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Blog post Part of special issue: Researching gender and sexuality

How do concepts of gender emerge in the early childhood education and care environment? Thinking with furniture?

Rochelle Mallet, University Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University

When one thinks of a nursery or preschool, the memory of sensory experiences such as sounds, smells and colours spring to mind. Although early childhood education and care (ECEC) spaces are populated by young children and practitioners, they are also populated by dynamic material objects. Jane Bennett would describe such objects as ‘vibrant matter’ (Bennett, 2010). In my 12-month long ethnography of three ECEC settings in the East of England, I aimed to explore how infants and young children learn gender while at nursery.

My intention was to observe each site as one entity made of composite, relational parts – this meant including infants, young children, practitioners, the environment and material objects. The ethnography utilises Feminist New Materialism, which seeks to de-centre the human (Truman, 2020) and recognises the transversality of subjectivity which consists of assemblages within matter that can disrupt and blur binaries (Braidotti, 2019), including human/non-human, woman/man, girl/boy. What became clear throughout the ethnography was the agentic capacity of the furniture in the ECEC settings, particularly the chairs. Anyone who has been into a nursery or preschool will be familiar with the very small chairs that populate the spaces. These small chairs are usually made of plastic, with metal legs.

‘What became clear throughout the ethnography was the agentic capacity of the furniture in the ECEC settings, particularly the very small chairs.’

‘Child-size’ furniture was introduced by Maria Montessori (Bone, 2019; Mohandas, 2022) to create a space designed specifically for children. Child-centredness forgets the bodies of adults. Within the three ECEC settings in my research, only one had bigger chairs for the practitioners. The presence of the small chairs in the ECEC environment, which is dominated by women (with only around 2 per cent of practitioners in England being men (DfE, 2022)), draws attention to the ignored discomfort of women’s bodies in care-related work. The ECEC practitioner is expected to engage in child-centred practice which places the needs of the child above her own, including her own comfort (Chang-Kredl et al., 2021). The ECEC chair is more than just an inanimate object with the sole purpose of supporting the bodies of humans, rather it becomes with bodies. In my ethnography, I observed that caring practices such as comforting upset/unwell infants or children and/or administering medicine always took place from a chair. Chair/practitioner/child/medicine becomes entangled in an act of supporting/giving/receiving/facilitating care.

In play, chairs become tables for drawing, beds for dolls, secret spaces for hiding objects/bodies, and assistants for infants learning to stand/walk. I observed that small group or one-to-one reading would take place sitting on chairs. The chairs, in these moments, provided a stillness that sitting on the floor did not. The floors of all three sites tended to always be partially covered in various objects dynamically entangled with little bodies. Being on/with the chair, despite its smallness, put a distance between the chaotic, dynamic floor and the stillness of looking at a book. Chairs co-produce role-play with children. Role-play areas in ECEC settings are spaces where children act out, embed and challenge gender norms, particularly in spaces which are hidden. I observed boys playing with dolls and being more intimate with each other. While girls played cooking, caring for objects/children, and even forbidden topics such as toilet habits. This role-play all included chairs.

In de-centring the child, the role of the material, non-human matter in co-constructing the happenings in the ECEC environment can be observed. The small chairs in the ECEC environment are entangled in politics, ethics, caring/un-caring, and they are objects that transcend being a place of rest for bodies.


Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Bone, J. (2019). Ghosts of the material world in early childhood education: Furniture matters. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 20(2), 133–145.  

Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society, 36(6), 31–61.

Chang-Kredl, S., Pauls, K., & Foster, K. (2021). ‘You’re all so good with poo here’: Mainstream media representations of the early years educator. Gender and Education, 33(1), 103–118.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Childcare and early years provider survey.

Mohandas, S. (2022). Beyond male recruitment: Decolonising gender diversification efforts in the early years by attending to pastpresent material-discursive-affective entanglements. Gender and Education, 34(1), 17–32.

Truman, S. E. (2020). Feminist new materialisms. In P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. Cernat, J. W. Sakshaug, & R. A. Williams (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Research Methods. SAGE.