Modern Clapping Games

PLAYING THE ARCHIVE: memory, community and mixed reality play

This project is an ambitious programme of research and cultural production, exploring the nature of play by bringing together archives, spaces and technologies of play, along with people who play, both old and young. It runs from September 2017 to August 2019. You can view the dedicated project page here


The project is funded by the EPSRC.

It will digitise and catalogue substantial sections of the Opie manuscript archive at the Bodleian Libraries, and work in partnership with the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, who will host and design a new catalogue; design a virtual reality play environment based on the archive and install it at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London, and the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield; conduct studies of today’s play in schools in Sheffield and London: and build experimental ‘smart’ playgrounds in London and Sheffield.


Playing the Archive: Memory, Community and Mixed Reality Play is a partnership between DARE at the UCL Knowledge Lab; the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the Bartlett School of Architecture; the University of Sheffield; the Bodleian Libraries; the V&A Museum of Childhood, and the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield. The project is funded by the ESPRC (Content Creation and Consumption in the Digital Economy call).


Details of the project staff and consultants can be found at the bottom of the page.


The project builds on two earlier projects by members of the same team.

The first is Children’s Playground Games in the New Media Age (AHRC 2009-11, PI Professor Andrew Burn). This project digitised the Opie audio archive at the British Library, researched play in playgrounds, and produced the British Library website Playtimes (click on the image below).

The second project is Childhoods and Play (British Academy 2012- , PI Professor Jackie Marsh). This project focuses on the archival collection of Iona and Peter Opie relating to the play and cultural traditions of children. The project aims to make the entire collection available for the first time by creating a digital resource which brings it together via a common search interface on a website. Part of its aim, then, is fulfilled by Playing the Archive.



Play is a universal human activity in all communities, cultures and periods of history. In play, cultural memories are given shape and passed down from generation to generation. However, we face many challenges in supporting play in today’s society. Playing the Archive addresses three of these problems.

Firstly, play cultures, though sometimes durable and persistent, can also be ephemeral and shift over time. Play practices, games and rhymes may be superseded and unknown to successive generations. Meanwhile, older generations may be anxious and fearful about the play of today’s children, especially in the digital realm.

Secondly, the way play is managed in planning and education can have the effect of fragmenting children’s playworlds, separating out their digital play from their physical play, although these worlds remain connected in children’s imagination and practice.

Thirdly, play is increasingly constrained in urban environments, through loss of street play, reductions in social provision, and tight adult surveillance in response to fears about child safety.


‘Playing the Archive’ offers three approaches to these problems, each focusing on one of them.

The first is to digitise and transform an important resource of cultural memory at the Bodleian Libraries: a collection of accounts of play from 20,000 UK children in the 1950s and 60’s by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie.


One of the boxes of children’s letters from the Opie papers. See the Bodleian’s blog post on the development of the finding aid for the collection. Image courtesy of Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.


A game described by a child “Near Sheffield”. From the Bodleian Libraries’ Opie papers, University of Oxford.


The project will create a virtual, immersive world enabling users both old and young to playfully engage with the archive, experiencing 1950-60s play as Virtual Reality, freely available to visitors at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, and a partner museum in Sheffield. This 3D, Virtual Reality experience will also include games played by today’s children, such as handclapping games with songs based on popular music and film. This work will be a collaboration between archivists and cataloguers at the University of Sheffield, and specialists in VR and advanced visualisation at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. They will co-design these new tools with children and with older citizens who contributed to the original Opie surveys, now in their 70’s.

The second approach is to study memories and practices of play, by interviewing and observing the original Opie contributors and children at primary schools which contributed to the original studies. The children will contribute to the research, interviewing each other and the older participants, and filming their own play. This work will help us understand what play is, why some games survive and others are lost, how physical games, rituals, songs, chants are passed on from one generation to the next, especially from the 1950’s to the present day, and how digital play such as videogames has added to the play repertoires of today’s children. We will also explore what kinds of play exist in different languages and cultures, such as Bengali, Mandarin, Somali, Punjabi and Polish, and how children use play to negotiate membership of communities and a place within them. What we find will feed into the design of the project’s outcomes.

The third approach, using the ideas created in the other parts of the project, is to build two experimental playgrounds in regeneration sites in Sheffield and London (the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park). These playgrounds will use innovative approaches to playspace and equipment, but also incorporate ‘smart’ objects linking physical play to the historic objects in the archives of the Bodleian and the V&A Museum of Childhood, both partners in the project who will contribute towards the design of the digital tools and resources. The playgrounds will exemplify ‘mixed reality’ play, combining the physical and the virtual, and linking the play cultures of playgrounds and videogames as they are already linked in children’s imaginations.

Finally, the project will hold a Festival of Play at the V&A Museum of Childhood, a free public event, to launch the virtual playworld, the playgrounds and the research findings.


The team represents a new collaboration between two broad areas: play researchers with a successful record of collaboration; and world-leading expertise in digital visualisation of urban spaces, drawing on 3-D modelling, VR and game mechanics.  The partnership of the play teams at the UCL Knowledge Lab (UCLKL) and the University of Sheffield Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education (CRECE) with the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the Bartlett (CASA) offers new potential to marry up expertise in computer-modelled urban space and expertise in the sociocultural use of play spaces and play archives. Institutionally, UCLKL, CASA, and CRECE offer rich research environments focusing on, respectively, computer technologies for learning; computer modelling of urban spaces; and child development, play, literacy and media.

 Professor Andrew Burn  (PI, UCL) is professor of English, Media and Drama, and director of the DARE (Digital Arts Research in Education) centre at UCLKL. DARE is a leading centre of research in play theory and practice. Andrew has experience of collaboration with cultural institutions, including the British Library, the British Film Institute, and Shakespeare’s Globe, of co-production of innovative digital tools and of promoting knowledge exchange activity with these institutions. Andrew has a long experience of successful management of funded research, including a large AHRC Beyond Text project, which digitised the Opies’ sound collection at the British Library; and two projects under the AHRC’s Digital Transformations programme. He is director of MAGiCAL Projects, an R&D enterprise developing digital tools for game-based learning. Andrew will provide organisational and intellectual leadership, will lead on multimodal analytical methodology, and on interdisciplinary collaboration across the strands.

Dr John Potter (Co-I, London) is Reader in Media in Education at UCL Institute of Education at UCLKL. His research, teaching and publications are focused on media education, new literacies, the changing nature of teaching and learning in response to the pervasive use in wider culture of digital media. He has a background in primary education, advisory work and teacher education based in East London and many of his recent research projects have involved younger learners’ use of media and technology for play and learning, in informal settings and formal settings. He is the author of Digital Media and Learner Identity: The New Curatorship (2012, Palgrave) which developed a theory of curation as a new literacy practice in digital media. He applied some of this work to data in the AHRC Children’s Playground Games project. He recently completed a funded fellowship at Monash University in Melbourne, developing networks and research into the sociomateriality and spatial literacies of digital play and production. He will lead on the ethnographic study in London.


Professor Jackie Marsh (Co-I, Sheffield) is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, and leading member of CRECE. She has led numerous research projects engaging children, teachers, parents and children’s media industry partners in research on young children’s play and digital literacy practices in homes and schools (e.g. the ESRC project ‘Technology and Play’). Jackie is Chair of COST Action IS1410, DigiLitEY, a European network of 33 countries focusing on research in this area (2015-2019). In this project, she will lead the team working on the ethnographic work undertaken in playgrounds, building on her previous work in involving children as active participants in research. She will work with Julia Bishop, extending their previous collaborations on British-Academy funded projects related to the Opie Archive, including Childhoods and Play. This project has involved long-standing collaboration with partners in this project – Bodleian Libraries, V&A Museum of Childhood.


Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith  (Co-I, UCL) is director of CASA. CASA has been at the forefront of using digital visualisation in the built environment since 1995, and has built an enviable track record of work in 3D environments and gaming engines, linking them to participatory planning, procedural generation and open data. More broadly, CASA is a centre successful in blending innovation with outreach and engagement with diverse publics and stakeholders. Andy holds a Chair in Digital Urban Systems and is Editor-in-Chief of Future Internet Journal; he is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Greater London Authority Smart London Board, course founder of the MRes in Advanced Spatial Analysis and Visualization and the MSc in Smart Cities and Urban Analytics. He is also Deputy Academic Director for UCL East (building the new campus at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) and heads up the Smart Park project on behalf of the London Legacy Development Corporation, in association with Intel and the Greater London Authority. Andy will lead on the design of the digital elements of the playgrounds.


Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick (Co-I, UCL) is a lecturer and researcher at CASA. He is currently Co-I on the EPSRC-funded Freight Traffic Control project, developing novel visualisations to guide the courier sector to co-ordinate to reduce their carbon and energy impacts; and is Co-I on the Survey of London: Whitechapel initiative, a 3-year AHRC project to create crowdsourced mapping of local history in East London. He is an Associate Director at the UCL centre for Digital Humanities, and lectures on digital visualisation and programming. In 2016 he was the recipient for the Provost’s Institutional Leadership award for Public Engagement. This interface between technology, the humanities, and engagement with different publics places him well to support the project activity. Martin will lead the development of the virtual reality game environment.


Helen Woolley (Co-I, Sheffield), is Reader in Landscape Architecture and Society at the University of Sheffield. Her research about children’s outdoor environments relates to policy, practice and use. It focuses on both strategic issues of green and open spaces and people’s relationship with those open spaces in their daily lives, and has been funded by a range of bodies such as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, CABE Space, Groundwork UK, Natural England and Research in Practice.  Projects include ‘Children’s Lost landscapes in Japan’, (Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation); and ‘Living with Nature’, a 3 year partnership project with Sheffield City Council Housing Services, Parks and Countryside and the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust (Big Lottery). Helen is a member of the multidisciplinary Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth and the Steering Group for the Sheffield Urban Institute. Helen will lead on the planning and delivery of the experimental playgrounds.


Dr Julia Bishop  (Co-I, Sheffield) is Research Associate in the Department of Education, University of Sheffield. Her expertise is in folklore studies, music, archival practice relating to folklore and play, and the study of children’s play. She is co-Director of the British Academy Childhoods and Play project, and a former researcher on the AHRC project Children’s Playground Games in the Age of New Media. She is co-editor of Play Today in the primary school playground: Life, learning and creativity (/OUP: 2001), co-author of The New Penguin Book of English Folksongs, and co-author of Changing Play: Play, Media And Commercial Culture From The 1950s To The Present Day (OUP: 2014). She is Chief Editor of the 2014 edition of the James Madison Carpenter Folksong Collection. She will lead on the liaison with the Bodleian Library and the cataloguing of the archive with Steve Roud; and will contribute to the ethnographic work in Sheffield. She will also liaise with the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield, in design and production of the Opie website.


Kate Cowan, Research Associate (UCL IOE)  is an early years specialist interested in young children’s multimodal communication. Her research covers areas including play, creativity, literacies and digital technologies. Kate’s work also involves developing multimodal methodologies and considers the ethics of video-based research with young children. She previously held a doctoral scholarship in the ESRC NCRM MODE project in multimodal methodologies. She will conduct ethnographic studies of play in the London partner schools, and support their involvement in the design aspects of the project.


Dr Valerio Signorelli, Research Associate (UCL, CASA)

An Architect by training, Valerio holds an M.Sc in Architecture and Urban Design (2009) and a Ph.D. in Territorial Design and Government (2013) from the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies (DAStU) at the Politecnico di Milano. His research interests focus on sensory urbanism, specifically on the multisensory integration between visual and auditory modalities, and digital simulation tools for visualising urban data sets in their temporal, sensory and spatial peculiarities. He will develop the VR virtual play environment for installation in the Museum of Childhood.


New Posts (to be appointed)

RA3 (Sheffield) – will develop the digital catalogue for the Bodleian Opie archive at the Humanities Research Institute.

Project Manager (UCLKL) – will coordinate the sections of the project, meetings, research workshops, the Play Festival, budget management, and preparation for publication.


Susan Thomas, Head of Archives and Modern Manuscripts, Bodleian Library will lead the digitising of the archive for the Bodleian.

Esther Lutman, Curator, V&A Museum of Childhood (MoC), will mediate access to the MoC collections and liaise on the Festival of Play.

Steve Roud  is creator of the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of nearly 200,000 references to nearly 25,000 songs based at the Vaughan Williams Library, Cecil Sharp House. He will work with Julia Bishop and RA3 on the cataloguing of the Opie archive.

Alison Somerset-Ward  Landscape Architect, Community Engagement Officer, Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust. She will work with Helen Woolley on the design of the playgrounds and collaboration with local communities.

Stephanie Sutton  holds a collaborative doctoral studentship (QMUL and MoC), in the history of London Adventure Play from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. She will contribute to the design of the smart playgrounds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s