Meet the world’s first professor of play

Posted
Mon, 08/14/2017 - 9:08am
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1 month ago
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PEDAL at Cambridge
Cambridge University’s Lego-sponsored professor of play discusses his plans to balance rigorous research with a ‘childlike mindset’

Cambridge University has appointed the world’s first ever professor of play, Paul Ramchandani. A researcher who has spent the last 15 years leading the child and adolescent mental health research unit at Imperial College London, Ramchandani will take up the new role in early 2018. The position is funded through a £4m grant supporting the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (Pedal) from the Lego Foundation, the charitable arm of the children’s toy company.

As professor of play, Ramchandani will explore how play can support education, promote emotional wellbeing, and equip children with skills in problem-solving, team-work and self control through play-based teaching. These approaches will be underpinned by research into measuring playfulness and understanding the brain processes involved.

 How will you build on the research already under way at Pedal?

There’s a research team there already, studying how play develops and how it interacts with other parts of child development. We’ll start from an interesting set of questions around how play fits into the school curriculum, particularly within the first few years of school. I’ll bring some of the work I’ve been doing on the role of play in childhood development and on play-based interventions with parents of young children.

What age range will you look at?

The studies run from very young children through to school age. But there isn’t an absolute limit. We’ll go where the interesting questions around play take us.

What interested you about the professor of play role?

I was interested in it as a way to develop relationships between parents and children. The opportunity to study it in the context of children’s development and education is really appealing. The other aspect is working in one of the leading departments of education. I’ve always been driven by opportunities to do the best work with the best people. 

How would you like to see your research inform government policy?

How we give children the best start in life is the driving force for my research. Those are the kind of research approaches we’re taking – we’re bold about what we want to do. As findings come out, we’ll aim to inform policymakers, teachers, pre-school teachers and educators, finding ways to make them as accessible as possible. We will both produce our own research and summarise existing work.

Why is play so under-researched?

There has been a lot of research on play generally. But understanding how it fits in with other areas of child development, as well as how to use it in children’s education, has been under-researched. Everyone has a view on how play should fit in education, but evaluating that with tests in particular settings has been missing.

What do you think of the drift in early years education away from play and towards standardised learning?

It’s not something I’m observing, but I do think that young children are going to learn better when it’s fun and when it’s integrated into play. If there are settings where they’re not having opportunities to play, it’s going to be difficult because they won’t have sufficiently developed to learn in other ways.

The Lego Foundation said it was looking for someone with a ‘childlike mindset’ – is that you?

I’m a serious scientist at one level, it would be fair to say. I work as a doctor in child mental health services as well as doing my research, and through that I find I’m always trying to think about the world from children’s point of view; to understand why they’re having difficulties with behaviour or emotions. And when I work with parents in research studies, I’m trying to help them understand their children’s communications. 

The research is funded by a private company – what role do you think they have to play as research funders, and what are the risks and benefits?

The post I’ll be going to is funded by the Lego Foundation, but the direction I take the research in isn’t dictated by anybody – it’s important to me that we do the best research. We’ll also be seeking further funding for that research. Whoever funds it has to be interested in what we’re doing and share an understanding. And there’s no obligation to undertake experiments using Lego.

Did you play with Lego as a child?

I did play with it as a kid. I guess what I liked about it was that it didn’t tell you what you had to do. It’s a great, creative toy. I’m a fan of any toy that allows kids to do what they want.

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