Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

More tasty miniature worlds

Another random stumble following on from Tastemade’s Tiny Kitchen series. This time it’s the work of Matteo Stucchi, a pastry chef from Monza, Italy, who builds playful tasty-looking worlds using desserts and little figurines. Tiramisu becomes a construction site, cake pops turn into a Ferris wheel…



Lest we forget

The Dystopia of Thomas the Tank Engine continued

Readers may remember an earlier post referring to Oli Mould’s dystopian reading of Thomas the Tank Engine. It seems Oli is not alone. A recent article in the New Yorker discusses ‘the repressive, authoritarian soul’ of the children’s TV series. In her article, Jia Tolentino, describes a particular episode, The Sad Story of Henry, in which the green steam engine is punished for not wanting to come out of his tunnel in the rain. The punishment? Henry’s rails are taken away and a brick prison is built around him.


The punishment for disrupting the day’s workflow is ordered by the Fat Controller, a character likened to Monopoly‘s Rich Uncle Pennybags (aka Mr Moneybags).

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Left: The Fat Controller; Right: Rich Uncle Pennybags

Central to Tolentino’s argument is the show’s persistent theme of Thomas and friends constantly competing for big jobs, more work, and the Fat Controller’s approval.

I generally take issue with a narrowly framed ideological approach to children’s culture, treating toys and popular cultural products as texts and reading them for the particular ideological messages they transmit. However, such readings are interesting, especially at a time when there are growing calls to take Britain’s railways back into public ownership. We do have to remember the potential gap in ideology and reception though, since authors, producers and critics of these cultural products are almost never members of the presumed audiences. In his book, Toys as Culture, Brian Sutton-Smith, rebukes this method of analysis – also referred to as a ‘production of consumption’ approach – as a form of prejudice. By assuming the effects of popular cultural products in advance of empirical study of children engaging with them in an embodied manner, we are denying children’s social agency. Whilst each popular cultural product has its own history and set of cultural reference points that influence its meaning, (for example, Tolentino discusses the character of Thomas’ author the Reverend Wilbert Awry and the themes evident across his different works), they do not determine it.






Inhabiting the miniature: Tiny Kitchens

I randomly stumbled across Tastemade’s Tiny Kitchen series today, which is a weird coincidence since I’ve been writing my paper on Inhabiting the Miniature for next week’s Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual International Conference.

In this series, chefs cook tiny meals using a working dolls house kitchen powered by a tealight. The series includes everything from tiny doughnuts to tiny chicken pot pie.



The tiny food videos were inspired by a series of viral Japanese Youtube videos by Miniature Space, one of Tastemade’s partners.

A Germany company made the working doll’s house kitchen for Tastemade, as well as the tiny utensils and cookware used to make the edible dishes.

There are currently 11 seasons of videos to literally whet your appetite.

Gender, Consumption and Toys: does it matter?

The following is a blog post by undergraduate students from UoP’s Geographies of Children and Young People module.


“Girls wear pink, boys wear blue”

Source: Martin Schaefer (reproduced with permission)

Children’s gender socialisation is being altered through today’s consumerism and consumer culture. Parents are just as conscious with the toys their children play with, as the clothes they wear when it comes to their gender roles. Various products and companies aimed at children are showing gendered bias. Products are typically either over feminine, labelled “pink, glittery and frilly” or over masculine by being “powerful and macho”. Being a female does not necessarily mean to aspire to be a princess, this millennial society appears to accept that girls can grow up to do what they wish. So why are toy companies’ products still enforcing old fashioned gender stereotypes? The worry is that if these gender stereotypes are applied at a young age it is not something the young child will know, it is something they learn as a result of their upbringing. This is where problems can arise in the future, where young males and females reject the generalised norm, an idea that is explored throughout this blog post.

‘Girly Girl’

The ‘girly’ culture is defined in the ‘gender appropriate’ items girls are buying. Shops like Claire’s Accessories or Girls Heaven “epitomize the commercial appropriation of childhood”  and are targeted towards young girls. This is creating an idealisation of femininity, installing the idea that to be a girl means to want to be a princess and to aspire to be pretty. Girls who do not feel that they fit into this ideal are therefore left out and unaccommodated. However not all children assume this norm, with some clearly breaking this stereotype. Children are humans in their own right and have their own agency to form individual opinions as to what appeals to them. Moorhead writes about this argument, discussing her own experiences with her daughter being a “tomboy”, She comments that not all girls are

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21sugar and spice and all things nice…but some little girls are made of different stuff

reiterating that some children simply do not  relate to their gender stereotype.

Academics have studied gender stereotypes among infants, concluding that as the primary purchaser of toys tends to be a female, this influences the type of product purchased for a child. It was found that pink and yellow tones were used to decorate young girls’ rooms, whereas colours such as blue and white were predominantly used in boys’ rooms. This shows that even from a young age before a time where it is perceived for a child to have any social agency, they are being assigned a gender regardless of their own opinions.

Stereotypes in Consumption

The video below represents an opinion from Daisy Edmonds, an 8-year-old girl who was filmed by her mother talking about some stereotypical clothes seen in the chain supermarket Tesco. This shows that young girls are becoming aware of this gender appropriation seen in consumer goods. It shows that the typical stereotyping seen in products, like clothes shown in the video, are being challenged not only by academics but the children concerned themselves.


Some try to argue that the reason for having gendered toys is because it is seen as natural or in some way innate, however this assumption is a fairly new ideal created purely by marketing departments. In a 1927 Time article, the writer was informing parents on how boys should wear pink and girls should wear blue. It is thought that this was encouraged so parents would have to buy a whole new wardrobe that was colour appropriate. This furthers the idea that consumerism is a key influencer in the gender stereotypes that have been created. The whole social construct that surrounds gender and consumerism is largely supported by the colours of the products, which is why companies deem it so important to brand certain products in a certain way depending on the gender of their target audience.



“Blue for a boy, pink for a girl”

Source: Own. Taken at Fratton Tesco store, December 2016

As the awareness grows towards gender stereotypes, so is the desire for more gender neutral toys, or toys which represent both females and males in equal terms. The toy manufacturers ‘LEGO’ have generated criticism in recent years for stereotyping how girls should play. The launch of ‘Lego friends’, aimed at young girls, featured five characters who all partook in a leisure led lifestyle such as a salon environment, a swimming pool, and a convertible car. The lack of an educational element for these characters is what sparked criticism towards this range.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs,” while the boy figures “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs,” adding they “even swam with sharks

Extract from letter from seven year old Charlotte Benjamin in January 2014

Since its release, further products have been launched with the aim of counteracting the backlash from the ‘Friends’ range. The ‘Research Institute’ features three female scientists in their laboratories, aimed to promote the message that girls can aspire to be whatever they wish to be.


Public criticism of gender stereotypes has seen the likes of GoldieBlox and Wendy Tsao emerge, to expose children to diverse role models. Debbie Sterling of ‘GoldieBlox’ reinforces the stereotype that

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21the most iconic action heroes are almost always men.


In a refreshing new ad campaign, the main protagonist is a female superhero. The aim is to influence today’s young population with toys that inspire people to divert from the generalist ideal that boys play the superheroes and girls are the ‘damsels in distress’.


Artist, Wendy Tsao supports this shift in toy stereotypes, with the transformation of the over-marketed Bratz doll into iconic women such as Malala Yousafzai and Jane Goodall. Wendy Tsao hopes that young girls will aspire to these women instead of the products of Disney and Hollywood.

Rapid progress has been made in recent years about attitudes towards gender, especially with regards to consumer culture. In reality, there is a great need for further discussion into whether it really does matter if toys are gender stereotyped or not; surely it should be down to each individual child and their own social agency as to what they play with, where they play, and who they play with.


Bridget O’Brien, Verity Smith, Lara Griffin, Michael Sonner & Emily Seth.


UK National Play Survey

What do you think about playing today and how have play opportunities changed for children, families and communities through time?

The UK’s National Play Survey wants to hear what you think!

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Playday, the national day to celebrate play, is 30 years old this year.  The national organisations that promote play in the UK want to find out how play opportunities have changed over these years and need your help.

Could you spare some time to complete an online survey? The survey closes on 21st July 2017.

Click here to complete the survey.

Can we still teach about media bias in the post-truth age?

Following on from my earlier re-blog of David Buckingham’s insightful piece on the role of media literacy in response to fake news, here is his latest piece focusing on the matter of media bias.

David Buckingham

Bias – along with related ideas like objectivity, impartiality and balance – is a staple issue in public debates about media, and in media literacy education. Yet in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign, the victory of Donald Trump, and the attacks on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, many have argued that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. In this context, is bias still a useful and meaningful concept in media literacy education? And if so, how should we teach it?

Two weeks ago, the BBC Trust – the body that regulates the UK’s national public service broadcaster – ruled that its chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, had breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in her reporting of a story involving the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the Trust is not exactly the most ferocious of media regulators, the ruling might have been rather surprising; although…

View original post 1,715 more words

Fake news: is media literacy the answer?

David Buckingham

Growing concerns about ‘fake news’ have led to calls for young people to be taught critical media literacy skills. Yet while media literacy would obviously be useful, it isn’t enough to address the problem. Media educators need to frame the issue more broadly, and join forces with those calling for media reform.

My apologies for the length of this post (believe me, I’m trying). I hope it won’t take you more than ten minutes to read.


In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, there has been considerable debate about the problem of so-called ‘fake news’. Trump’s opponents have accused his supporters – including the Russian government – of circulating fabricated news stories in order to gain support. Yet Trump himself has frequently used the term to discredit what he claims is false information about him.

The problem is somewhat less evident here in the UK, although the Brexit…

View original post 2,862 more words

Funded PhD Opportunity

Understanding the lived realities of informal kinship care for grandparents

Supervisors: Dr Tara Woodyer (Geography); Dr Annabel Tremlett (Social Work); Dr Carol Ekinsmyth (Geography)

Project description
The question of how best to attend to intergenerationality and support informal kinship care provision by grandparents has emerged as a pressing issue for research and social care practice. Whilst geographical research is beginning to make important contributions in the future direction of age-related research, grandparents and their crucial role in informal kinship care remains noticeably under-researched.

Using a qualitative approach, this project will examine the lived realities of informal kinship care provision from the grandparent’s perspective, exploring the role of intergenerational connections in shaping the life transition to grandparenthood. More specifically, it will examine: the role of space, age, gender and intra-familial relations in the construction and performance of a carer identity; the role of local networks and community in informal kinship care provision; social and economic obstacles in informal kinship care provision and how these can be mitigated; and the perceived benefits and/or detrimental impacts to self in undertaking an informal kinship care provider role. Drawing on established connections with user communities, the research will use Portsmouth as a case study site.

The project aims to provide an in-depth evidence base for addressing major questions surrounding kinship care and later life transitions within social care. Working closely with key non-academic organisations, it seeks to inform local and national social care policy, support provision and social care education.

Find out more here.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss your application, please contact Dr. Tara Woodyer by email.
Funding includes: bursary stipend (at current RCUK rates), University fees (UK/EU rate) plus £1,500 pa project costs/consumables for the duration of the studentship.

The bursaries are offered for full-time, Home or EU candidates only. You will need to meet the following requirements to undertake a research degree at the University of Portsmouth:
A good honours degree or equivalent in a relevant subject or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. Exceptionally, equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications will be considered. For those students without English as a first language or without a first degree from an English speaking University, an English Language Proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0 is required.

How to apply:
If you would like to apply for one of these projects, please use the web links above and complete the online application form which includes uploading a CV and 1000 word project proposal. We recommend that candidates contact the first supervisor prior to applying to discuss the proposed project.
Closing date for applications:
The closing date for applications: Sunday 5th February 2017.
For more details about studying as a PhD student at the University, visit

How to talk to children about politics… and Donald Trump


Article in the Orlando Sentinel

As we’ve been finding out through our research, many parents question whether they should discuss world events with their children, or if it’s best to just to try to shield them from worrying events all together. As Stephens (1995, p14) notes in her discussion of the sentimentalisation of childhood, our ideal conception of the child is one founded on innocence, with no engagement with matters of sex, money and politics. 

“Modern children are supposed to be segregated from the harsh realities of the adult world and to inhabit a safe, protected world of play, fantasy, and innocence”

Parents we’ve meet during our ethnographic research have expressed how they sometimes struggle to respond when their children demonstrate knowledge of events such as beheadings by terrorist groups. Such concerns demonstrate how it is naive to believe we can shield children from the realities of the wider world. This is especially the case with the growth of social media.

“Children today are more exposed to world events than ever and despite the urge to protect our children from what’s happening, this can mean their worries build up. (John Cameron, Head of NSPCC Helplines, quoted in the Huffington Post)”

A recent NSPCC study revealed there has been a 35% rise in children who have had counselling for anxiety in 2016, compared to last year. Alongside personal and family issues, concerns about world affairs such as the EU referendum, the US election and troubles in the Middle East were also frequently mentioned as causes of anxiety.

Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of the Good Toy Guide Ltd, CEO of Fundamentally Children and member of the Ludic Geopolitics Project Advisory Board, recently offered advice on how to talk to children about world affairs and politics in an interview with the Huffington Post.

“Conversations that happen in front of a child, that don’t involve the child can be scary, so try and hold the conversation in a way that the child could join in with if they wanted to, otherwise leave the more complex or disturbing topics for when the children are out of earshot.”

Read the full article here.