynneth Solis"The role of play experiences in helping
children cope with stress and trauma"
16:20-16:40Savhannah Schulz"How We Think through Play"
16:40-17:00Breakout rooms DiscussionsSmall groups discussions based on the presentations  
17:00-17:20DiscussionPlenary discussions 
17:20-17:30Andreas RoepstorffSummary and ending thoughts


Marc Malmdorf Andersen
Play and Prediction Error Minimisation

Abstract: Why do children play? Why does play help children learn? Why is playing fun? In this talk, I will attempt to address these questions and illustrate how they are related. In doing so, I will utilise an emerging neurocognitive framework known as 'Predictive Processing', which claims that everything the brain does ultimately can be explained in terms of prediction error minimisation. I will argue that children play because they are ultimately looking for ways to improve their current strategies for prediction error minimisation, which not only helps them grow as efficient learners, but also is great fun.  

Bio: Marc Malmdorf Andersen is assistant professor at the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University. His research focuses on the relationship between play, enjoyment and learning, using experimental approaches and cognitive frameworks, and his research has been published in journals such as Psychological Science, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences and Poetics, and his new book Play comes out in 2021. 


Jenny Gibson 
Why do we play? Play as a socially optimised learning context 

Abstract: Playing with others is good for you! In this talk I will explore the ways in which play with caregivers and peers may function as a developmentally optimal context for fostering social competences. I will draw on evidence from longitudinal analyses of the Growing Up in Australia and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children cohorts. These analyses show that in general population samples, good quality caregiver play, peer play and friendships in the early years reduce risk of later mental health challenges. These effects hold even when accounting for family economic background, child temperament and other important demographics. For subgroups of children with higher risk of difficulties, effects hold for hyperactivity and conduct problems but not emotional difficulties. I will discuss findings with a view to understanding the role of play in typical and atypical social development. 

Bio: Jenny Gibson is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Psychology & Education at the University of Cambridge. She leads the Play & Communication Lab that sits within the PEDAL research centre and is interested in topics at the intersection of play, neurodiversity and child development.


Lynneth Solis
The role of play experiences in helping children cope with stress and trauma

Abstract: A robust body of literature demonstrates the negative impact of toxic stress on children's wellbeing, and the critical role that protective factors, including strong caregiver relationships, can have in protecting children against the negative effects of persistent stress. Growing evidence suggests that play can uniquely support children in developing the skills they need to cope with stress and anxiety during everyday as well as adverse circumstances. In this presentation, I will discuss how play provides a supportive context to help children learn to cope with stress, especially when faced with adversity, and the integral role of adults-parents, teachers, counselors, health care professionals, and other caregivers-in creating and facilitating playful experiences that support children's ability to respond adaptively to challenges.

Bio: Lynneth Solis is the Research Director on the Pedagogy of Play project and the Envisioning Innovation in Education project at Project Zero. Her research investigates the cognitive and social processes by which young children learn about how the world around them works through play, making, and science learning in early childhood contexts. 


Savhannah Schulz
How We Think through play

Abstract: Play is often understood as a universal behavior that is observed in a handful of intelligent animals with prolonged childhood. Yet, play in humans is also unique in the sense that humans can engage in higher order cognition. In this talk, I will discuss how play and meta-cognition could be linked, exploring the ways in which play could facilitate meta-cognitive processes in the form of reflection, and contribute towards learning. 

Bio: Savhannah Schulz is a PhD Fellow at the Interacting Minds Centre, the Danish School of Education, and the Playtrack Research Group. Her interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research focuses on the role of reflection in learning and attempts to identify the underlying cognitive processes that cause learners to reflect. Since 2018, Savhannah has been working with the Pedagogy of Play (PoP) research group to explore the link between reflection and playful learning.


Program Day 2

Wednesday April 21 Tuesday April 20 CET 14:00-17:30 pm / BST 13:00 - 16:30 pm / EST 8:00 - 11:30 am (times below are listed in UK time)

Day 2. WHAT is Play?

Organised by the PEDAL Centre, University of Cambridge, UK


Provocation: Anyone working in the field of play research will be all too familiar with the challenge of defining exactly what play is - and what it is not. What 'counts' as play when it is the object of scientific study or scholarly analysis? Is this different from the everyday experience of play? At what point does the construct of play become so broad as to evade meaningful analysis as a coherent phenomenon?  How do perceptions and practices around play vary with individual differences in cognition, within family groups and between cultures?  

Description: In two sessions we will explore different perspectives on what play is and what it means. Firstly we explore ground-breaking research on parent-child play from different disciplinary perspectives, including neuroscience and early intervention, and take a look at cross-cultural understandings and experiences of play. In the second session, we will consider different ways of measuring play and the implications that selection of particular measures have for our understanding of the constructs being studied. We will explore what play is from the perspectives of children themselves. For both sessions, attendees and panel members will discuss together the ways in which these different approaches shed light on what it means to play. 

Time GMTPresenter/ActivityTitle
Session IWhat is play between parents and young children?
13:00-13:10Paul RamchandaniIntroduction and orientation
13:10-13:25Vicky Leong"Early Learning through Parent-Infant Neural Synchrony and Play"
13:25-13:40Beth Barker"Using play as a context for intervention and to facilitate children's self-reported behaviour"
13:40-13:55PEDAL Researchers"Video: What is play in different places?"
13:55-14:15Break out discussions
14:15-14:35Speaker Panel Q&A
Session IIWhat is play in the preschool and early school years?
15:00-15:15Elian Fink"Social play: Different measures, different viewpoints (different outcomes?)"
15:15-15:30Andreas Lieberoth"The seven components of 'good' or 'bad' play?"
15:30-15:45Megina Baker"Understanding learning through play across cultural contexts:indicators of playful learning"
15:45-16:05 Breakout rooms Discussions
16:05-16:25 Speaker Panel Q&A


Vicky Leong 
Early Learning through Parent-Infant Neural Synchrony and Play

Abstract: During early life, temporally-coordinated social interactions between infants and caregivers - such as during play - provide a powerful stimulant for learning. Yet current neuroscience frameworks do not address how social interactive behaviour potentiates learning in the infant brain. Recent evidence suggests that human infants are capable of spontaneous neural synchronisation with adults during social interaction, and levels of synchronisation predict communicative efficacy and social learning. In this talk, I will present an integrated neurocognitive framework for understanding how 'Natural Pedagogy', enacted through the use of ostensive signals such as eye contact and infant-directed speech, attunes fine-grained neural oscillatory processes between social partners to yield communicative and learning benefits for young children. I will further discuss how playful interactions afford optimal opportunities for the emergence of synchronised behaviour and brain activity, thereby potentiating early learning. 

Bio: Victoria Leong is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist who is a pioneer in the use of dyadic-EEG to study parent-infant neural synchrony during naturalistic social interactions, such as play. Vicky is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and Affiliated Lecturer with the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University (UK). She is also Deputy Director of the Cambridge-NTU Centre for Lifelong Individualised Learning which aims to develop neuropersonalised training programmes for flexible learning across the lifespan. 


Beth Barker
Using play as a context for intervention and to facilitate children's self-reported behaviour

Abstract: The quality of parents' interaction with their children and their involvement in play are important contexts for children's development. Programmes that promote parental sensitivity and encourage parents to engage in playful interactions with their children could be a positive stimulus to development. The Healthy Start, Happy Start randomised controlled trial explored the effects of a brief video-feedback parenting intervention (VIPP- SD) on children's outcomes. Three hundred families with children aged one- and two-years were followed up for two years. Videos of parent-child interactions during play were recorded at all assessment points to explore mechanisms of impact. A play-based story stem measure was used to elicit children's own perspectives on their behaviour. Effects of the programme on children's behaviour and aspects of the children's play-based story narratives were found. We reflect on how play can provide a powerful context to support parents' interactions with their children and children's own involvement in research. 

Bio: Beth Barker is a Research Assistant at the PEDAL Research Centre and a PhD student at Imperial College London (funded by the President's Scholarship). Her primary focus over the last five years has been working on the Healthy Start, Happy Start study, in which her PhD is embedded. She is keen to promote the inclusion of children's own perspectives and insights into research and to make research more accessible to general audiences. 


Megina Baker

Understanding learning through play across cultural contexts: indicators of playful learning

Abstract: What does learning through play looks and feels like in different cultural contexts? The Pedagogy of Play team has been working to understand this question for the past five years, along with educators at schools in Denmark, South Africa, the United States, and most recently, Colombia. This talk will share our work on the Indicators of Playful Learning, frameworks that describe what learning through play in schools looks and feels like in specific cultural contexts.

Bio: Megina Baker, Ph.D is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Boston University's Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, and a collaborator on the Pedagogy of Play team at Project Zero. This year, she has been keeping busy by playfully re-learning how to teach, with a group of Swedish-English bilingual 4-year-olds via Zoom.


Elian Fink
Social play: Different measures, different viewpoints, (different outcomes?) 

Abstract: The challenge for researchers exploring social play is that it comprises a number of different behaviours and psychological stances, only some of which may be directly observable, and all of which change depending on the child's developmental stage, play partner and context. The findings from a large study of children's play will be presented focusing on three measures of social play (a) observations of social pretend play, (b) child self-reported dispositional playfulness, and (c) peer-reports of children's play. I will examine to what extent these different measures and perspectives of children's play overlap, and whether they differentially predict children's social outcomes both concurrently and longitudinally. 

Bio: Elian Fink was a Senior Research Associate at the PEDAL Centre working on a project exploring the role of play for children's social competence and socio-cognitive understanding. She recently took up a Lectureship in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex. 


Andreas Lieberoth
The seven components of "good or "bad" play? a principal component analysis to children's expert statements 

Abstract: Assessments of the qualities of play are often based on adult eyes, and e.g. when play is introduced as part of large-scale interventions, collecting the voice of every child becomes increasingly difficult. But is it impossible to make a survey for children using children's words? We identified common themes from 105 stories collected during interviews in good and bad experiences, and asked 651 children aged 6-10 whether such statements applied to recent play situations. A PCA of this data pool resulted in seven "play factors", so far labeled "imagination", "silliness and transgression", "wild and physical", "organised frames", "our play", "the barrier" and "that play feeling". We share the story of the process, and how we hope these factors may be used to compare these specific qualities of play experiences, including play-based interventions. 

Bio: Andreas Lieberoth is an associate professor in educational psychology at the Interacting Minds Center (IMC) and Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. He is a mixed methods researcher whose main work centers around digital media in schools, kindergartens and homes, and societal discourses on the effect of e.g. gaming and screen time on behavior, wellbeing, development and play. 


Program Day 3

Thursday April 22 Tuesday April 20 CET 14:00-17:30 pm / BST 13:00 - 16:30 pm / EST 8:00 - 11:30 am (times below are listed in EST time)

Day 3. HOW to Play

Organised by Pedagogy of Play, Harvard University


Guiding Question: What does a playful mindset for facilitators of playful learning look and feel like, and how can such mindsets be supported?

Description: There are many ways facilitators of learning experiences might think about how to cultivate a learning environment characterized by playfulness. Facilitators can design the environment for play; they can infuse playful elements into the curriculum; they can implement playful teaching protocols, practices, and strategies.  While these moves certainly shape a community where playful learning thrives, at the core may be a facilitator’s playful orientation to teaching and learning.  In today’s sessions, we consider playful learning through the lens of mindsets. What does it mean (and look like) to have a playful mindset? How can a facilitator’s playful mindset contribute to or enhance playful learning experiences? How can a playful mindset for facilitators be cultivated? And finally, is mindset even the right lens to best understand this problem space?

Time ESTPresenterActivityFacilitator       TitleNotes
08:00-08:20Framing and Guiding QuestionBen Mardell (PoP)
08:20-08:35Session 1Jen Ryan (PoP)"Playful participatory research: the role of adult learning in cultivating a playful school culture"
08:35-08:50Session 2Katrin Heimann (PlayTrack)"Realising science fiction - experience as condition of transformative play"
08:50-09:05Session 3Sara Baker (PEDAL)

"Teachers' perspectives on barriers and enablers to learning through play in early primary school".

09:05-09:20Breakout GroupsNoneGuiding question: last few minutes nominate 1-2 questions/thoughts to write on slide
09:20-09:30Whole group debriefMara (PoP)Facilitated presenter panel grounded in breakout questions
10:00-10:15Session 1Amos Blanton (IMC)"Developing 'handlemod' through Thinkering in Danish Libraries: Design and Facilitation Strategies for Creative Confidence"
10:15-10:30Session 2Ben Mardell (PoP)"A playful disposition towards teaching: Lessons from Vivian Paley"
10:30-10:45Breakout GroupsNoneGuiding question: last few minutes nominate 1-2 questions/thoughts to write on slide  
10:45-10:55Whole group debriefMara (PoP)Facilitated presenter panel grounded in breakout questions  
10:55-11:15Conference Closing SessionPoP PEDAL IMCEach group designates one person to share a 5 minute overview os take-aways, insights or puzzles
11:15-11:30Slop Time

Sara Baker
Teachers' perspectives on barriers and enablers to learning through play in early primary school 

Abstract: Our research team collaborates with teachers of young children in the UK to implement effective practices in learning through play. We draw on theoretical work showing playful child-led approaches support children's agency in their learning (Baker, Le Courtois & Eberhart, under review). When teachers try out playful approaches in their own practice, our interviews and observations show that teachers perceive contextual barriers and enablers, such as children's response, curriculum constraints, and colleagues' varying perceptions of learning through play. Teachers often report a fear of letting go, even if they appreciate children need agency in their learning. In sum, our research suggests that co-design with teachers, readiness assessments, ongoing reflection, troubleshooting and peer support are all key ingredients to an effective programme of professional development for playful approaches to learning. 

Bio: Sara is a Reader in Developmental Psychology and Education at the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL, University of Cambridge). Sara's work with her research team aims to improve children's lives by identifying factors at home and at school that can support their agency over their own learning. 


Amos Blanton 
Developing ‘handlemod’ through Tinkering in Danish Libraries: Design and Facilitation Strategies for Creative Confidence 

Abstract: Notes and observations from the Creative Learning Research Group in Dokk1 Library, Aarhus, Denmark, on design and facilitation strategies for supporting the creative confidence of adult participants in tinkering activities. We will explore the thinking and intervention strategies of two  facilitators as they attempt to address anxiety that inhibits playfulness in their workshop participants, and support the creative expression of ‘handlemod’ - the courage to act.

Bio: Amos Blanton is a former counselor turned educator and designer of open-ended play activities, currently studying collective creativity as a PhD Student at Aarhus University. He has worked on projects as diverse as the Scratch community, the hands-on creative activities in LEGO House, and the FujiFilm Blimp. 


Katrin Heimann 
Realizing science fiction - experience as condition of transformative play

Abstract: Paedagogical and organizational theory, research and practice is getting more and more receptive towards the importance of playfulness for sustainable learning. Nevertheless, phenomenological descriptions of the process of becoming playful and further behaving playfully in a specific situation are still scarce. In my talk, I am drawing on such data to outline a special way of "close" interacting with yourself, others, material or environment that might be a so far overseen key of playful learning and portray how becoming aware of different levels of experience might facilitate this kind of intimate exchange. Finally, I will discuss openings and challenges when concretely planning how to activate this level of experience to tackle deeply embodied habits and beliefs such as driving gender discrimination, racism or resistance to climate friendly behaviour in classes or similar environment. 

Bio: Katrin Heimann is trained in Philosophy and Neuroscience and currently Assistant Professor at the Interacting Minds Center. Over the last years she has specialized in the interview and analysis method Micro-Phenomenology, using and developing it, alone and in mixed methods setups, as a research and intervention tool exploring and supporting sustainable transformation. 


Ben Mardell 
A playful disposition towards teaching: Lessons from Vivian Paley 

Abstract: What can we learn from the work of a master facilitator of playful learning about what a playful disposition towards teaching involves? Arguably the most famous US early childhood educator of the 20th Century, Vivian Paley was the first classroom teacher to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Utilizing Cooper's analysis of Paley's teaching (from The Classrooms all Young Children Need), and Paley's The Girl With the Brown Crayon, this talk characterizes Paley's teaching dispositions. How these dispositions map on to the Pedagogy of Play's teaching practices and strategies is shared. 

Bio: Ben Mardell is the Principal Investigator of the Pedagogy of Play Project at Project Zero (Harvard Graduate School of Education). His work aims to support teachers in creating collaborative, democratic, and playful learning environments for their children. 


Jen Ryan 
Playful participatory research: the role of adult learning in cultivating a playful school culture 

Abstract: A playful school culture can be characterized by the degree to which playfulness is infused in all elements of its structure-how beliefs, norms, policies, and rules influence teaching that can support (or obstruct) learning through play. The adult learning environment plays a critical role in cultivating a pedagogy of play. In this talk, I'll introduce the idea that playful participatory research - an emergent qualitative research method that functions both as professional development and teacher research - has a positive effect on teachers' self-perception and practice. Drawing on findings from a small study at International School of Billund, I'll consider how engaging in playful adult learning shapes teacher mindsets and can encourage educators to find more opportunities to teach playfully. 

Bio: Jen is a researcher and senior project manager on the Pedagogy of Play initiative at Project Zero, a research organization based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include arts education, maker-centered learning, school-community partnerships, and adult learning. 



The talks and ensuing discussions during the Play Symposium surfaced some resources on the topic of play. Below, you can find an incomplete list to support further exploration. 

Day 1 - Why do children play?

"Play and Prediction Error Minimisation" by Marc Malmdorf Andersen

    • Pre-print of the presented account: Andersen, M. M., & Roepstorff, A. (2021, February 18). Play in Predictive Minds: A Cognitive Theory of Play. doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/u86qy
    • Overview over the Predicitive Processing Framwork: 
    • Andersen, M. M., Schjoedt, U., Price, H., Rosas, F. E., Scrivner, C., & Clasen, M. (2020). Playing with fear: a field study in recreational horror. Psychological science31(12), 1497-1510.
    • The Goldilocks effect: Kidd, C., Piantadosi, S. T., & Aslin, R. N. (2012). The Goldilocks effect: Human infants allocate attention to visual sequences that are neither too simple nor too complex. PloS one7(5), e36399.
    • Sandseter, E. B. H. (2010). It tickles in my tummy!. Understanding children’s risk-taking in play through Reversal Theory. Journal of Early Childhood Research8(1), 67-88.

    "Why do we play? Play as a social learning context" by Jenny Gibson

    "The role of play experiences in helping children cope with stress and trauma" by Lynneth Solis

    Day 2 - What is play?

    "The seven components of 'good' or 'bad' play?" by Andreas Lieberoth

    • Paper forthcoming - please see link for updates. 

    Day 3 - How to play

    "Realising science fiction - experience as condition of transformative play" by Kat Heimann

    "Developing 'handlemod' through Thinkering in Danish Libraries: Design and Facilitation Strategies for Creative Confidence" by Amos Blanton

    "A playful disposition towards teaching: Lessons from Vivian Paley" by Ben Mardell

    • Some works by Vivian Paley: 
      • Paley, V. G. (2009). You can't say you can't play. Harvard University Press.
      • Paley, V. G. (1990). The boy who would be a helicopter. Harvard University Press.
      • Paley, V. G. (1997). The girl with the brown crayon. Harvard University Press.
      • Paley, V. G. (1986). On listening to what the children say. Harvard educational review56(2), 122-132.

    Closing Remarks by Mara Krechevsky

    Extract from the Quote shared in the closing remarks:

    "The group that embraces the contributions of each member, however diverse or contradictory, may well provide exactly the right context for the emergence of strong individual identities. Through the debate, experimentation and negotiation that characterize the work of these learning groups, each member comes to see, and in time to value, the particular, even idiosyncratic, qualities of the others. The valuing of each member's contribution means that each person not only develops respect for the others, but also has the experience of being valued for what he or she brings to the problem at hand."

    Steve Seidel 

    • See Steve Seidel (2001) To be part of something bigger than oneself. In Giudici, C., Rinaldi, C., & Krechevsky, M. (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

    Resources that surfaced during discussion

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