my research

Free play is of vital importance for children’s lives. As society changes and constantly offers different opportunities and obstacles to play, we need to rethink play and the playful tools that come with it – toys, games, apps, playground sets, and the like. The areas of research that I engage in aim to support the designers of tomorrow’s playful products in two ways.

The first research area is: developing tools and methods for designers to empathize with children’s worlds of experience and uncover their interests, needs and desires. I adapt and develop contextual enquiry approaches such as Contextmapping and Co-design methods to suit young participants, with play as central focus. These approaches are developed and tested on a small scale in student projects (such as graduation projects) and on a larger scale in research projects with industry and public partners, e.g. the ‘Co-design with kids’ project (see the ‘projects’ section).

The second research area concerns application of theories on play in design. How can the relevant theories, models and concepts from social sciences be made into clear and inspirational tools in the heads and hands of designers? Much of my research work in this area is done in cooperation with experts from other fields, such as Lieselotte van Leeuwen from University of Gothenburgs Master Progam in Child Culture Design. We have explored and published on topics as the dynamics of motivation (through the lenses of Reversal Theory and Self Determination Theory), development of autonomy in play (‘Rebellious Play’ project), symbolic meaning of toys for toddlers (Winnicott’s theory on Transitional Objects), always in the context of design for play. We regularly involve students and their design projects in this work. It is an ongoing effort; see some of the results in the ‘publications’ section.

Current research projects

Co-design with kids

Fully named “Co-design with kids: early acquisition of 21st century skills”, this project studies the relation between 21st century skills and design skills. Its primary aim is to understand how children aged 8-12 can learn three specific 21st century skills through in-class design projects for real-world clients. Its secondary aim is to understand how designers can co-create design solutions with children. The project is disseminated through scientific publications and a toolbox for primary school teachers and designers.
The project is funded through a NWO-NRO grant from 1015 to 2019 and is executed with 12 scientific and business/public partners. You can follow our activities on

Past projects


The ProFit project explored fieldlab approaches to innovation in play, exercise and sports. In this project I cooperated with four Universities, five municipalities and business partners. It focused on stimulating innovation in physical play and exercise through bringing industry, end users, city planners and other stakeholders together. We set up the Delft FieldLab Play and Exercise and conducted product ideation sessions with end users and creative professionals, user studies, product tests and more. Our main scientific aim in this project was to develop and assess ways for children to be properly involved, leading to Fenne van Doorn’s approach of children as Co-researchers.
This project was financed by the EU under the Interreg IVb program.
The public report can be found at the website.
It is affiliated to the TU Delft Sports Engineering Institute.
The PhD thesis of Fenne van Doorn can be obtained from the TU Delft research repository.