Skip to content
Show Menu

PEDAL Play and Mental Health Conference 2023

7 September, 2023 @ 9:00 am

Join us to discover the transformative power of play at PEDAL’s annual conference. This autumn, leading academics, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers from around the world will join us to delve into the theme of Play and Mental Health.

With a focus on early childhood (from birth to age eight), we will explore the vital role of play in protecting and promoting mental health; in therapeutic care, and as a research tool. This conference offers a unique chance to discuss the opportunities that play provides for babies and children in a range of settings, and the challenges in successfully delivering play-based approaches.

Taking place in the renowned Faculty of Education, the conference will provide a platform for networking, knowledge exchange and collaboration. Engage in your own playful learning and gain new insights into how we can support the mental health of babies and young children.

Tickets for this event have now sold out. Click here to join the waiting list on Eventbrite now!

Overview of Events

The day will include keynote talks, workshops and playful activities focusing on a range of issues related to babies’ and young children’s mental health including: targeted support for families in the early years, supporting neurodivergent children through play, and public health campaigns to promote playful parenting.

You can click on the image below to download an overview of the events taking place.

Programme Details

Find out more about the presentations & workshops taking place on the day below.

Click here for our FAQs, and more information about our speakers.


Professor Paul Ramchandani, Director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), University of Cambridge.

Keynote 1: A future for the world’s children? Play as the basis of a new paradigm for a world on fire.

Professor Mark Tomlinson, Co-Director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University.

Abstract: Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota, once described children as a “kind of indicator species”, arguing that if we can build a successful society for children, we will have a successful society for all people. The Lancet Commission on the Future Child also showed that what is good for children is good for societies. As our world becomes more politically and climatically unstable, with emerging technologies disrupting how our societies function, we are going to need minds and brains in the future that are built for creativity, adaptation, collaboration, connectedness and resilience. As the fissures deepen and widen, gratitude, kindness, empathy and hope are going to be needed on a grand scale.

In my presentation, I will imagine play as a revolutionary act in terms of creative exploration – an activity that has the potential to build the sorts of minds we are going to need in the future. I will also explore the potential for play as an activity that goes beyond serving narrow developmental functions, but also as a profoundly important component of what it will mean to be human in the world that our children are going to inhabit.

Keynote 2: A vision for happy, healthy childhoods in the UK

Helen Hayes, Shadow Children’s Minister and Labour MP for Dulwich & West Norwood.

Breakout Session 1: Using video to support playful interactions and positive relationships

Healthy Start, Happy Start (PEDAL) & Playtime with Books (PEDAL).

Workshop details TBC.

Breakout Session 1: Play and Parental Engagement

Patrick Myers & Norah Minshall, Thrive at Five.

Abstract: Thrive at Five is a national charity with an express aim of improving good levels of development at the end of the foundation stage. Our first pathfinder is in two wards in Stoke on Trent with additional pathfinders’ sites planned. We have several workstreams that aim to lean into challenges that families face in the early years, bringing the use of evidence alive in the early years system locally. One workstream is Parent Baby and Toddler Groups, which is a response to what we heard through our discovery phase about the paucity of 0-2 provision.

This presentation will describe how we have introduced these groups into the local geography in order that parents can be supported in their important role as a child’s first educator. Using the vehicle of purposeful play, we are creating ways in which parents can interact with their children in their home environment. These spaces are also used by other who support families in the early years. This collaboration demonstrates how the shared partnership between Thrive at Five, other organisations and of course parents create opportunities to impact both on child and parental wellbeing and establish positive modelling for play as learning.

Breakout Session 1: Prioritising play to protect against the harms of homelessness in pre-school children

Jane Williams, The Magpie Project.

Abstract: The Magpie Project attempts to prioritise play over all else. We understand that ‘play’ is not frivolous, it is the deadly serious work of childhood – it builds bodies, wellbeing, mental health, curiosity, muscles, dexterity, neural pathways – that will create resilient, balanced, resourced adults.

But, for our mums – whose days are filled with attempting to meet the basic needs of shelter, clothes, food, safety – child’s play can seem like an unattainable luxury. It is chaotic, messy, unpredictable and open ended – all the things that someone trying to keep control of their life amid the chaos or risks of homelessness fear most.

The Magpie Project understands that – for those parenting in extremis – play does not just happen. We have come to understand that ‘play’ needs to be scaffolded by so many other things – housing, access to open spaces, sleep, food, shoes that fit, and enough time and sense of safety.

In this talk we will share how we have lowered barriers to play – what works and the mistakes we havthat that don’t in supporting play.

Breakout Session 2: Playful approaches to research

Dr Beth Barker, Kelsey Graber, Sydney Conroy & Carolyn Mazzei (PEDAL).

Abstract: As a research centre, PEDAL looks for opportunities for play everywhere – including in our research. In this interactive session, a group of PEDAL researchers will discuss how play itself can be used as an ethos and a tool to support our explorations of play, development, and learning in childhood during our research studies. We will discuss ways that play factors into our research questions, data collection techniques, and crucially participants’ engagement and enjoyment, with the aim of gathering high quality and authentic data.

Practical demonstrations will bring to life four playful measures that are being used at PEDAL. The workshop will also include opportunities for whole group discussion and interactive brainstorming to encourage the sharing of ideas and experiences, and to consider the wider applicability of these approaches.

Breakout Session 2: All he does is line things up: exploring neurodivergent self-directed play in early childhood

Kerry Murphy.

Abstract: Theoretically and within educational practice, there is a widespread assumption that play does not come naturally to neurodivergent children. This results in children being subjected to play-based interventions that aim to fix or normalise their play behaviours to be more neurotypical. This talk will explore current definitions of self-directed play and emphasise the importance of embracing and honouring different ways of playing and being. I will:

  • Explore the concept of play and its significance in diverse child development.
  • Examine the historical perspectives and misconceptions surrounding play in children with developmental differences or disabilities.
  • Challenge the assumption that a child’s play requires fixing or correction.
  • Emphasise the benefits and potential of self-directed play for all children
  • Share strategies and approaches to support and promote inclusive play.
  • Provide real-life examples and case studies that illustrate the positive impact of self-directed play.


Breakout Session 2: The Brick-by-Brick® programme: supporting children in the early years through collaborative LEGO® play

Play Included.

Abstract: The Brick-by-Brick programme fosters children’s social and emotional development through collaborative play with LEGO bricks. At Play Included, we train health and education professionals to deliver the Brick-by-Brick programme, and support positive and playful experiences for all children. At Brick Club, as they are known to children, small teams come together to build and play with LEGO collaboratively, and children have the opportunity to practice and develop a range of cognitive, creative, emotional, social and physical skills.

So far, many of the children who come to Brick Clubs are primary or secondary-aged, and most likely have a diagnosis of autism or another neurodevelopmental condition. We believe the programme has far-reaching benefit for a wider range of children, and are keen to establish and test how the programme could be adapted and used in early-years settings. Here, we will share testimonials and learnings so far about how the programme has supported younger children, and welcome the room to help shape our future research into the early years, brick by brick.

Keynote 3: The LEGO Foundation: Play and Mental Health

Yosha Gargeya, The LEGO Foundation Head of Learning through Play (Interim). 

Presentation details TBC.

Breakout Session 3: Prisons, Hospitals and Schools: Challenges and opportunities introducing play in different settings

Dr Paulina Pérez-Duarte (PEDAL), Dina Fajardo (PEDAL) & Mercedes Castañeda (Reinserta).


Abstract: During this session, we will hear from three Mexican women who are exploring and advocating for the use of play in challenging settings, as well as those opportunities where play can enable a powerful change in children’s mental health.

Firstly, Mercedes will focus on the effects of trauma in children and the use of play therapy for their recovery. During the presentation, which includes theory and clinical cases, participants will learn of the work that Reinserta does with children exposed to extreme violence and the use of play in therapy, in preparation for legal declarations and in evaluation in the Mexican context.

Secondly, Dina will share her experiences during her fieldwork, as well as some of her doctoral research findings. We will learn what teaching through play looks like in Mexican urban and rural preschools.

Paulina will finish by sharing the connections she’s been interweaving between her previous and ongoing research. She will be sharing the challenges and opportunities that introducing play, and specialised play, could bring into the hospital experience of paediatric patients.

Breakout Session 3: NSPCC: Look, Sing, Play Campaign – Design, Delivery, Evaluation and New Developments Responding to Local Needs

Margaret Gallagher, NSPCC Strategic Services Manager: Local Campaigns.

Abstract: The NSPCC Look, Say, Sing, Play (LSSP) campaign empowers parents to change everyday moments into brain-building ones. It’s aimed at parents with babies under two, and is designed to be relevant right from birth. The ultimate aim is to help parents give their child the best start in life – both by building their brain and strengthening the bond between parent and child. The campaign is delivered nationally and locally across the UK and includes a range of resources for both parents and practitioners. Two years after launching LSSP an evaluation was carried out by the Institute of Health Visiting and Newcastle University. The recommendations from this report along with feedback from ongoing delivery of our LSSP campaigns in communities has enabled the NSPCC to continue to expand and develop the range and focus of messages in the campaign.

Breakout Session 3: The small things that make a difference: Better Start Bradford’s experience 

Alex Spragg, Programme Director at Better Start Bradford.

Abstract: Better Start Bradford is one of five Lottery funded programmes nationally working with families of children aged 0-3.

We have delivered several major communications campaigns around mental health:

Big Little Moments: A cross site campaign using characters which showed times and places caregivers could positively interact with their children. Better Start Bradford developed a suite of additional materials and character costumes which were (and still are) used widely with local communities.

Nurturing Knowledge: In 2019 we had a “year of learning” and each month included a campaign around child health and wellbeing. These included parent resources such as “Happy Mum, Happy Bump”; “You are your baby’s best toy” and “Enjoying the outdoors together” – all emphasising the impact on infant and child mental health of positive interactions with parents/caregivers.

Moments that matter: Working with our infant mental health project, Little Minds Matter, we developed a series of videos showing real parents talking and playing with their babies and sharing messages around how these special moments will help to build their child’s emotional and mental wellbeing.

Breakout Session 4: Understanding and supporting mental health in infancy and early childhood: A PEDAL-UNICEF UK toolkit

Sally Hogg, Senior Policy Fellow (PEDAL).

Abstract: Sally led PEDAL’s work with UNICEF UK on the new toolkit for understanding and supporting mental health in infancy and early childhood. In this session, she will talk about the origins of the toolkit and why UNICEF and PEDAL set out to help partners from different services and professions to develop a deeper, shared understanding of mental health in infancy and early childhood. Sal will explain the new framework which describes what it means to be mentally healthy in the earliest years of life.

Participants will be encouraged to reflect on their own framing of mental health, and how the UNICEF and PEDAL framework might support them and their partners.

Breakout Session 4: Making Friends with Conflict: The power of play and the arts in uncertain times CANCELLED

Susan Harris MacKay, Co-Director of the Centre for Playful Enquiry.

Unfortunately Susan cannot join us as planned, but we hope she will be able to join us for a future online event.

Keynote 4: The Therapeutic Powers of Play: Play Therapy as a Mental Health Treatment

Siobhán Prendiville, Course Leader for the MA in Creative Psychotherapy (Humanistic & Integrative Modality) at the Children’s Therapy Centre in Ireland.

Abstract: In this engaging and interactive presentation, Siobhán will introduce the phenomenal therapeutic powers of play and highlight how well Play Therapy sits within a neurosequential approach to psychotherapy. Twenty specific therapeutic powers of play have been identified across 4 domains:

1. Facilitates communication

2. Fosters emotional wellbeing

3. Enhances social relationships

4. Increases personal strengths

Qualified psychotherapists, who specialise in play therapy, use these therapeutic powers to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development. The therapeutic powers of play are the enzymes that bring about change for children, teenagers, and adults alike.

Siobhán will bring participants on an exciting journey into the world of Play Therapy and shine a light on its value and importance in the field of mental health. The curative powers of play and relationships are pivotal in developmentally appropriate treatment of children and adolescents. Play therapy is relationship based – the power of the therapy comes from the play itself; the strength of the relationship between the Play Therapist and the client; and working within a neurosequential model. This presentation will provide an integrated overview of how these elements combine.

Keynote 5: The Complex Possibilities of Play in Schools

Dr James Biddulph FCCT FRSE (Executive Headteacher) & Aimee Durning MBE (Director of Inclusion & Community), University of Cambridge Primary School.

Abstract: The University of Cambridge Primary School has successfully used play to nurture and promote mental wellness for some of the most vulnerable children within the school community. James and Aimee will discuss the value of play and its place within the school curriculum. They will consider essential play skills which open doorways to curriculum possibilities.  Now is the time to reimagine possibilities for play.


Professor Paul Ramchandani, Director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), University of Cambridge.

About Us

We’re the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development, and Learning based in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. We conduct world-leading research on childhood and mobilise knowledge to help to improve children’s lives and life chances.

We launched PEDAL in 2015 with a donation from the LEGO Foundation. PEDAL is based in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and directed by the LEGO Professor of Play, Paul Ramchandani. Key elements of our centre are led by Prof. Sara Baker, Prof. Jenny Gibson, Dr Christine O’Farrelly, and Sally Hogg.

We’re working to make new discoveries about the value and impacts of play in children’s lives, to develop supports for families, schools, and communities, and to spark change in policy and practice. We aim to help those working to lay a happy and healthy foundation for babies, children, and young people.

You can find out more about our work by following us on social media, and join in the discussion about this event using the hashtag #PEDALConference2023.