British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship: The emergence of literacy in very young children: place and materiality in a more-than- human world

I am delighted to announce I have received funding from the British Academy, through their Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme, for a major three year project on young children’s literacies practices. This study will investigate the role of place, materiality and the body in the emergence of literacy in young children between the ages of 12 and 36 months. Employing ethnographic and post-qualitative methodologies, the research will bring a posthuman lens to thinking about children’s communication in a more-than-human-world, by paying attention to the role of bodies, places, animals, children, familiar and unfamiliar adults, material objects and affects in very young children’s literacy practices. In doing so, this study will be amongst the first major ethnographic research projects to connect posthuman theories of early childhood with the growing calls to foreground the body and materiality in early childhood literacy.

Working collaboratively with families in a multicultural urban context, I hope to build a picture of young children’s language, literacy and communication practices in the everyday contexts of their lives. Working predominantly outside of day care settings, in situations where children are with parents, carers, and community members is important to the study. This is because more studies (recently) have looked at young children’s literacy practices in day care settings, yet if we acknowledge the importance of the more-than-human in human practices (including children’s language and literacies), an account of how and what children do cannot be separated from an account of places, objects, atmospheres and bodies with which they occur. Literacy and language practices are a produced not by an individual, but by a coming together of certain situations, contexts and materialdiscursive entanglements.

This project will contribute to a small and emerging body of work taking seriously the need to decentre humans, in order to better consider the role place and materiality in young children’s literacy practices (Kuby et al, 2015; Somerville, 2015). For the last couple of years I have participated in a collective called Naming the World, researching literacy, sustainability and young children through a posthuman lens in Australia, Finland and UK. Therefore, I am indebted to the members of Naming the World, particularly Professor Margaret Somerville and Dr Pauliina Rautio, for their mentorship and conversations that have shaped my thinking to this point. My Fellowship will be hosted at Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University, a space with a particularly strong track record of new materialist and post-qualitative approaches to research with young children. I feel very lucky to be continuing conversations with colleagues here, and to be mentored by Professor Maggie MacLure as part of the fellowship.

The distinct space I hope my research project will occupy within all of this exciting thinking is firstly, a focus on very young children. The participants in the study will be between 12 and 36 months. This age range is much less researched than over threes, but has always been fascinating for me because responses of children this age tend to disrupt assumptions, particularly about how research methods might work. Secondly, the project will situate me in a local community in northern England for the next three years. I’m really hoping to understand how posthuman literacies work across the places young children find themselves entangled in. Beyond classrooms or daycare settings, what might posthuman literacies look like in playgroups, streets, homes, bus stops, or supermarkets?

The Fellowship awards have just been announced, however my project began in October 2017, so my fieldwork and some very early thoughts on what this project might have to say about posthuman early childhood literacies have already begun to take shape. I will try to share more thoughts from the project in future months as my thinking develops.

What I’m reading now:

Avineri N et al 2015 Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 25(1).

Kuby C and Rowsell J (2017) Early Literacy and the Posthuman: Pedagogies and Methodologies. Special Issues of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 17 (3).

MacLure M 2013 Researching without representation? Language and materiality in post-qualitative methodology. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26(6).

Olsson, L. 2013 Taking Children’s Questions Seriously: the need for creative though. Global Studies of Childhood 3 (3).

Somerville M 2015 Emergent literacies in ‘the land of do anything you want’. In M. Somerville and M. Green (eds.) Children, Place and Sustainability. Palgrave.


What are the ingredients for a successful Under Fives museum visit?

A summary of my keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ conference in Hull, September 2017.

Last week I gave keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ as conference organised by Humber Museums Partnership as part of their Arts Council funded project Under Fives in Museums. I have been collaborating with Humber Museums throughout this project. The keynote was about a piece of research I carried out with colleagues at MMU, Lisa Procter and Christina Macrae during the last year.

The focus of this research was how families experience the museums of the Humber Museum Partnership. HMP were particularly interested in thinking across a range of their sites, and also to understand how experiences of museums changed over time for young children, from a first encounter to a point at which a building might be familiar, and particular kinds of meanings and practices become attached to being in that place. It was also hoped the research would offer some broader generalisations, or directions for thinking and working, in terms of young children visiting any or all museum sites regionally. No matter what kind of museum, in what kind of context – what are the possibilities for children being in these spaces, and how can museum staff maximise these possibilities?

We used a mixture of observations and participatory methods for working with young children and their grown ups in three Humber museums sites: North Lincolnshire Museum, Streetlife Museum of Transport in Hull, and Sewerby Hall in the East Riding.


So how do young children and their families experience these museums? And what are the wider implications of this for other museums?

Part of the purpose of this research was to indicate the directions museum practitioners could be thinking in, in order to identify what is unique, meaningful or filled with potential in their museum, from the point of view of young children and their families.

In relation to this, key findings and questions include: Continue reading

Under fives at Humber Museums

For the last year, Lisa Procter and I have been collaborating with Humber Museums Partnership to think about how research and practice can inform each other, and help us think about the meaning of museums for young children.

I have written previously about the APSE resource we developed for Humber Museums, which is a tool using spatial theory to inform considerations of how children experience museums spaces. You can read more about this project here and here, and excitingly, you can now download the APSE resource itself, here.

Last week, I spent a day at North Lincolnshire Museum, reflecting with staff on the ways our work so far had informed their practice. It was really exciting to see tangible outcomes of the project so far, such as a new dedicated space for under fives in the museum (packed out with families the day I visited, despite the bright sunshine outside). Some other favourite ideas coming out of the Humber Museums project include the Explorer Packs for families, which play with the idea of how children can ‘touch’ (in the broadest sense), or otherwise sensorially interact with exhibitions and spaces. The ‘Five Things’ campaign, in which families are challenged to find or do five particular things in each museum, is such a clear and simple way of both communicating to families what they might enjoy, as well as celebrating the ways in which young children tend to develop meaningful rituals or ‘traditions’ during museum visiting, something which I have written about before in my own research.

North Lincs Learning blog now has a series of posts describing these different initiatives, and tracing the threads between theory, observation, research and practice, a really useful resource for practitioners and researchers interested in this area.


Creative Families Award: thinking about the nature of young children’s arts experiences in museums

In 2016 I undertook a piece of work on behalf of CapeUK (Now IVE), developing a Creative Families Award. The Creative Families Award is designed for museums to deliver for children aged 1-4 years, working with their parents, carers, grandparents or other grownups. The scope of the work includes a practitioner resource, which combines practical suggestions on running arts activities for young children in museums, with the research that informs these suggestions. There is a log book for families to complete during the activities, and a certificate at the end. The award has been piloted with four fantastic partner museums services: East Riding Museum Service, Heritage Learning Hull, North Lincolnshire Museums and Rotherham Museums Service. An evaluation of the pilot has included participant observation, fieldnotes, and collecting copies of the completed log books from the families who took part in the pilot.

In developing the Creative Families Award, we took the Arts Award Discover and Explore frameworks (aimed at children from the age of 5 years) as a starting point, so that there would be a natural progression from one to the other. The award comprises of a minimum of three sessions, which each place a focus on families documenting their children’s engagement with the arts activities through four key strands:

  1. Discover arts all around
  2. Making and creating
  3. Experiencing artists’ work
  4. Share what they have experienced

The children taking part in the Creative Families pilot across the four museum organisations took part in a fantastic range of activities. They explored museum spaces they had never been to before, and engaged with a wide range of modern and traditional art forms. Across their engagement with arts forms and spaces, we tried to think about how young children were engaging with and conceptualising a sense of aesthetics; this seemed to be a suitably broad and useful way of defining what we meant by the arts at this age. Children used materials including clay, paper, fabrics and found objects to make and be creative. Grown-ups accompanying the children noticed and interpreted children’s experiences of the sessions in beautifully nuanced and intimate ways, using words, images, photographs and examples from the children’s wider lives to convey how these experiences with the arts in museums were fitting in children’s wider everyday lives.


Snapshots from the Creative Families pilot

I haven’t analysed the data collected as part of the Creative Families pilot in a systematic way yet, but thought I would share with you some snapshots from the data set which are particularly occupying my mind at the moment. Continue reading

Research Methods for Exploring Children’s Experiences of Museums

At the end of May, I organised an event on behalf of CSCY called ‘Research Methods for Exploring Children’s Experiences of Museums’. It was attended by 45 participants from museums up and down the country, consultants and researchers. The event was great fun, and represented the culmination of much of the work I have been doing with CSCY over the last 18 months, bringing together different disciplinary perspectives (health, education, design, architecture…) to think about children in museums specifically from the point of view of the children themselves.

This perspective was exemplified firstly in the choice of the term ‘experience’ rather than ‘learning’ in museums. Reflecting back on the context during which I moved from museum practice to research (around 2010), there was at the time a very strong focus on children’s learning in museums. Most energy was put into attracting primary school children to museums through school visits, and in addition there was lots of work engaging young people (and other audiences that were perceived as hard to reach) through community outreach work. One of the pervading motifs of this work was a focus on ‘learning’; this was exemplified by the Generic Learning Outcomes for example, in which skills, knowledge, creativity, attitudes, behaviour were all conceptualised as forms of learning. In her keynote presentation, Elee Kirk (UCL) added to this argument by pointing out that across the museums literature, children are generally considered either as ‘little learners’ or as members of a family group, rather than museum visitors in their own right.

Whilst I would not contest that museums can facilitate children’s learning, the sessions at the event last week drew on a wider interest in children’s experiences in museums. This focus on experience feels more open, more able to encounter things that happen during visits which are child led, things that perhaps seem to defy adult’s logical explanation. Throughout the day, the focus of the session was on experimentations with methods to help us understand different facets of children’s own experiences in museums. In addition, four themes ran through the day:


1)      Collaboration

This was about thinking about how we can achieve more together than separately, through collaboration between academics, museum sector, families and children. In particular, how can be draw together different kinds of expertise and different ways of knowing to understand children’s museum visiting in deeper ways? Academics may know the literature and different theories to bring to thinking about experiences of place, but museum staff know their spaces and collections best, nursery staff know their key children very well, parents and carers know the intimate details of how their children show their interest and engagement. So several sessions across the day were interested in thinking about how these different forms of knowledge can work together.

2)      The rising importance of the digital and the visual.

Children, whose experiences we are interested in understanding, are growing up in a world in which billions of images are uploaded to the internet every day. Photography practices today are markedly different to practices in the past, and being digitally photographed, seeing these images immediately, and knowing these images can be uploaded to the internet and shared widely, are all aspects of children’s everyday lives (in the UK). Riviere (2005) has written about how mobile camera phones have changed photography (by separating it from the camera as a rarefied object), making photography more frequent, more spontaneous, more disposable. Several of the session at the event were about considering the increasingly digital, visual world in which children are living, and the implications of this for both museums and research methods.

3)      Experiences are sensory and embodied

An over-arching message from the most recent research on children’s experiences in museums is about the way in which these experiences go beyond words. Children’s experiences in museums are sensory, embodied, dominated by moving around, interacting with stuff, and using their bodies. Many of the sessions picked up on this theme, by thinking about how research methods can focus not just on what children say, but on what they do, and what they experience with their bodies.

4)      Listening to the voices of children themselves

Developing research methods to help respond to the voices of children themselves, and understand their own perspectives, is at the heart of what CSCY is about. ‘Listening’ to what children tell us about their experiences could involve both listening to their words, but also observing what they show us through their actions, and being mindful of the ways in which communication can happen through the body. During the day we were also interested in thinking about how to capture some of these messages from children, through writing, drawing, photography and other means.

I’m very grateful for all the fantastic speakers who presented papers and ran sessions at the event. A Storify summary of the event is available here:

Let Our Kids be Kids: an analysis of what parents demonstrated their children were doing during strike day

Abigail Hackett and Eve Stirling

The kids strike on 3rd May was an unprecedented event, organised by a small groups of anonymous parents via social media, including Facebook Page ‘LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY’. The Facebook Page had, on the day of data analysis, 24,091 Likes (people following the Newsfeed from that Page) and the organisers posted to the page estimating that 8000 children across the country were withdrawn from school on 3rd May in protest at the assessment orientated and narrow curriculum being imposed on schools by the current government.

On one single Facebook thread, viewed on the Facebook Page ‘LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY’ the organisers of 3rd May strike invited families to write or post photos demonstrating how they were spending their strike day. In total, 132 new Posts were made to this thread, and the content of these were a mixture of photographs and descriptions of what activities were taking place. The images shared showed how children were learning and depicted the products produced as a result of learning during strike day.

 Why analyse this data?

We were intrigued by the idea that parents were showing the government and the public, through actions and photographs, what they felt learning should look like for their children, and what the problems were with the current curriculum and approaches to assessment. The comments made on this thread are of course performative, in the sense that parents chose and curated a range of images and words about their day, to share with a wide public audience. Many of the posts showed this awareness of audience explicitly, with comments directed at Nicky Morgan (Education Secretary), comments thanking other parents for striking, and this comments from a supportive, but non-striking parent;

So, if anyone is in Central London enjoying their day of fun learning, please give me a shout and I will come grab some photos of how learning SHOULD look!

Wall Post 3 May 06.11

We decided to analyse the comments on this single thread in order to understand more about the messages around aspirations for their children’s learning that these parents were communicating through Facebook.

So what did families do on 3rd May during the strike?

In order to analyse this data, we focussed on the comments on the thread which were about what children and families were doing during strike day (rather than general messages of support or critique). We thematically analysed this data, looking for key categories, patterns and trends in what was being posted. Continue reading

Pencil Drawing: An artistic response to multidisciplinary research into children’s movement at a playgroup

Lovely post by artist Rachael Hand about our collaboration, thinking about visualising and materialising children’s movement in a playgroup.

As part of our collaboration, we have been  grappling with the following questions:
Can visualising and materialising movement help to us foreground its role in experience and meaning making?
Does the intersection between ethnography and arts practice offer methodological innovations regarding how we collect, analyse and share fieldwork focussed on movement and place?
Do artist interpretations such as this one help us to think through the role of time, body, material environment and more-than-human world in young children’s emplaced experiences?

FOCUS Visual Research blog

Post by Rachael Hand, Artist

The art installation Pencil Drawing was made as an expression of my collaboration with the ethnographer Abi Hackett and the epidemiologist Pete Dodd in the University of Sheffield as part of the Crucible project Kindergarten Safari, studying children’s movement in a playgroup. It is a three dimensional, tangible object, made in response to a study in which objects and touch were vital elements.

At first glance Pencil Drawing looks like a child’s play-table. It is narrow and low, with bright blue sides and chunky wooden legs. Drawing closer, a clattering noise becomes audible, followed by a pause, and then further rattling. Looking at the surface of the table, the noises are revealed to be the sound track to a video, visible in the table top. Life-size, vividly coloured pencils are repeatedly flung down, as though onto the table, left untouched for a few seconds, and…

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