Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Getting involved in Citizen Science

Two primary motivations of ‘citizen scientists’ – people who volunteer their time to support scientific research – are ‘helping wildlife in general’ and ‘contributing to scientific knowledge’[1]. The study found other motivations include enthusiasm, enjoyment, skills development, and organisational factors relating to participation and engagement. During the current period of social distancing, I’ve found myself participating in two citizen science projects to feel part of something larger, beyond the walls of my house and garden. One of these projects is the BTO Garden Birdwatch. The BTO have provided free access to this project during the current Covid-19 lockdown.

Being part of Garden Birdwatch is a brilliant incentive to establish a set time to sit peacefully and just watch and listen to what is going on in the garden. I found out about the Garden Birdwatch project from the RSPB’s #BreakfastBirdwatch thread. I try to take 30 minutes in the morning to listen to the bird song at the front of our house, using an app on my phone to help me identity the many different voices I can hear. The song thrush definitely dominates the morning chorus, but there are lots of different bird calls to try and identify. Today, the grey heron was out and about. We’ve seen him before, but he’s not too frequent.

Screenshot 2020-04-09 at 10.48.29

I follow my focus on birdsong with 30 minutes watching to see which birds visit our back garden. The #BreakfastBirdwatch hour (0800-0900) isn’t the busiest time of day for birds in our garden, but the Garden Birdwatch project recommends a routine time, so it’s good to combine the two activities. Only birds that enter the garden count for the Garden Birdwatch, but there are others to be heard or seen flying overheard.  This morning the garden was visited by great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins. These are frequent visitors to the garden. We also had a nuthatch, which as apt, as the nuthatch was the RSPB’s #songbirdoftheday today. We’ve seen him a few times before, but he’s not a particularly regular visitor.

Screenshot 2020-04-09 at 10.54.33

I could also hear the call of the long-tailed tit and the goldfinch. We regularly have long-tailed tits in the garden, but although we hear a variety of finches, I’m yet to see one in the garden. The app suggested there might also be a great spotted woodpecker and a siskin around. I’ve seen the woodpecker in the trees before, but not for quite some time.

It’s really interesting to see the different kinds of birds that frequent other people’s gardens. It reminds me that we’re really lucky to have such an abundance of wildlife on our doorstep, and lets me realise that our garden has its own mix which is different to elsewhere. That’s makes our visitors seem more special.

We’ve had the RSPB’s #songbirdoftheday in the garden two days in a row now. Will we make it three?

Screenshot 2020-04-09 at 11.04.32

[1] This comes from a study led by my good friend, Hilary Geoghegan (Reading), which examined the primary motivations of 147 citizen scientists.

Further Reading

Everett, G., & Geoghegan, H. (2016). Initiating and continuing participation in citizen science for natural history. BMC ecology16(1), 13.

Geoghegan, H., Dyke, A., Pateman, R., West, S., & Everett, G. (2016). Understanding motivations for citizen science. Final report on behalf of UKEOF, University of Reading, Stockholm Environment Institute (University of York) and University of the West of England.


Call for papers – Towards playful urban futures? Animating, experimenting and participating in the city as playground

Towards playful urban futures? Animating, experimenting and participating in the city as playground. 

Call for Papers: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Cardiff, 28-31 August 2018 

Session conveners: Luke Dickens (King’s College London) and Tara Woodyer (University of Portsmouth)

city play.jpg

Play is an inherently social practice, an open process that prioritizes the intrinsic value of becoming through a performative engagement with the world. As such, play has long been of interest to urban scholars, activists and practitioners, especially for its excessive, experimental and transgressive potential to resist the rational dominance of urban capital (Borden 2001, de Certeau 1984, Lefebvre 1996, Stevens 2007, Wark 2015, Ward 1978). Nonetheless, the academic consideration of play has often remained centred on the experiences of children, particularly within the quintessential site of the playground (after Allen 1946; Sørenson 1951; see Koslovsky 2013); or on the practices of Letterists, Situationists, psychogeographers and similarly motivated groups (Pinder 2005; Souzis 2015). While offering a range of important critical insights, further work is needed to develop our scholarship beyond these often historical and sometimes nostalgic accounts (Voce 2017).

Indeed, this task has become pressing given an apparent ‘playful turn’ (Ackerman, Rausher & Stein 2016) in contemporary urban planning, policy making and design. In these fields, various notions of play are increasingly articulated as ‘animating’ or ‘enlivening’ experimental visions of the urban future: whether through renewed calls for ‘child-centric’ forms of planning and governance (Williams, Wright & zu Dohna 2017); local state and community initiatives to reclaim and reimagine urban spaces, such as play streets (Stenning 2017); play- and game-based participatory decision making and simulations (Tan 2017); or by using media technologies and infrastructures to produce ‘playable’ urban spaces intended to ameliorate otherwise rather stark ‘smart’ city agendas (Nijholt 2017).

This session seeks to critically develop and creatively engage with this expanded field of play – whereby the city itself is variously approached as both laboratory and playground – as a means of exploring potential urban futures. In this regard geographers have initiated a conceptual and empirical focus on play beyond sanctioned spaces of childhood and children’s geographies, and towards a critical, socio-material politics of the everyday (Woodyer 2012; Horton and Kraftl 2017). To further advance this work we invite geographically focused, theoretically informed papers that approach notions of the urban future through a range of philosophical understandings of play (e.g. McLean, Russell and Ryall 2016; Sikart 2014).

Some of the key questions we hope to address include – How and in what ways might emerging forms of playful urbanism become central to imagining, and indeed realizing, the future city? Can play be used to deliver radically sustainable and progressive alternatives to the neoliberal city? To what extent does a playful turn in urban planning, policy and design offer responses to the various crises, challenges and problems faced by contemporary and future cites? Is it necessary to position urban life as ‘playful’ for it to be engaging, rewarding or affirmative? Does play in/of/with the city necessarily have to be ‘digitised’ and/or ‘mediated’? Are playful qualities of cities such as serendipity, hospitality and openness best approached through technological interventions? Who might or might not have a stake in a playful urban future?

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to Luke Dickens ( and Tara Woodyer ( by Friday 2nd February 2018 (please include title, author affiliation and email address with your abstract).


Ackermann, J., Rauscher, A. and Stein, D. (2016) Playin’ the City: Artistic and Scientific Approaches to Playful Urban Arts. Siegen: Navigationen.

Allen, L. (1946) Why not use our bomb sites like this? Picture Post, November 16th, pp. 26–27.

Borden, I. (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body. Oxford: Berg.

de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Horton, J. and Kraftl, P. (2017) Rats, assorted shit and ‘racist groundwater’: Towards extra-sectional understandings of childhoods and social-material processes. Environment and Planning D, online early, DOI:

Kozlovsky, R. (2013) The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England. Oxford: Ashgate.

Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writings on Cities. [Trans. Kofman, E. and Lebas, E.] Oxford: Blackwell.

McLean, M., Russell, W. and Ryall, E. (eds.) (2016) The Philosophy of Play. Oxford: Routledge.

Nijholt, A. (ed.) (2017) Playable Cities: The City as Digital Playground. Singapore: Springer.

Pinder, D. (2005) Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Sicart, M. (2014) Play Matters: Playful Thinking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sørenson, C.T. (1951) Junk Playgrounds. Danish Outlook, 4(1):311-316.

Souzis, A.E. (2015) Momentary ambiances: psychogeography in action. cultural geographies, 22(1): 193-201.

Stenning, A. (2017) Playing Out and Everyday Relationships: Mapping the Psychosocial Geographies of Street Play in North Tyneside. Research project funded by the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University (2017-2018). Source: Last accessed: 05/01/2018

Stevens, Q. (2007) The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces. Oxford: Routledge.

Tan, E. (2017) Play the City. Source: Last accessed: 20/11/17

Voce, A. (2017) Adventure playgrounds are too important to consign to history. Policy for Play blog. Source: Last accessed: 04/01/2018

Ward, C. (1978) The Child and the City. London: Penguin.

Wark, M. (2015) The Beach Beneath the Street. London: Verso.

Williams, Wright & zu Dohna (2017) Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods. London: Arup.

Woodyer, T. (2012) Ludic geographies. Not merely child’s play. Geography Compass, 6(6):313-326.

ESRC studentship – Gender neutral toys

You can apply for 1+3 (masters and PhD) or +3 funding. All 1+3 SCDTP students will undertake the Masters in Social Research Methods (MSRM) in their first year.

Investigating the influence of gender-neutral toys advertisement on children’s attitudes and play behaviours

Project Description

Project code: PSYC4270118  7961433594_f2f52a0aa6_b

Supervision team:

Project in brief

Children’s toys are heavily gendered, resulting in boys and girls developing varied sets of skills which may either help or hinder them in their future curricula and career choices. Media and advertisements further encourage the prevalence of gender stereotypes in many forms, including toy catalogues. Recently some progress has been made in developing gender neutral toy descriptions in advertising, to encourage children to take part in cross gender play. The present project investigates the impact of gender-neutral material on children’s attitude and behaviours, and on the conversation they have with parents and peers.

Specific candidate requirements:  

Applicants for this PhD position should have at least a completed BA or BSc honours level degree in psychology, geography or cognate discipline from an accredited course (minimum 2.1 award) (required); Experience with child research participants (desired); basic knowledge of quantitative and qualitative data analysis (desired).For all funding, students must have qualifications of the standard of a good honours degree at first or upper second-class level, from a UK academic higher education institution. Degree qualifications gained from outside the UK, or a combination of qualifications and/or experience that is equivalent to a relevant UK degree, may be accepted.
The studentship includes an annual maintenance grant, of £14,553 (2017/18).
For more information and to apply click here.
The closing date for applications is 22 January 2018, 11.59 pm. 

Workshop on teaching geographies of children and youth

Registration open for RGS Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (GCYFRG) workshop:

Educating undergraduate geographers for/about/using the geographies of children and youth

Is it for you?

This workshop is for anyone who is interested in using research on the geographies of children and youth in their teaching. We will be exploring issues such as:

  • How to use doctoral research in undergraduate teaching
  • Should we be delivering modules on the geographies of children and youth? And if so, what makes for a good module?
  • What practical exercises work well in class?
  • What works well in fieldwork?
  • How can we embed the geographies of children and youth in more general geographical teaching?

In short, this workshop is for you whether you are a postgraduate student, early career researcher/lecturer, or an established academic!

FINAL Programme

1000-1030       Registration and teas/coffees

1030-1100       Part One – Introductions

1100-1155       Part Two – Taking centre stage? Modules in Children’s Geographies

1205-1315       Part Three – Approaches to learning Children’s Geographies

1315-1415       Lunch

1415-1450       Part Four – Dissertations

1450-1535       Part Five – Fieldwork

1535-1600       Roundtable with teas/coffee

1600                 End of workshop


Royal Geographical Society, London. Wednesday 10th January 2018
Cost:  ​ £20 waged, £10 unwaged (lunch included); Bursaries Available

Convenors: John H. McKendrick (Glasgow Caledonian University) /

Click here for more information and booking form


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.