L peers slowly at her from behind mum’s legs. Thrusting out her hand, L reveals; a squishy orange unicorn. It has accumulated quite a lot of fluff and dust. L squeezes her hand to demonstrate its squishy-ness. “Oh wow, so nice, what’s he called” she begins to enthuse, but L has already walked away.
To witness something seemingly pointless, yet inherently rewarding for those who engage with it, is an occasion to ask: what is it that takes place in the moment?
Rautio, 2013, p.399
All this week, I have been at Clifton Park Museum installing an exhibition that shares some of the ideas emerging from my research project The Emergence of Literacy in Very Young Children. For the exhibition, I chose to focus on what occurs between children and everyday objects. Objects in early childhood education have a long tradition of being viewed in terms of their ability to instruct humans (Bomer, 2003; Hargraves, 2018; MacRae, 2012). Objects designed and made for young children carry a biography of their design and conception, reflecting the intentions and investments of the adults who made them and provided them for children (Lange, 2018). How else can we understand the relationship between children and material things?
A key aim of the research is a better understanding of the role of objects in young children’s language and literacy practices. There are significant and pervasive ways in which objects, children and families co-exist together and affect each other. Tiny toys, found objects or pieces of rubbish are stuffed in pockets or hidden in shoes and on shelves. Objects that seem somehow in that moment to belong together are placed deliberately in a line, or slotted inside each other. Small curated piles of plastic figures, or stickers, or stones, or hairclips, inhabit tables or corners of the room and parents trip over them or move around them each day. Hovering on the cusp of mess (Pahl, 2002), seeming to serve no purpose and signify nothing clearly, yet still shimmering with some kind of intensity or weight, adults must frequently make decisions about whether and how these strangely alien objects are to be allowed to continue on in the worlds of young children.
Bennett (2010) describes debris and discarded waste as alien, existing in excess of their human meaning and allocated purpose. She describes this phenomena as ‘thing power’; the capacity material objects have to make things happen. In her germinal paper, drawing on Bennett (amongst others), Rautio (2013) pays attention to the intra actions between children and things that seem to serve no rational purpose; picking up stones and putting them into pockets, or arranging coloured pins on a pincushion. For Rautio, these kinds of actions are not only beautiful to observe, they are political to notice and value. She writes
In a world of increasing mobility and pressure to be more productive, practices that bear no economic or otherwise measurable significance are political statements. Stones worked with in quarries, in mining, as property, as gravel on streets, blocking entrances or dividing nations as walls, are political material entities. For children, intra-action with stones provides a political niche: a virtually irrelevant material (unless used to break windows or causing washing machines to break down) lends itself to be carried, collected, moved, exchanged, valued and worked with through means that children possess, on their own without adult help, supervision or acceptance.
Rautio, 2013, p.405
Taking my cue from Bennett and from Rautio, I propose that an understanding of the relationship between objects/ things and early childhood literacy requires hesitating before jumping straight to the representational purpose of the object or its intended role in the cognitive-design of the child-as-meaning-maker. Instead, an account of the role of material things in more-than-human literacies involves starting with the affects generated when children and things “slip-slide into each other” (Bennett, 2010, p.4) coupled with an interrogation of the intensities, pulls and flows that occur between children and things. It is from these intensities, this slipping and sliding, that various kinds of multimodal literacies might emerge.
With thanks to Steve Pool for both the images in this blog post, and his collaboration on the exhibition. And to the staff at Clifton Park Museum for giving us the opportunity to disseminate our research ideas in this way.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bomer, R. (2003) Things that make kids smart: A Vygotskian perspective on concrete tool use in primary literacy classrooms, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 3(3) 223–247.
Hargraves, D. (2018) The Posthuman Condition of Ethics in Early Childhood Literacy: Order-in(g) Be(e)ing Literacy. In Kuby, C. Spector, K. and Thiel, J. (eds) Posthumanism and Literacy Education. New York: Routledge.
Lange, A. (2018) The Design of Childhood. How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. Bloomsbury.
MacRae, C. (2012) ‘Encounters with a Life(less) Baby Doll: rethinking relations of agency through a collectively lived moment’. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13 (2), 120 – 131.
Pahl, K. (2002) Ephemera, mess and miscellaneous piles: Texts and practices in families, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 2 (2), 145-166.
Rautio, P. (2013) Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4): 394-408.