LEGO® Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning announced.

We need the best evidence possible in order to inform the vital decisions that are made about children’s education and development and I look forward to taking that work forward together with colleagues at Cambridge.

Professor Paul Ramchandani

The University of Cambridge has appointed a world-leading researcher as the first LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning.

The Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) was established in 2015 with a £4 million grant from the LEGO Foundation that also funded the leadership role that will be taken up by Professor Paul Ramchandani.

Having spent the past 15 years pursuing research focused on child development Ramchandani, who currently leads the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Research Unit at Imperial College, London, will take up his role at PEDAL in January next year.

Professor Geoff Hayward, Head of the Faculty of Education, said: “Professor Ramchandani has an outstanding research record of international stature. He has the vision, leadership, experience and enthusiasm that PEDAL needs, and we are delighted that he is joining us. This is an exciting area of research which we feel will throw new light on the importance of play in early education.”

PEDAL is examining the importance of play in education globally to produce research which supports excellence in education so that children are equipped with 21st century skills like problem solving, team work and self-control.

The work of the centre, based at the University’s Faculty of Education, is currently focused on three strands of research:
  • Establishing a long-term study of the features of home and school that promote children’s playfulness, and the outcomes of early play experience for learning and emotional well-being
  • Developing an understanding of the underlying brain processes involved in play, and how to measure playfulness
  • Devising and evaluating play-based teaching approaches

Part of the Professor’s role heading up the centre will involve translating the research into hard evidence for international and national bodies as they produce policy around children’s right to play.  

Professor Ramchandani said: “I am delighted to be taking up this role at Cambridge, and working with those at PEDAL on the challenge of finding the best evidence on where play fits in children’s development and education and how that can be used to give children the best start in life.

“Everyone has an opinion about what role play should have in early education and there is some wonderful research, but there are also big gaps in our knowledge. We need the best evidence possible in order to inform the vital decisions that are made about children’s education and development and I look forward to taking that work forward together with colleagues at Cambridge.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, acting head of PEDAL until Ramchandani takes up the new post, said: “The value of play is relatively under-researched. You have people who are claiming that it enhances learning, that it’s important, that it’s good for children’s wellbeing. All of that might be true, but actually there’s remarkably little evidence for that. The aim of the PEDAL centre is to conduct rigorous research into the importance of play and how playful learning can be used to improve students’ outcomes.”

Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Global Head of Research, the LEGO Foundation said: “There is a great need for establishing  play as a central arena for learning and development in the minds and actions of those influencing children’s lives. PEDAL’s research is hugely important in that regard, and we’re excited that Professor Ramchandani will be taking the helm and join the efforts to underscore the importance of children’s learning through play.”




Further information:

Professor Paul Ramchandani:

Ramchandani is currently Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health at Imperial College.  He also works as a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the NHS with CNWL NHS Foundation Trust. He undertook his medical studies in Southampton before obtaining a degree in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He then completed training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and obtained a DPhil from Oxford University in 2005.
Ramchandani’s research is focussed on early child development and particularly on the prevention of emotional and behavioural problems in the early years of life. 


The guiding focus of the centre’s work is to develop substantial and compelling research concerned with the role of play and playfulness in young children’s learning and development, and the potential of play-based approaches within educational contexts. 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.

PEDAL Research Strands:

  • What is play?

Play is a very difficult concept to pin down scientifically, and many different definitions and measures of play are in use in education and in research. This makes it difficult to rigorously evaluate claims that have been made about the role of play in children’s social development. Two projects within the PEDAL centre examine play scientifically and help us understand the nature of play in early childhood.

The Children’s Relationships with Peers through Play (CHIRPP) project, overseen by Dr Jenny Gibson and Dr Elian Fink investigates how play could support children to develop the social skills needed to learn and flourish at school. This project aims to establish a framework for measuring play taking into account different perspectives of play, including those of children, parents, teachers and observations of actual play interactions between peers at school. We are also measuring other aspects of child development relating to social skills (such as language and emotional understanding). By doing this we can establish whether or not play makes an independent contribution to social skills and school readiness during the first years of formal schooling. CHIRPP follows children over the first three years of primary school from Reception to Year 2. This enables researchers to test their predictions about how play may contribute to social development in the longer term. So far, over 240 children have taken part in this study.  Our preliminary findings from reception-aged children indicate there is indeed an association between play and social development; however we will need to use the follow-up data to work out the nature of any causal associations.

In addition to CHIRPP, Dr Jenny Gibson’s HOPSCoTCh project (Hi-tech Observation of Play and Social Communication Trajectories in Children) comes at understanding play from another angle. This project is designed to help us understand more about children’s behaviour in school playgrounds. Use of GPS technology to track children’s social and physical activity at playtime provides data to help understand how children use their physical space and interact with each other during outdoor play. 

  • How does play develop?

PEDAL is developing a longitudinal study of playfulness, which will begin with children at birth (and perhaps even before) and follow them through to early adulthood. We hope this will make a significant contribution to advance our understanding of the development of playful behaviours as well as their impact on later life.

Behind such a long-term research project is an extensive literature review of previous studies, as well as analysis of existing data collected by other longitudinal research projects. For example, the team has carried out a systematic review of studies of play in early childhood, concentrating specifically on the way play has been measured. Also, since parent-child interactions are crucial in early life, PEDAL has developed a scale to measure how playful are parents with their babies, observing both mums and dads interacting with their infants at 4 and 14 months of age. Understanding how to measure playful behaviours and observing them from birth throughout childhood will help us unpack the role of play on children’s wider development.

This research strand will be developed by the new Professor of Play, working alongside Dr Marisol Basilio and colleagues in the Department of Psychology.

  • Is there a role for play in schools?

Dr Sara Baker and Dr Audrey Kittredge are developing and testing playful approaches to teaching in early childhood classrooms, based on current research from the field of cognitive developmental psychology and applied in practice by working alongside a team of teachers.

Acknowledging there is a growing demand for children to master ‘21st century skills’ (to be independent, creative thinkers and problem solvers, as well as good collaborators and communicators), Sara and Audrey’s research is exploring how schools can foster these skills, and whether a more playful environment and approach to teaching leads to better learning outcomes.

Though these ‘21st century skills’ are relevant to any discipline, Sara and Audrey’s research focuses on flexible problem solving in early years science learning, and it is intended that once the research program is complete, a professional development programme for teachers will be developed to share key findings and enhance the repertoire of teaching approaches that primary school teachers require.

  • PEDAL Hub

PEDAL Hub is a free online, searchable database of the most current and authoritative play research as well as other relevant materials and media.  Led by Dr Melissa Scarpate, PEDAL Hub will be launched in the autumn of 2017.

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