Community play packs inspire families to be more playful at home

A project led by Dr Alex Hendry (Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford) and supported by Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez (Oxford Brookes University) has engaged with parents and early years practitioners in a bid to help families spend more time playing with their children.

Since the start of the pandemic, Dr Hendry has been working with Dr Gonzalez-Gomez and researchers from around the country via the Oxford Brookes Babylab to learn more about children’s development during covid restrictions.

The resulting research showed there have been clear benefits for children who were able to access early childhood education and/or had a rich home learning environment during lockdowns. This was particularly notable in the area of executive function development – Dr Hendry’s field of expertise.

These findings continue to be shared widely with policymakers and other stakeholders. However, knowing families were in a unique position to support their children during this time, Dr Hendry was keen to do something that would have an immediate impact.

Together with Dr Gonzalez-Gomez, she secured funding to engage directly with families and practitioners in the Oxford area. Their aim was to empower parents to support their children’s development via simple but enriching activities.

Listening to and learning from families

The project had three main goals: to share the findings of the initial research with parents and practitioners, to hear directly from them about their own experiences, and to then use those conversations to inspire a physical resource – a play pack – that families could use at home. “We were aware that this can be a sensitive topic that can get misconstrued or picked up as parent-blaming,” says Dr Hendry.

“We want parents to feel supported and empowered, not guilty, so it was important to talk to parents directly about their experiences and hear what the barriers are.”

Dr Hendry had previously collaborated with Oxford-based charities Peeple and Home-Start Oxford on other resources to inspire families to head outdoors in winter. Both organisations were natural partners for this next project. The charities acted as a sounding board for developing the packs, and helped distribute them. Also, as practitioners, they had plenty of their own insights into how the families they work with had been coping.

They also helped set up a series of workshops where the academics could engage directly with parents. These turned out to be a moving experience for everyone involved, as Dr Gonzalez-Gomez explains:

“One of the parents talked about her experience during lockdown and how hard it was for her. She was a first time mum, her family were abroad – she couldn’t travel, meet people or go to groups. She was so grateful for the opportunity to share this with others and hear that she wasn’t alone. She was crying, and I was almost crying too. Seeing that our research – the things that we normally do in isolation – can be so meaningful for somebody, made it all feel worth it.”

A starting point for play

As a result of the workshops, the team put together two packs to help families play together imaginatively and creatively.

The packs included simple items like large rolls of paper, chunky chalks, and picture books which had been provided at cost by Faber via The National Literacy Trust – another project partner. There was also guidance on how to get started and extend activities in different ways, empowering families to experiment and find their own ways to play.

The practitioners giving out the packs took time to unpack and explain them to parents to improve the chance of them being used. This tactic – an idea from Camille Kalaja at Peeple – worked so well that Camille is now lined up to be official Pack Liaison Officer for the project’s second phase.

The practitioners also encouraged the families to feed back, and the team were thrilled to see photos the families had taken of how the children had used the packs in imaginative ways. Not only was this useful feedback for the team, in the next phase parents will be encouraged to share photos to inspire other families.

Getting the job done

The success of the collaboration with Peeple and Home-Start Oxford was rooted in a mutual desire to roll up sleeves and get the resources to where they were needed, even under the strictest lockdown. Dr Hendry recalls how a colleague at Peeple had the pack components delivered to her drive during a round of social distancing, and another spent hours assembling them with her daughter.

“Organisations that exist to support families are inherently full of lovely, collaborative people,” says Alex. “They’re very pragmatic and problem solving.” CEO of Peeple, Dr Sally Smith was keen to point out that this spirit was felt on both sides: “It’s hard work. But the energy definitely goes both ways.”

The project has since had a second phase funded, retaining all original partners with the addition of Oxfordshire County Council. The next kit aims to encourage families to get outside and explore nature and the world around us.

Meanwhile, Dr Hendry is continuing her work with Peeple as a collaborator on a three-year project on developing children’s early STEM skills, as well as a five-year project to support toddlers with a family connection to autism or ADHD.

“Research gets value from having an impact,” says Dr Smith. “It’s important to find ways to really benefit the participants in the research. Alex is really committed to doing this. It’s a wonderful collaboration between our organisations.”