In Memoriam: David Whitebread

Learning happens best when learners are provided with engaging, authentic, and joyful tasks. So, what could be a better tool for learning than play?

“If you want children to be effective, powerful learners, that needs to be embedded in early playful experiences” – David Whitebread [1]

Dr. Whitebread was a trailblazing researcher in early childhood development, a staunch advocate for children, and a teacher and mentor to many. For the first 12 years of his career, he was a primary school teacher. His connection with children through various playful learning experiences served as a foundation for his later research interests.

Dr. Whitebread’s research helped to popularise the idea that play is important for learning and the development of self-regulatory abilities in young children. He observed the early emergence of sophisticated mental activities such as emotional communication and problem solving in young children during playful activities, and applied these research findings to activism that improved educational policy and quality. With support from the LEGO foundation, Dr. Whitebread carried out the Playful Learning and Narrative Skills (PLaNS) project, and founded the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) research centre in the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University [2]. At PEDAL, he continued his research into the importance of self-regulation and play for childhood development. The LEGO Foundation has made a video summarising some of that research.

Building Children’s Writing Skills Through Learning Through Play 

Children are natural experts in play. Creativity, imagination, and curiosity are fundamental to childhood games and interactions. Through play, self-regulation can almost seem to come naturally to children. They have to interact with others, solve problems, and understand their own thoughts and emotions during these playful tasks. Teachers can also harness this energy by incorporating various types of playful learning into the classroom. For example, teachers can schedule time for guided play, led by children and scaffolded by adults. In the classroom, teachers become co-players with their students. Teachers can also be valuable co-regulators. Together, researchers, teachers, and children bring together their various perspectives and expertise in play. This helps to deepen our understanding of how to support playful learning and how to advocate for more play in our classrooms. 

“Young children are powerful learners, and our job is to be there to help them and support them along the way” – David Whitebread [3]

Dr. Whitebread’s research demonstrated how play is not a frivolous way to spend time, but an important tool for the development of metacognition and self-regulation in children. Play is an indispensable educational and developmental experience. Dr. Whitebread’s research and teaching about the importance of play lives on in the work of his students, colleagues and collaborators who are spread around the world, as well as among the countless communities of children that have found joy through these playful learning opportunities.


  1. [WatchNCB]. (2018, January 24). Dr David Whitebread on Play [Video]. Youtube.
  2. Whitebread, D. & Basilio, M. (2017). Playful Writing: Building stories together to inspire young writers: a teacher handbook. PEDAL: Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning & the LEGO Foundation.
  3. [Sage]. (2012, August 7). David Whitebread, Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education [Video]. Youtube.


David Whitebread, PhD
Former Acting Director, University of Cambridge, PEDAL Research Centre

General Research Interests: 

  • Development of cognitive and emotional self-regulation in young children
  • Play, learning and development
  • Quality in early childhood education