Little piles of stuff: taking young children’s practices seriously

This is a post about little piles of stuff; tiny collections of stones, sweet wrappers, drawings on little pieces of paper, stickers, tiny toys and plastic jewels. Such objects litter my home, collected, curated, made, grouped, sorted and treasured by my two daughters (3 and 7 years).

My children fill my pockets and bag with pine cones, sticks and stones every time we go out. They each have little wooden ‘special boxes’ and my older daughter has an appropriated gift bag filled with drawings on paper and small objects. Each time they have a bath, the bath toys are arranged and categorised with a real sense of the aesthetic.

The girls can put huge amounts of effort into their piles of stuff. These images show a small drawing on black card my youngest daughter made, which she wanted to put into her special box. When it didn’t fit, she found scissors to cut it to size, and secrete it in the box, next to some plastic gems and some stones.


MacLure et al (2012) have written about how well-worn the paths are with which we talk about and tell stories about what young children are like, why they do what they do, and how they learn and develop. These well-worn paths only provide partial explanations, and so it is important to resist easy explanations, and to look for less obvious stories to tell about young children. Consequently, I am interested in things children’s do that seem important to them, yet defy logical adult explanation. My work on young children’s movement in museums (Hackett, 2015) is driven by this, because movement seems so central to young children’s experiences of museums, yet it defies easy adult categorisation or explanations framed by traditional notions of ‘learning’. I wonder if children’s collecting and curating of little piles of stuff is another such example.

Rautio (2013) has written about something similar in her paper ‘Children who carry stones in their pockets’. She writes about the need to take seriously ‘autotelic’ practices, such as picking up and carrying of stones, even when from an adult’s point of view, they seem pointless. Rautio describes autotelic practices as practices that are intrinsically rewarding; we do them over and over again, without a logical explanation based on an external reward.

“We as academics and adults [should] consider seriously what takes place in practices that children usually find inherently rewarding and spend considerable time engaging in.” Rautio, 2013

Something which is powerful about Rautio’s notion of autotelic practices is that is resonates immediately for people. When I talk about toddlers running in a museum, or tell people about ‘Children who carry stones in their pockets’, parents often immediately connect and respond – they have observed these things regularly in their everyday lives. Like me, many other parents are stepping over little piles of stuff and wondering whether to should tidy them up. Picking up and keeping stones, glass worn smooth from the beach, or conkers in the autumn, even though there to no logical reason to, is an urge many adults share with children. Although developmental psychology narratives about how and why children learn are powerful, perhaps it is in these moments of resonance and connection, when we identify and recognise practices that don’t fit into these dominant narratives about what children are like, that we may be able to seize a chance to take up MacLure et al’s (2012, p.467) invitation to “free ourselves up so that we might see and think children otherwise?”


MacLure, M. Jones, L. Holmes, R. and MacRae, C. (2012) Becoming a problem: behaviour and reputation in the early years classroom, British Educational Research Journal, 38:3, 447-471.

Rautio, P. (2013) Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life, Children’s Geographies, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2013.812278


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