Universiteit Utrecht
Dynamics of Youth
In the interdisciplinary hubs of Dynamics of Youth, Utrecht researchers work together with social partners on the major challenges for future generations. The hubs introduce themselves in a series of stories.
'Utrecht is the place to be for game research'

Playing is not just fun, but also important for the health and development of children. Neurobiologist Heidi Lesscher, paediatrician/researcher Sanne Nijhof and game researcher Sander Bakkes form the core group of the Healthy Play, Better Coping hub. They are convinced of the power and possibilities of play. Their challenge is to investigate how play can help children deal better with their chronic and other diseases. They want to achieve this by becoming experts in the role of play in the development of children. ‘Utrecht is the place to be for game research.’ 

Lesscher works at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and researches the effects of playing in rats. Nijhof works at Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital (WKZ) to investigate whether these effects could also help children who have a chronic disease and Bakkes is investigating how a ‘playful’ game can support these children. So much for the simple version. The reality is a bit more complex.
Social and emotional development
According to Lesscher, research in rats shows that ‘play' plays an important role in their social and emotional development. ‘We found out that their resilience decreases and inappropriate social behaviour increases when they are not playing. I was immediately curious whether this would also apply to people, especially sick children.’ The idea for the hub was born. At WKZ, Nijhof mainly works with chronically ill children. ‘These are children with childhood rheumatism, childhood cancer or cystic fibrosis, diseases that have a heavy physical impact, but also a major effect on the social and emotional development of children. Many children experience stress, feel lonely and regularly miss a connection with healthy children.’
Positive effect in the real world
At the other side of the Utrecht Science Park, Bakkes is working on the development of applied games for research, education and care. ‘A game for children who are ill is not a form of therapy, but above all an instrument that can help children cope better with their illness. It’s great to contribute to that cause. From the interactions of children within such a game, you may be able to deduce certain needs or individual obstacles. The most challenging part is to design game interactions in such a way that they have positive effects in the real world.’
Tied together
The hub wants to add value to society with concrete results, but the researchers are careful not to publicise work that is still ‘in progress’ too soon. ‘This could create false hopes and expectations.’ This degree of caution has not hindered the rapid development of the hub in the past two years, especially within the hub community. The research lines have been concretised in clear PhD programmes that are increasingly tied together.
The overall picture of the patient
‘With our hub, we show the strength and added value of interdisciplinary research to the outside world, our students and the youngest generation of researchers,’ says Bakkes. According to Nijhof, interdisciplinary work is necessary to achieve sustainable social impact. She is pleased that this is increasingly happening at WKZ and the University Medical Center. ‘More and more, we are looking at the overall picture of the patient and not just at the disease and the treatment. This integrated vision is a natural way of working for the newest generation of physicians.‘ Hopefully, the interdisciplinary approach will also be better appreciated when research grants are distributed. ‘That would be beneficial for our hub.’
Game development and influencing behaviour
The hub has now grown into a large group and draws a lot of interest both within and outside Utrecht University. ‘In order to maintain our clout, we don't want to get too big. But we will remain open to new knowledge and cooperation that further strengthens us. Especially in the field of 'healthy' development, through play or otherwise, of children and influencing behaviour,’ says Nijhof. The hub already collaborates with external partners such as Jantje Beton and IJsfontein, a company that designs and develops playful (digital) learning. Annelies Wisse is an interaction designer and is working with the hub to develop the game. ‘It is great and very inspiring to be so intensively involved in this. We sometimes forget how important playing together is. And it doesn't always happen automatically; you learn by playing a lot. We are now working on this both with and for children.’
Preventive health care
In this way, the hub also connects with the increasing interest in preventive health care. The insights from the hub can therefore be used for healthy children as well. Nijhof has already taken this into account, and is comparing the psychosocial impediments and needs of sick children with those of healthy children in her research. By looking at both the group and the individual, she can obtain a wealth of information. ‘In order to do something with this, for example in schools and day cares or in the design of the outdoor space, we would also like to collaborate with the municipality of Utrecht. How great would it be if Utrecht were the first place where we applied the results of our Utrecht research?’