Playing Out with IoT is an innovative ESPRC-funded research project exploring how Internet of Things (IoT) technologies can be developed and extended to enable children under 9 years old to create digital outside play in their own neighbourhoods.  The project responds to concerns that fewer and fewer children are playing outdoors, which is having an impact on health, well-being, personal and social development.

Our research outputs explore possible roles for IoT in outdoor play by running design activities with children.  We are also evidencing the ability of IoT to engage children meaningfully and creatively through the evaluation of resulting designs.  Our Project Blog will give you an idea of our activities and the kinds of IoT devices we are making with children.  Throughout the project, we are working with and responding to children in local communities so we can align our designs as closely as possible with their own play interests.  Relatedly, we are putting together a range of resources as Instructables that will allow children and parents to create and use some of our IoT play inventions.  We aim to make our work as accessible as possible by using off the shelf IoT devices alongside our own kits and guides that make use of freely available materials.


Social commentators in the UK have observed the significant decline of outdoor play [16,35,33,38,48,49], a phenomenon also recorded in many post-industrial societies [e.g. 17]. More young people than ever are spending time indoors and “playing out” less. There are known contributing factors to this decline, and they include problems such as perceptions of neighborhood safety [9], concerns for increased traffic on roads [13], and increasing awareness of “stranger danger” [1]. Another major contributing factor to this decline is the increased consumption of screen-based media by children, where 95% of UK 5 to 11-year-olds watch over 13.5 hours weekly [36] and even more (eight hours a day for 8 to 10 year-olds) in other countries such as the US [41], and attributed to the design innovations of interactive media entertainment.

This phenomenon raises valid concerns about health, wellbeing and children’s social development [10]. It also raises concern about community cohesion; many local places that might be previously associated with play, such as town squares, parks and other public spaces have become ‘play deserts’ [34]. Grassroots initiatives and advocacy groups have formed in recent years to address these issues.

In recent years, the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has developed a growing interest in promoting and designing for diverse notions of play [2,42,44]. While screen-based media entertainment is traditionally associated with indoor play that is often sedentary, innovations making use of computer vision [23], interactive television [29] and role-based games [14] have ushered in new indoor experiences of embodied, physical and social gameplay [45]. Today, this coincides with the incipient use of internet-connected smart toys and voice activated virtual assistants in the homes of 1 of 10 children in the USA [41].

Most recently, research has started to explore how digital technologies may promote new forms of playful or recreational engagement with the outdoors [21], including the embedding of technologies in playground environments [4], the use of augmented reality to explore local environments [40] and experiences of pervasive gaming on social and physical activity [51]. Furthermore, the proliferation of sensor-based technologies and Internet of Things (IoT) devices has further created new opportunities to explore tangible play objects [8], and for play technologies that may extend more pervasively out from the home into the environment and neighbourhood beyond [4]. Arguably, this IoT design space for supporting pervasive play outdoors remains underexplored.

Open-ended play with interactive technologies has been widely explored in the HCI and related IDC literature, to explore design potential for children to create their own games or meaningful experiences [54]. The potential value of interaction design supporting play, for enhancing children’s wellbeing has been highlighted [30]. We focus on the context of open-play in our study as distinguished from educational play, and in doing so ground it in everyday, mundane contexts of social interaction, to explore how to design open-ended resources that may be creatively appropriated by children.

There are a number of HCI studies of outdoor play that inform our work. Some are particularly design-oriented and have focused on interactive tangibles that encourage social interaction and physical play [7]. Such work may see design as interventional to free play, where designs serve as ‘intermediary objects’ and researchers embrace an ecological approach to studying children’s engagement with their outdoor play environment [47]. In methodological terms, design methods like sketching may be enlisted in research to retain focus on the ‘embodied interactional’ nature of play where the setting is a critical feature of the design space [25,46].

Researchers have also critically examined the design of digital technologies to enhance outdoor play, identifying benefits but also potential risks, where digital interventions to outdoor play may compromise its benefits [18]. HCI studies in this space have evaluated virtual versus tangible design artifacts for enriching outdoor play [51], highlighting how designing for outdoor play can engender new experiences distinct from play resulting from mobile phone games or game consoles, defining the value of ‘Heads-Up-Games (HUGS)’ for enhancing social interaction [52]. Others have demonstrated the value of pervasive, location-based design support for engaging with the places and spaces of the local neighbourhood [4].

Practice-based design research on pervasive play with IoT has appropriated off-the-shelf products to build and innovate with unique and bespoke technology configurations. For example, Hilton and colleagues speak to the Heads-up Games (HUG) paradigm by creating a ‘real-time coding environment’ that enables children to change gameplay rules in real-time [17]. These researchers offer up valuable considerations for balancing societal concerns for increasing outdoor play with technological innovation in pervasive game design [17].

In our UK study we identified BBC Micro:bit as a useful IoT resource for RtD. The BBC Micro:bit is a low cost tiny programmable computer which has been designed to make teaching and learning programming fun. The Micro:bit can be programmed in a way that allows code to be dragged and dropped into graphical coding blocks which snap together to make programming logic easier to understand. Micro:bits are proving ideal for outdoor play. They come with motion detection, a built-in compass and Bluetooth technology. They can also be connected to other input/output boards extending how they can be used. We chose the Micro:bit because it had high availability and was easy to learn: one million Micro:bits had been given to every year 7 student in England and Wales [32] with 90% of those students reporting that it showed them anyone can code [5].

What remains underexplored in extant work is how design for playing out with IoT may support social interaction and physical wellbeing, (connected to known benefits of outdoor play) as it connects to notions of community cohesion and place making.  Also, we note that there is a dearth of research that methodically observes the physical properties and affordances of IoT technologies / resources, which may be exploited by interaction designers for enhancing pervasive play extending outdoors.

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