Hi-tech observation of playground social communication trajectories in children (HOPSCoTCh)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Faculty of Education

Abstract

Playtime is an important aspect of everyday life for most school-aged children. As well as an opportunity for fun, the free-for-all of the playground is a challenging environment which provides opportunity for cognitive, social and physical development. Children engaging in successful playground peer interaction often demonstrate social-cognitive and communication skills at a more sophisticated level than those evident in other school contexts. On the other hand, those with developmental difficulties can struggle to navigate the social world of the playground.

Researchers in developmental psychology are therefore interested in school playgrounds as a sensitive context for learning more about social development and detecting any difficulties. Interesting open questions include whether children are less likely to be aggressive if they are in a more 'natural' playground compared to a concrete school yard, whether different groups of children play and interact differently on the playground (e.g. are girls really more sociable than boys?), and whether we can reliably detect early signs of conditions like ADHD or Asperger Syndrome just from observing play. The proposed project aims to answer some of these questions in a hi-tech way by using custom built, high-resolution GPS to measure social behaviours and interactions on the playground.

To achieve this we have assembled an interdisciplinary team including a psychologist, computer scientist, a psychiatrist and children's charity. Firstly, (after seeking ethical approval and consent) we plan to develop high-precision GPS chips and incorporate them into wearable objects which we will use to record the movements and interaction of a group of children at play in a concrete, rectangular playground. We will collect tracking data from this playground over a number of weeks.

Next, with the help of the charity, we will implement tailor-made environmental improvements to the playground, to be followed by a further 2 weeks of data collection. Alongside this we will ask parents to complete questionnaires about children's behavioural characteristics such as sociability and hyperactivity.

Subsequently, we will develop new mathematical techniques to identify different behavioural interaction patterns from the data. This should allow us to achieve our objectives to characterise the typical formation of social subgroups and identify how individual differences affect interactions in the social and physical environment. We will also examine the data from before and after the implementation of the environmental changes to see whether we can detect any changes in children's behaviour, for example increasing activity or sociability levels.

If the project is successful there will be a number of benefits. We will have important new information about children's social development which will improve our understanding of the relationships between a child's individual profile, their social group and the playground environment. This could be used to inform behavioural interventions. The method could also be developed to aid diagnosis of conditions affecting social development and in other fields where researchers would like to learn more about human social interactions.

We will also know more about whether investment in changes to the playground environment maybe a worthwhile consideration for schools and have a clearer basis for developing further research into this issue using more robust experimental study designs.

Finally, the development of hardware and software to the point where other researchers in both social and computer sciences can adopt the technique for their own studies provides opportunity for scientific and economic benefits to the UK and beyond.

Planned Impact

Community organisations and schools: Our partner charity, Learning through Landscapes (LtL), will benefit from an objective measure of the impact of their work, which they can use in their advice to schools. The participating school will benefit immediately from the environmental intervention implemented as part of the research project. The school is in a deprived urban centre (Tower Hamlets) and the improvements will brighten up the children's surroundings and, potentially have a positive impact on socialisation and learning opportunities. The school will benefit from a detailed profile of the behavioural characteristics of their pupils and insight into how the use of the playground could be optimised. Another benefit to the participating school is a unique opportunity to engage their pupils directly with social science research. Children will improve their understanding of social science and technology, and may benefit by exposure to social science as a potential career option.

Children: Beyond the immediate benefits to the participants, in the longer term, children could benefit from improved design and perhaps even legal protection of their playground spaces via the policy impacts we hope to achieve. This could lead to improved health and wellbeing. In the medium-term, other schools could adopt the technology to inform local decisions about changes to playgrounds.

Children with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism or attention deficit disorder could also benefit. Improved diagnostic practices resulting from use of HOPSCoTCh data could facilitate earlier and more accurate diagnosis. This in turn is associated with better provision and educational outcomes. The findings from our study could be used to examine how playgrounds can be adjusted to promote inclusion for children with these difficulties. Finally, we foresee that this group of children could benefit from improved interventions that have been evaluated for social impact using HOPSCoTCh.

Clinicians: As suggested above, HOPSCoTCh could contribute to diagnostics for neurodevelopmental conditions which have complex and subtle presentations. This could improve the working practices for those working in paediatric neurodevelopment. Accurate data from schools is a recognised "evidence deficit" area in this field that HOPSCoTCh could potentially go some way to resolving. Further validation work would need to be carried out but we consider this could be a strong possibility within 2 years.

General public: We also expect the project to have an impact on the public perception of playtime and its importance for children's development and socialisation. This is a desirable outcome given the developmental significance of play, which is sometimes overlooked in favour of activities perceived as more obviously "educational."

National and international policymakers: In the longer term (within 1-2 years of the project end), our findings could impact on public policy for the design and allocation of spaces for outdoor play. With increasing pressure for school places, playgrounds can be under threat and further use of this technology could enable optimisation of available space. Given the increasing importance of demonstrating that policy is evidence-informed, the HOPSCoTCh project technology could provide the most robust evidence to date in this area. This will lead to more effective buildings policies for schools and ultimately benefit child well-being in educational settings both nationally and internationally.

UK economy: The technology sector and UK economy are also potential beneficiaries of this research. Our goal of developing a hardware-software suite of measures could result in a product that would be marketable in research and clinical sectors across the globe. There may be potential for a spinout company or similar within 12 months of the project end. This could attract spending and investment in the UK.

Publications


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Description - What were the most significant achievements from the award?
This award is still active and so we still have lots to do in terms of analyzing our data. However we are pleased to have met a number of key objectives so far , including:
-Building a multi-disciplinary team that is functioning effectively and can communicate well.
-Developing the hardware and software for GPS tracking.
-Learning how best to implement the technology in a school environment with young children.
-Conducting a successful pilot of the sensor data collection.
-Collecting a full set of behavioural data and sensor data.
-Implementing a successful playground intervention.
-Engaging with the public about the study.

- To what extent were the award objectives met? If you can, briefly explain why any key objectives were not met.
So far we have met all our objectives, except the ones around data analysis. We have experienced some delays due to challenges in developing the technology, and also dealing with unexpected challenges from the weather! This means our analysis has been a little delayed but it has begun and we expect interesting results to emerge by the end of the award period.

- How might the findings be taken forward and by whom?
Exploitation Route We are in active discussions within the research team and with third sector partners interested in the technology. We hope to apply for further funding to build on this initial proof of concept study and conduct more research into children's playground environments and behaviours.
We also hope that researchers studying other aspects of human interactions will use our methods and technology too. There are early indications of this, for example one team is using this method in a study of wheelchair users' experiences and access to different environments.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Healthcare
 
Description As this award has not yet finished, the ways in which findings have been used are only just emerging. At this stage, the research has had an impact on schools and other organizations aimed at improving children's well-being and quality of life through starting conversations about how best to make changes to children's playspaces and how to measure the effects of any such changes. I have been asked to provide evidence to a local primary school and also to 3 national charities about the outcomes of the preliminary literature review we did for the project. Once we have completed our data analysis, I hope we can find further routes to impact in this area.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal
 
Description UCPC
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Title GPS 
Description We have developed a new method of using GPS and IMU sensor technology to track children's movement's whilst playing with a high degree of precision. We have developed wearable sensors for hats and for shoes that can be quickly and easily used by a non-specialist. An app to facilitate data collection has been built. Technical details are given in the Software and Technical Products section. Methods for data analysis are under development and should be completed by the time the award closes. 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact A team is now using the same technology to study the movements of wheelchair users in the U.K. and in India with the aim of mapping the most accessible/challenging routes to accessing community facilities. 
 
Title Hopscotch database 
Description The hopscotch database contains a unique set of data from a single class of children. As well as child age and gender, we have the following psychology measures: Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire; Children's Communication Checklist v 2; Sociometric Nominations; Peer Nominated Assessment of Playfulness. In addition we have information logged from GPS and IMU sensors. Database is not yet released as we are completing analysis and results. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact To the best of our knowledge this is the first such database in the world. It contains information which makes dynamical analysis of social networks ascertained from GPS sensors during children's play behaviour possible for the first time. 
 
Description Community Playthings 
Organisation Community Products (UK) Limited
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution I have met with members of this organization to discuss the project aims. They were particularly interested in the aspect of the research which involves loose parts play intervention being implemented in a school which previously did not use this type of resource.
Collaborator Contribution Community playthings kindly donated some high-quality, outdoor loose-parts play equipment to the study, to be used in the intervention.
Impact The school have been able to keep the donated equipment and so the children involved have benefited from this resource via enhanced quality of the playground environment.
Start Year 2016
 
Description LtL 
Organisation Learning through Landscapes, Winchester
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I have worked in partnership with LtL to design and deliver the intervention component of the study. The research team and I contributed the expertise in research design, psychological development and hardware/software development. I have also attended the Annual General meeting of Learning through Landscapes board of trustees and discussed the research aims and objectives with them.
Collaborator Contribution Learning through Landscapes took a lead on the recruitment of the participating school and on the design and delivery of the playground intervention. LtL also contributed by: -Participating in Steering Group meetings -Supporting the participating school to source funds to contribute towards school grounds physical changes
Impact This collaboration was multidisciplinary. This involved psychology, playwork, education, computer science and psychiatry.
Start Year 2016
 
Description UCL 
Organisation University College London (UCL)
Department UCL Computer Science
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution My research team and I are leading on the design and implementation of the playground intervention measure, the psychological measures in the study and on managing the communications between the partners across disciplines. We are also leading on the analysis of psychological data and on dissemination to third sector partners, policymakers and schools.
Collaborator Contribution The partners at UCL Computer Science department are leading on the design and build of the wearable sensors, and on the storage and processing of the sensor data. The partners at UCL Institute at Child Health are advising on psychological measures and data analysis.
Impact This collaboration was multidisciplinary and could not have happened without a team of this nature. The disciplines involved are psychology, playwork, education, computer science and psychiatry. Our key outputs to-date are: -New methods development -Successful collaborative working across disciplines and sectors -Design, development and implementation of wearable sensors for tracking children's interactions on the playground
Start Year 2016
 
Description UCL 
Organisation University College London (UCL)
Department University College London (UCL), Institute of Child Health
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution My research team and I are leading on the design and implementation of the playground intervention measure, the psychological measures in the study and on managing the communications between the partners across disciplines. We are also leading on the analysis of psychological data and on dissemination to third sector partners, policymakers and schools.
Collaborator Contribution The partners at UCL Computer Science department are leading on the design and build of the wearable sensors, and on the storage and processing of the sensor data. The partners at UCL Institute at Child Health are advising on psychological measures and data analysis.
Impact This collaboration was multidisciplinary and could not have happened without a team of this nature. The disciplines involved are psychology, playwork, education, computer science and psychiatry. Our key outputs to-date are: -New methods development -Successful collaborative working across disciplines and sectors -Design, development and implementation of wearable sensors for tracking children's interactions on the playground
Start Year 2016
 
Title Trackers 
Description 1. Wearable Sensor Development 1.1. GNSS/IMU Sensor A bespoke raw data GNSS wireless sensor has been designed and developed in house. The device (ORISEN_BLG) comprises of uBlox LEA-M8T Raw Data GNSS module (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and BeiDou) and active ceramic patch antenna for both GPS and GLONASS satellite systems. ORISEN_BLG is also equipped with DA14580 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) system-on-chip, micro SD-card storage, Bosch Sensortec 9-axis Inertial/Magnetometer sensor, Bosch Sensortec Air Pressure / Temperature sensor and Real time clock. 1.2. Wearable GNSS/IMU 3D Model GNSS patch antenna need to be placed horizontally and with line-of-sight to the sky and satellites. We considered options of a shoulder pad model and a hat model. A 3D model that contains the PCB, Li-Po rechargeable battery and patch antenna we designed in Rhino (Figure 3) and 3D printed using Selective-Laser Sintering (SLS) method. The model can fit securely under the brim of baseball caps . 1.3 Wearable IMU Sensor A 9-Axis (Accelerometer, Gyroscope and Magnetometer) IMU sensor for 3 degree-of-freedom motion capture and step detection has been designed and developed. The device (ORISEN_BLE) comprises of DA14580 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) system-on-chip, micro SD-card storage, Bosch Sensortec 9-axis Inertial/Magnetometer sensor, Bosch Sensortec Air Pressure / Temperature sensor and Real time clock. 1.4 Wearable IMU 3D Model For step detection, the IMU sensor needs to be worn on feet. A 3D model that contains the PCB and Li-Po rechargeable battery was designed in Rhino and 3D printed using SLS method. The shoe flap model can fit securely into the shoe laces and children can actively play, run, jump and even play football with it. 2. Firmware Development The firmware consists of the Core, Bluetooth modules, component drivers, interface drivers, storage drivers and data packet and transfer protocols. 2.1. Bluetooth V4.1 This module is the driver to use the embedded Bluetooth smart (V4.1) RF front-end and protocol stack in DA14580. It implements the GAP peripheral role for generic Bluetooth connectivity and GATT-based bidirectional serial link for Bluetooth Low Energy. It supports data streaming (write without response) and Bluetooth flow control mode to stablish a continuous and fail-safe connection to an external device (user's phone). Transfer rate up to 80 kbps is possible in this implementation. 2.2. Internal Interfaces The drivers for DA14580 GPIO's that defines the direction, application and interrupts are implemented in this section. Moreover, drivers for I2C Initialisation and Read/Write in both single byte and burst modes are programmed. Timer drivers to control the CPU and watchdog timers are also defined in this module. 2.3. Component Drivers Drivers to use the accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer are written using the I2C ports. The drivers allow reading from and writing to the IMU internal registers. The power modes of the sensors can be configured. Configuration for data sampling rate, filter bandwidth and sensitivity of the sensors are also provided. Also driver to use the real-time clock module (read and set) and reading the battery level is implemented. 2.4. Data Storage Protocols Functions to generate binary data packets from component drivers are implemented. A bespoke data protocol is defined to transfer the streaming data and save/transfer the off-line mode data 2.5. SD-Card Storage Drivers SD-card write access is implemented using SPI. A simplified version of FAT32 system is implemented for data storage on micro SD-Card. 2.6. Core The firmware core is a state machine that handles the events, connectivity and power modes of the system. Upon start-up the core configures the system clock and Bluetooth GAPM. It initialises the ports, GPIOs, I2C, SPI and timer drivers. Then it initialised the sensors, interrupts and Bluetooth V4.1 database. Then the state goes to Connectable and starts advertising for Bluetooth devices. Bluetooth provides connectivity to a mobile phone or tablet for configuration, device control and monitoring. The raw data is processed using a Java Swing Application that has been developed for this purpose. The Java application reads and converts the binary data into meaningful physical data (e.g, meter per square second for acceleration and degree per second for angular rate). The application then synchronises the data packets and writes them into separate files for IMU and GNSS. The IMU files are recorded in comma separated format usable in Matlab or Excel. The raw GNSS data is recorded in UBX format for further processing using the base station data. The processed GNSS data is then recorded in PVT (Position, Velocity, Time) format. 
Type Of Technology Detection Devices 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The wearable sensors were developed as part of this research award, and without them we could not have studied children's behaviour in time and space with such detail. 
 
Description EducatedBrain 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was a talk about the project aimed at a general audience, and mostly attended by people working in education (teachers, TAs) and postgraduate students. There was interest and discussion about the project and subsequently I was invited to discuss one school's plans for an outdoor play policy with them. Around 80 people attended the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description LtL board 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact I gave a talk about the project to the board of trustees of Learning through Landscapes. The audience were very engaged and we talked a lot about the need for high quality research evidence to support interventions, as well as discussing the ethics and implementation issues associated with the new technology. About 1-12 people attended the talk and reported changing views, or learning something new after the talk and subsequent discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016