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Blog post Part of special issue: Competing discourses in early childhood education and care

Affective sociomaterialisation: An inquiry into early childhood subjectivities within outdoor early childhood provision in Scotland, UK

Shaddai Tembo, Lecturer at Bath Spa University

In my doctoral research I focus on alternative outdoor early childhood provision in Scotland. I foreground a sociomaterial approach to understand how young children’s subjectivity, related to the conditions of being and becoming a subject, is formed within such spaces. Sociomaterialism challenges conventional knowledge about how subjectivities are formed, where researchers pay close attention to how materials and spaces contribute to one’s sense of self. 

What is known about the politics of subjectivity in childhood is largely derived from the intellectual progress made through a primarily Foucauldian-informed social constructionist framework and Judith Butler’s performativity theory. Broadly, researchers applying each framework argue that power is social, and that children’s identity formation is primarily constructed through their social relations, known commonly as socialisation. It is language vis-à-vis discourse that functions as a form of social control and represents reality.  

The productive contributions of these approaches thus far must be stressed as crucial. However, the argument has been made by a number of researchers that any conceptual framework that primarily addresses the social realm inevitably restrains the possibility for resistance against these forms of power to the domain of discursive (human) agency, thus bracketing out the social world from the (non- and more-than-human) material world that enables it (Barad, 2007; Kirby, 2017). 

In response to these concerns, in my thesis I use sociomaterialism as a more expansive metaphysics, or philosophical, approach, intended to enable a more creative exploration of children’s agency. I focus on alternative outdoor childhood provision in Scotland, where the materiality of the space has gained additional significance in light of both an enhanced policy focus by the Scottish government and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Methodologically, I engage in a multi-sensory ethnography at Wood Fire nursery, an entirely outdoor ‘alter-childhood’ (Kraftl, 2014) nursery environment. 

I focus on alternative outdoor childhood provision in Scotland, where the materiality of the space has gained additional significance in light of both an enhanced policy focus by the Scottish government and the recent Covid-19 pandemic.’

Agency has long been thought of as a defining characteristic of the human species where humans are considered to be the exclusive producers of the social world. However, through sociomaterialism, the ambit of inquiry is extended beyond the human in an attempt to unsettle the Cartesian belief that humans exist in a hierarchical relationship, above all matter, including animals, plants and objects. From a sociomaterial position, the dualistic nature of Descartes’ metaphysics that has led to this parsing of nature and culture is considered to be a fundamental oversight insofar as it perpetuates notions of human mastery over the non-human world. 

Any approach that might decentre the child, as the sociomaterial approach deliberately does, is likely to provoke a sense of anxiety among those unfamiliar with it. As a former early childhood practitioner myself, I am all too familiar with the aphorisms of a ‘child-centred’ approach and keeping the child ‘at the heart’ of practice, and the injunctions to always include the ‘child’s voice’, that populate early childhood curriculum frameworks. Yet it must be made clear that thinking in sociomaterial terms does not remove the child from consideration. Rather, agency is distributed and relational instead of individualised. My approach aims to provide an alternative means of understanding the ways in which environments can shape bodily capacities.  

There are several implications of this research. Primarily, though, it provides practitioners and researchers with an enhanced conception of subjectivity through the metaphysical framework produced. Questions of subjectivity identity are rarely explicit within curriculum guidance. Where they are visible, they remain appended to ways of knowing that privilege the child ‘as an individual’ and the cognitive at the expense of the relational and the perceptive. Ultimately, this thesis carries wider implications for what is known about how children might always-already be forming their subjectivities with/in the world in more-than-human ways – how they might already be ‘meeting the universe halfway’ (Barad, 2007).  


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press. 

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Routledge. 

Butler, J. (2006). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge Classics. 

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. Routledge. 

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). Random House. 

Kirby, V. (2017). What if culture was nature all along? Edinburgh University Press. 

Kraftl, P. (2014). Alter-childhoods: Biopolitics and childhoods in alternative education spaces. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(1), 219–237.