Playing together: developing understanding

Whilst sociology and engineering might rarely be mentioned in the same sentence, researchers at Leeds are successfully collaborating across the two disciplines.
Dr Angharad Beckett, from the School of Sociology and Social Policy and Dr Raymond Holt from the School of Mechanical Engineering, along with research student, Anne-Marie Moore, are examining how engineering design and social sciences can work together to create products, technologies and environments that encourage inclusive play between disabled and non-disabled children.
This collaboration was born out of previous research conducted by Drs Beckett and Holt. Dr Holt, in considering the design of a technology that would help disabled children develop fine motor skills, hit upon the idea of developing this into a game that a disabled child could play with a friend – and that their friend might not have an impairment.
Dr Beckett, in considering how to encourage non-disabled children to develop positive attitudes towards disabled people had hit upon the idea of inclusive play as a potentially useful strategy in this regard. As a result of a successful bid to the Leverhulme Trust, Dr Holt and Dr Beckett are now working together on a project called Together Through Play. They are currently working with six friendship groups, each consisting of a disabled child and their non-disabled friends, at a number of mainstream primary schools in Yorkshire and aim to understand the children’s thoughts, feelings and aspirations about play, along with the barriers that might be preventing inclusive play.
Dr Beckett explains: “The approach to designing equipment and environments for disabled children is more often than not about adapting something so that it’s accessible to them. We are interested in going beyond this to consider how designers might also facilitate positive and meaningful interactions between disabled and non-disabled children – interactions that increase mutual understanding and encourage friendships.”
The research team is particularly interested in how design can help challenge negative assumptions non-disabled children may have about disability and disabled people. Through working with the children as co-designers the project aims to understand how positive, meaningful play can be fostered and friendships can be encouraged.
Dr Beckett believes that there’s a huge amount sociologists and engineers can learn from one another. “An engineer, in approaching a problem, is obviously primarily concerned with finding a technological solution, but adding a sociological understanding of the nature of that problem can be very useful. .
“Many engineers are already using sociological methods, for example focus groups or interviews, but in many cases are looking for frameworks within which to analyse findings in a way that can usefully inform and enhance their work” she says. “This is something that we as sociologists can offer – an understanding of the social world and its inherent complexity. In return, the design process itself, particularly if it is participatory, is a wonderful vehicle for understanding people’s experiences and needs and a rich source of data for the sociologist’.”]]>