Play in the 21st century

In February 2015 I attended a week long workshop in Tokyo and Yamaguchi, Japan, as a British Council ‘ELEVATE’ Fellow.  Our focus was ‘Play in the 21st Century’.

Twelve people were selected, from the UK, Singapore, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.  Over seventy applications were received.  We all had to produce a 2 minute you-tube clip about a play-based project and our visions and forecasts for the future of play in our increasingly urbanised world society.  Applications were received from a range of disciplines including digital designers, architects, landscape architects, researchers, early childhood educators, performing arts, and communicators.

The projects that the fellows had proposed included:

  • ‘Trove’ a physical container for children to curate and narrate their most precious objects and stories, using RFID technology;
  • A compendium of traditional games from Sumatra and links to nature;
  • The Great Urban Challenge of Livability in Cebu Philippines;
  • Developing spaces for play in socially and economically deprived areas of Glasgow;
  • Inclusive All-Abilities Play
  • Developing a pedagogical model for popup and temporary parks and play activities;
  • Co-design of playgrounds in Malaysia
  • A crowdsourced map of traditional play and games from around the world, interactive and intergenerational;
  • Developing a Parental Advocacy for Child led play;
  • Developing a program of installation art workshops;
  • Researching play and developing digital child focussed play programs to connect the digital and natural worlds;
  • Developing sound based projects that activate the urban realm.


We arrived in Tokyo, and spent 3 days experiencing a range of play environments, from very structured ‘occupation-based’ role play, research-led play facilitators, technological and digital based play environments, and free play in a community operated playspace, where play was led by the children themselves.  We visited Kidzania;  Canvas; Miraikan;

Galaxity Sega Toys Google’s headquarters high up a tower in Roppongi Hills, and then back down to earth quite literally to Hanegi Park, a cooperative playspace in a rare wooded hillside west of the city centre.


Hanegi Park Fire Play

Hanegi Park fire play

Hanegi Park 2

Hanegi Park










We also visited Impact HUB Tokyo’s flexible workspace a collaborative community working on momentum for change, through the economy, relationships, thought processes and business.

Following the immersion, we shared our insights from the previous days, and spoke of our specific projects and how the workshop my assist in developing the ideas.  The workshop relocated to Yamaguchi, a regional university town of 200,000 people, as well as an extremely well-resourced and staffed arts and media centre.  Yamaguchi even had a ‘Melbourne style’ laneway/restaurant/small bar culture.  We spent 2 days hearing from and speaking with the designers and technicians at Yamaguchi, and their projects using technology – kids cameras, light based technology and how it was transforming dance, sound recording, robotics.

The Yamaguchi sessions culminated in an afternoon play event for local children – to enter the new spaces we created and participate in the play activities.  A fair bit of mayhem resulted – it reminded me of children’s birthday parties for 4-7 year olds -  from active #playfinding that led children into the space, and a series of sound, light, memory and creative based play events in the studio.

playfinding 1 playfinding 2 Playfinding 3




Yamaguchi studio 2 Yamaguchi Studio Yamaguchi studio 3 Yamaguchi studio 4




Following the workshop, we all returned to our various cities, but post the event there has been numerous collaborations of new and ongoing projects between the fellows, crossing continents and time zones, including an inclusive playground ideas competition in Hong Kong, participation in webinars on play, collaborative play events in the UK and development and refinement of our original ideas and projects.

A carrot was offered for fellows to apply for a share of SGD $50,000 provided by the Lien Foundation  for further development or implementation of the projects.  In May, the recipients of the funding were announced.  From the edited media release:

ELEVATE StartWell Challenge innovators fast forward the future of play
Best ideas from the UK, the Philippines and Singapore get $50,000 funding boost  

A future that features temporary pop-up parks where they’re needed most, safe urban areas for children to play in developing parts of Asia, a contemporary city hub to research how parents and children can thrive, and a global digital map of traditional cultural games. These are some of the elements of the four ideas selected to receive ELEVATE funding this year.  

The Lien Foundation and British Council today announced the recipients of $50,000 to create a more playful future for children across the world. Early childhood play is one of the most crucial building blocks for a positive future, so the organisations invited international perspectives on how play opportunities could be enhanced for the future, in the face of a rapidly changing society. 

POP UP PARKS, by James Sale, UK ($20,000)

Pop up Parks
create vibrant spaces in urban environments that encourage children and families to spend more time being playful, creative and active outside the home. The initiative transforms under-used urban places into playful outdoor environments for children, their parents and carers. These spaces are where families live and where they spend time: near to housing and on community streets.

Pop up Parks begins by working with communities for a sustained period of up to ten weeks popping-up a number of one-day park events. With each community, the team then co-designs and develops a legacy plan to ensure that they support people to create new and enriching environments that are made to last.  Pop Up Parks specifically work with communities in densely populated areas where families are on lower incomes and the design of the built environment has led to dead and under-used spaces.

GREAT URBAN CHALLENGE, by Francis Sollano, Philippines ($10,000)
The Great Urban Challenge addresses Livability as everyone’s concern and something children would have to learn about in their early years. This is the reason for revitalising communities by creating interactive green-art parks that can make the children’s recreation and environmental awareness strong.  The Great Urban Challenge aims to revitalize decaying urban spaces through urban farming in a multi-stakeholder model.  These efforts will in turn enhance the children’s quality of life and the community’s future.

PLAYEUM, by Sumitra Pasupathy, Singapore ($10,000)
Playeum is a Singapore based organisation, which is focused on creating real social change and driving advocacy for play in Singapore, particularly with an emphasis on parents. Using research, advocacy tools and pop up events, Playeum creates opportunities for parents to take action, to change the environments in which their children grow and develop, and to activate other parents to do the same. Children will be the ultimate beneficiaries, and with a dedicated centre for Playeum opening on August 2015.

PLAYFINDERS, by Paul Drury, UK ($10,000)
Playfinders is about collecting and connecting traditional play cultures from around the world.  It is an interactive crowdsourced map of different traditional play – from the past and from around the world. PLAYFINDERS ensures children learn new games, understand other cultures + together build a user-generated play archive. As an open-source book of knowledge, it will be searchable by type, environment, and emotional response. It also becomes an international hub of play, driving traffic from around the world and developing a global network of play.

In 2015, the ELEVATE StartWell™ Challenge was developed in partnership with Singapore philanthropic house the Lien Foundation in line with their StartWell initiative, which aims to rethink the priorities of childhood in Singapore. The partnership grew out of a mutual concern for social issues and an ambitious approach to harness creativity and values-based decision-making. Both the Lien Foundation and British Council work with diverse networks of international and local experts and communities who, through extensive research and experience have highlighted early childhood play as a key area for further focus and development. The organisations both hope that an investment in finding new and creative solutions to social issues such as the impact of developing global changes on play, will result in some exceptional developments around the world.


About the author:

Neil Hobbs

Neil Hobbs