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The stuff of play: Taking posthuman and feminist materialist theory out to play in the materiality of the early childhood classroom

Jo Albin-Clark, Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University

As a researcher in early childhood teacher education, you spend inordinate amounts of time reading and attempting to make sense of a variety of theories. Every now and again, however, theory leaps off the page and you find yourself nodding along in recognition, even excitedly exclaiming to unsuspecting students sitting at nearby library tables: ‘Aha, that’s why! That makes sense!’

Theories help me to understand the inseparable nature of children’s learning, development, materiality and play. I am talking here about the stuff involved in play; through all those processes of exploration, you can see play unfold before your eyes. Stuff like sand, water, outdoor spaces, wooden blocks, paper, clay, construction materials, fabric, ad infinitum: all these things and so much more make up the materiality of play. Spending time in the company of young children it is blindingly obvious they need to play with the stuff of the world. At this early age, I want to climb, taste, hold, deconstruct, and pull and explore places and things. Some of the theories in play literature help us to see how fundamental play is to both learning and development (Moyles, 2015).

Yet play is deeply related to stuff and materiality. Play may be sparked by the warmth of sunlight on your face, a satisfying click or clunk, or finding exactly the right-size space to hide in. Theories that are associated with understanding materiality help to make sense of the entanglement between play and the stuff of the world. Karen Barad’s (2007) writing is associated with posthuman and feminist materialist ways of thinking. Through this frame, matter and materials are not a backdrop to humankind. Rather, humans, non-humans, ecologies and materiality are understood within a lively relationality (Taylor et al., 2012). In my research enquiries, I often start with the idea that non-human things have a kind of liveliness and affect in classroom spaces (Albin-Clark, 2021a). For example, I found that when a written observation of a three-year-old child’s playful learning with water was printed out and stuck to the classroom wall it had affect. The very next day the child saw that observation (‘Oh that’s me, that’s me’). There were many lively intra-actions taking place in-between the water, the child, the play and that printed-out observation in the space of that classroom.

‘Through posthuman and feminist materialist ways of thinking … matter and materials are not a backdrop to humankind. Rather, humans, non-humans, ecologies and materiality are understood within a lively relationality.’

So where can we go with theories about relationality and materiality in early childhood? Well, it needs recognition for a start as it takes a hell of a lot of time and energy to resource and maintain the materiality of play. Play involves mess and unpredictability. Teachers and practitioners find playful pedagogies challenged, undervalued and marginalised and that can make for contested spaces (Fairchild & Kay, 2021). Resistance and quiet subversion are bound up with bringing play to life (Albin-Clark & Archer, 2021; Archer, 2021).

To all the teachers and practitioners setting up, chasing, moving, tidying, resourcing, hunting around charity shops, getting excited about large cardboard boxes being delivered … that stuff really matters, so recognise its power (Bennett, 2010). The people you work with might not always understand or appreciate the efforts you make to constantly create, manage and justify the materiality involved. But your children recognise the value of materiality and its inherent potential (Albin-Clark, 2021b). Let us acknowledge the efforts and the sheer volume of stuff involved.

And we have not even talked about tidy-up time …


Albin-Clark, J. (2021a). What is documentation doing? Early childhood education teachers shifting from and between the meanings and actions of documentation practices. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 22(2), 140–155.

Albin-Clark, J. (2021b, May 10). Not from Keith: What can posthuman theory and an old Easter card do? Opening up conversations about performativity, playfulness and creativity in the early years of primary school. Edge Hill University blog.

Albin-Clark, J., & Archer, N. (2021). Sites of hope: What are the possibilities for activism and resistance for those marginalised in early childhood education and care? Paper presented at the Marginalised Voices in Contemporary Times: Addressing Inequities through Professional Learning and Education, pp. 220–241.

Archer, N. (2021). ‘I have this subversive curriculum underneath’: Narratives of micro resistance in early childhood education. Journal of Early Childhood Research. Advance online publication.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway. Duke University Press.

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

Fairchild, N., & Kay, L. (2021). The early years foundation stage (2021): Challenges and opportunities. BERA Blog.

Moyles, J. (2015). The excellence of play (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

Rautio, P. (2013). Children who carry stones in their pockets: On autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4), 394–408.

Souto-Manning, M. (2017). Is play a privilege or a right? And what’s our responsibility? On the role of play for equity in early childhood education. Early Child Development and Care, 187(5–6), 785–787.

Taylor, A., Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., & Blaise, M. (2012). Children’s relations to the more-than-human world. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(2), 81–85.