skip to content

Click here to search our resources

PEDAL Hub: Resource Library

Child reading on windowsill


Here you can find summaries of some our research papers and links to more information.


Hands-on activities and children's learning

Elizabeth Byrne, Paul Ramchandani, Kayleigh Skene, Thomas Chupein, Hanne Jensen, Celia Hsiao, Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Amy Jo Dowd

Why did we do this research? Hands-on learning activities with physical objects – or physical manipulatives (PMs) – can be great at encouraging children’s active participation in learning. Cast your mind back to your own childhood: do you remember using items like counters, shapes, or fraction bars in school? If so, you were using PMs! We wanted to find out what kind of research has been done on educational programmes involving PMs. 

How did we do it? We conducted a scoping review – a type of literature review used to identify and broadly describe a body of research according to certain inclusion criteria. We searched several academic databases for studies that have tested the effectiveness of PM interventions with primary-age children; 102 studies met our inclusion criteria and were synthesised in the review.

What did we find? Most studies involved children aged 4-6 years, in school settings, from high-income countries (like the USA). The interventions focused on different hands-on activities such as block building, shape sorting, and paper folding. The evidence from these studies were mixed – some helped children’s math, spatial, and literacy skills, while others did not. The findings illustrate that hands-on experiences with PMs can support children’s active engagement in learning. Going forward, we need more high-quality studies, with a focus on lower-income contexts.


Elizabeth has written a short Play Piece blog about the review. You can also read our short 5-page summary and the full-report here



Links between mums' mental health and children's pretend play

Zhen Rao, Beth Barker, Christine O'Farrelly, and Paul Ramchandani

Why did we do this research? Pretend play can be a helpful way for children to develop important social and emotional skills. We wanted to find out whether parents’ experiences of anxiety and low mood were linked to the amount they took part in pretend play with their 2-year-olds. 

How did we do it? Video clips of 60 mums playing with their toddlers were analysed in 5-second chunks. Researchers were looking out for moments of pretend play (like pouring the toy teapot or pretending to eat the cake) from both mums and their children. We also asked parents how anxious and low they’d been feeling in the last two weeks.

What did we find? We found that in families where mums reported little anxiety, both children and mums were more likely to pretend play together. This suggests that helping parents who experience low mood or anxiety could also help improve their ability to engage in important and potentially ‘protective’ forms of play with their children.

You can read the full paper here

Supporting families with their children's behaviour: The Healthy Start, Happy Start Study

Christine O’Farrelly, Hilary Watt, Daphne Babalis, Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, Beth Barker, Sarah Byford, Poushali Ganguli, Ellen Grimas, Jane Iles, Holly Mattock, Julia McGinley, Charlotte Phillips, Rachael Ryan, Stephen Scott, Jessica Smith, Alan Stein, Eloise Stevens, Marinus van IJzendoorn, Jane Warwick, Paul Ramchandani 

Why did we do this research? Challenging behaviours, like tantrums, refusals, pushing or hitting, are common in toddlers. For lots of children, these behaviours reduce as they get older. But, for some children, they continue and can have an impact on them now and in the future. Parents and caregivers can make a big difference but it’s important that they have the tools and support to help them. 

How did we do it? The Healthy Start, Happy Start study tested whether a video-led programme for families (called VIPP-SD) could help reduce children’s challenging behaviour. All together, 300 families with one- and two-year-olds took part. Health professionals visited families at home and videoed parents playing with their children. They reviewed the videos with the parents, providing feedback that highlighted positive moments, as well as tips on managing more challenging behaviours. 

What did we find? We found that children whose families received the programme had less challenging behaviour compared to those who did not. This is one of the first programmes delivered through the NHS that helps improve behaviour and strengthen mental health in young children.

You can watch our one-minute video about the study here and read our research paper here

Coping with Changes: Supporting social and emotional learning in early childhood

Natalie Kirby, Elizabeth Byrne, and Paul Ramchandani

What is the Coping with Changes course? The LEGO Foundation’s free Coping with Changes course was designed to support adults as they support children during stress and change. The course is interactive and playful, providing learners with play-based strategies and activities, tools, and resources. You can work through the course at your own pace, choosing to explore every unit or just the ones that suit you.

What our section focuses on. Our unit focuses on how children aged 0-3 years develop and how we can support what’s called their social emotional learning. We highlight the moments that are really important for babies and young children to develop a solid foundation of social and emotional skills. These include forming bonds for early relationships and attachments, expressing and reading emotions, communicating, and taking part in social and playful interactions. 

What is aims to do. The Early Childhood Unit aims to help learners understand how stress and change might affect young children’s learning and development. Children are really resilient and they all face stress sometimes (things like falling over or getting an injection). Having responsive and supportive adults around can help children learn how to process their feelings and cope with these everyday challenges. We’ve included examples and activities to help learners provide this support for children to feel safe and secure and to continue playing and learning.

You can access the full Coping with Changes course here and a short play piece by Tilly and Elizabeth about social and emotional learning in early childhood here


Play in the Pandemic: The impact of quarantine and restrictive environments on children’s play 

Kelsey Graber, Elizabeth Byrne, Emily Goodacre, Natalie Kirby, Krishna Kulkarni, Christine O'Farrelly, and Paul Ramchandani

Why did we do this research? As the UK went into its first lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a key thing on our minds was how this might impact children’s health, wellbeing, and play experiences – something we know is a fundamental part of childhood. To get a clearer idea about what the potential effects of this extraordinary situation might be for children’s lives, we set out to analyse existing information on the impact of quarantine, isolation, and environmental restrictions on children’s play. 

How did we do it? We carried out what’s called a ‘rapid review’. It involved us searching through almost 6,000 research papers to find studies that connected restrictive circumstances (like time in hospitals and refugee camps) and children’s play. This information helped us to better understand the possible effects of the current pandemic’s lockdown regulations on children’s lives.  

What did we find? The 15 key papers we found on this topic showed us that there can be substantial changes to children’s access to play in times of crisis and quarantine. But none of these studies looked at the impact of an infectious disease outbreak on children’s play. This means there’s a research gap in this area. The studies that are currently looking into this will be really important in helping us to understand the value of play for children’s health and wellbeing during moments of crisis.

You can read the full paper here and a blog about the work from Kelsey here

Links between children's "aggressive" pretend play and real-life aggression

Zhen Rao, Elian Fink, and Jenny Gibson

Why did we do this research? Children’s pretend play can sometimes look “aggressive”: their imaginative characters might fight with or even kill each other. We wanted to find out if children would be more likely to pretend play “aggressively” if they tended to be more easily angered in real-life situations. Because children often pretend together, we were also curious whether “aggressive” pretend play was more likely when children were playing with a child considered to be quick to lose their temper. 

How did we do it? We invited 7- to 10-year-olds at a school in China to play in pairs with some toys and recorded their play for 20 minutes. We also asked each child to sort the other children from their class who took part in the study into three categories: good at keeping their temper, easily angered, or somewhere in between. 

What did we find? We found that all children pretended, but only some children pretended “aggressively” during our observation. Compared to children who were playing with a less easily angered partner, children playing with a more easily angered partner were more likely to pretend “aggressively”. This might be because playing with an easily angered child is challenging and pretending “aggressively” is a way that children use to cope with such challenge, or to explore different ways to keep their play going.

You can find out more about our study in this news piece and read the paper here

What matters to children themselves when they start school?

Christine O'Farrelly, Ailbhe Booth (University College Dublin), Mimi Tatlow-Golden (The Open University), and Beth Barker

Why did we do this research? We wanted to find out more about how we can make sure children have the best start in school – often called ‘school readiness’. Lots of the other work looking into school readiness has focused on what grown-ups (families, nursery teachers, and teachers) think is important. Surprisingly, we don’t know much about what matters to children themselves when they start school. 

How did we do it? We asked 4- and 5-year-olds from Dublin, Ireland to do some activities all about how they were finding the first year of school. They answered questions, did some drawings, talked about pictures that showed potentially challenging school moments, and gave their advice to ‘Riley Rabbit’ a cartoon character who was about to start school.  

What did we find? What children told us formed four big ideas about what matters to them for a good start in school. They want to: 

  • Feel able and enthusiastic for school 
  • Know how to navigate peer relationships 
  • Have supportive environments with opportunities to play 
  • Have strong links between school and family 

These ideas matter because they add new and important priorities to the ones adults already think about when they try to capture and support school readiness.

You can find out more about the children’s key priorities in this two-minute video or by reading our paper here.



Finding out more about our work in the PEDAL Centre... 

Vicky Yiran Zhao, Krishna Kulkarni, Jenny Gibson, Sara Baker, and Paul Ramchandani

By 2019, the PEDAL research centre had been running for four years. In that time, we’d established several exciting projects to move forward the field of play research. We wrote this paper to draw together some of the work we’d been doing that focused on “measuring play”. 

In the paper, we focused on ways we’ve measured children’s playfulness and play with friends and peers (in the Children’s Relationships with Peers through Play study) and measured parental playfulness and parent-child play (in the Healthy Start, Happy Start study). We discussed why we’d designed the studies the way we did, the ways we measured play, and possible ways this research could help us understand different aspects of parenting, children’s development, and family wellbeing.

These are just two of the many interesting research projects being carried out at PEDAL and we look forward to letting you know more about our other research in time.  

You can read the full paper here