Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Playing with Toys

Playing with Toys: the animated geographies of children’s material culture

The Research

Playing with Toys explores children’s everyday embodied relations and domestic practices with toys within the context of a commercialised space of childhood. The research has 5 main objectives:

  • to contribute a critical response to less ground cultural commentaries on the character of contemporary childhoods and children
  • to move beyond a purely representational approach to toys by attending to the embodied, tactile, sensory and affective relations children share with them
  • to develop understanding of how and why toys matter to children by tracing the specific contributions of toys to relational agency
  • to develop an ecumenical framework for the study of childhood and children that does not reduce children to either nature or culture
  • to open imaginative spaces of play to empirical investigation

The Research Context

Popular context

In recent years, the popular press has been replete with references to the demoralised character of contemporary childhood and children. In 2006, Toxic Childhood was published. A compilation of examples of this supposed demoralised condition of twenty-first century childhood. Children are said to have become alienated from the world from a lack of engagement in ‘organic’, ‘authentic’, ‘spontaneous’ play. Seemingly age-old play activities such as running, climbing, pretending, making and sharing have been replaced by a solitary, sedentary, screen-based lifestyle. Contemporary children are robbed of opportunities for independent, explorative play by a retreat from outdoor space and diminishing engagement with nature. Toys feature heavily in anxious accounts of contemporary childhood. It is argued that toy guns and videogames encourage violence and aggression, that fashion dolls flaunt sexualised images, and that interactive and character-based toys stifle creativity. Anxiety is intensified by the increasing commercialisation of toys, which is seen to conflict with the sacralised realm of childhood. It is argued that children are robbed of innocence and autonomy by an increasingly influential market whose cultural products are motivated by economic interests, rather than a desire to enlighten, inspire and educate. Global toy markets form part of the now vast children’s culture industry. According to a 2004 Keynote Market Report, the UK’s traditional toys and games market was worth £2.1 billion at retail selling prices in 2003. This figure was predicted to rise by 15.8% by 2008.

Is this the full story?

Academic context

Given the anxiety-laden relationship between childhood and the market, studies of children’s consumption have been dominated by a continuous flow of critique.  Two constructs of the child have dominated consumption studies: the child as manipulable and exploited by advertising and marketing; and the child as active and empowered by consumer culture. Research that approaches the child consumer as active and empowered positions itself in response to negative interpretations of the relationship between childhood and the market. This work emphasises the need to examine the meaning systems of child consumers, but it is surprising how little empirical work has been conducted with children.

While popular concern about the character of modern toys has sharpened, academic analysis of their social context has lagged. They remain strangely absent in research on child development, in accounts of children’s geographies and from the diverse subject matter of material culture studies. This neglect appears all the more remarkable when set in the context of global toy markets. Two main factors account for this academic oversight. Firstly, popular culture generally, and children’s culture specifically, are accorded a low status of credibility within academia. Secondly, toys are explicitly associated with play, which is placed in opposition to the rational concerns of Western societies and thus overlooked as an irrelevant aspect of people’s social worlds. Where academic engagement with toys exists, it is often characterised by symbolic analysis, which treats toys as texts, reading them for ideological content. This structural approach assumes the effects of toys in an a priori manner, and gives little consideration to the potential gap in ideology and reception.


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