Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Playing with Toys I

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

Funding: ESRC PhD Studentship (awarded through the interdisciplinary open competition)


This PhD thesis develops a relational approach to the study of childhood and children. Drawing on the ecumenical approaches of non-representational theory, material culture studies and hybrid geographies, it explores the assemblages of human and non-human entities through which childhood comes into being. More specifically, this thesis considers the socio-material assemblages involving children and toys, principally through an ethnographic study of children’s everyday practices with this particular type of object. To this end, it addresses a paucity of empirical work conducted with child consumers. To unpack how and why these (often highly commodified) objects matter to children, I address the precise contributions of toys to relational agency in terms of the creative capabilities they possess. Toys, like objects in general, motivate particular inferences, interpretations and responses. These are a function of three broadly conceived prompts to object agency: the sensual and material properties of the toy itself; the socio-material relations in which the toy is embedded; and the representational qualities of the toy. Through a series of case studies involving cuddly toys, model aeroplanes, trading cards, Bratz fashion dolls, Harry Potter media, dollhouses and videogames, I trace the various agencies of toys. This discussion of object agency is then extended through an examination of toys as technologies, which are productive in terms of the co-configuration of imaginative spaces of play in and of the everyday. In this regard, I address magical lands, miniature worlds and virtual spaces of play. By attending to the intimate, embodied ways in which toys matter to children, this thesis examines children’s engagements with consumer cultures. In so doing it presents an alter-tale to contemporary debates about the demoralised character of contemporary childhoods and children.


Chapter 1: An Alter-Tale

Chapter 2: Toys and the Material Geographies of Children’s Culture

In Summary

This chapter outlines a paucity of empirical work on children’s domestic geographies of play and a lack of engagement with the materiality of toys. In so doing, it asserts how this study directly addresses this dearth by attending to embodied practices of play within the home and the creative capacities, or agential powers, of toys as non-human actants. The co-fabricated character of our social worlds forms an overarching theme of the chapter. This is particularly emphasised in discussion of material geographies and a concern for object agencies. However, it is also expressed in relation to the centrality of commodities in our everyday lifeworlds.

Chapter 3: Researching Co-fabricated Worlds

In Summary

This chapter discusses how embodied – sensory and material – practice was approached empirically in this study. It is argued that by drawing on new and emerging lines of academic inquiry, it is possible to interrogate our established qualitative methodologies. This does not mean rejecting our more conventional representationally oriented methods, nor does it mean striving for innovation for its own sake. The impetus behind the methodological agenda adopted by this study was the need to develop an appropriate method of inquiry for the particular research questions addressed. We cannot expect to explore non-cognitively oriented and profoundly practical knowledge through cognitively oriented, discursive practices alone. The chapter explores the ethical implications of adopting this approach and the reconfigured politics of knowledge production that it offers.

Chapter 4: Animating Toys

In Summary

This chapter traces the agency of a series of toys by attending to the effects of the specific inferences, interpretations and responses these different toys motivate. It demonstrates how these responses are variably a function of the sensuous and material qualities of the toy itself, the socio-material relations in which the toy is embedded, and the representational qualities of the toy. Through an examination of these agential powers, toys become animated. In being seen to do something, they take on a lively quality. Here the attribution of agency does not equate to an imputation of intentionality, rather, the concept of agency is expanded beyond just the cognitive.

Chapter 5: Negotiating the Commercialised Space of Childhood

In Summary

This chapter addresses the lack of empirical examination of consumer engagement with brands, and in so doing, emphasises its importance. Counteracting the tendency of academic literature on branding to overgeneralise how brands and characters work within society, this chapter examines how brands and character properties work in heterogeneous ways. A micro understanding of how brands are understood and used in everyday lifeworlds is set alongside broader macro understandings of how brand expressions relate to contemporary cultural discourses. The chapter stresses the importance of questioning the notion of unbounded flow between intertextual material platforms and the need to consider materiality when examining consumer’s everyday engagements with brands and characters.

Chapter 6: Configuring Imaginative Spaces of Play

In Summary

This chapter extends the previous discussion of object agency by addressing toys as technologies of play, being productive of playful practices and the imaginative spaces they create in their unfolding. This productivity is a function of the object agencies embodied by particular toys. More specifically, the chapter addresses the agencies pertaining to the metaphorical, abstract and practical conveyance of magical lands, materials of manufacture, size and scale, and metonymical qualities. The exploration of imaginative spaces of play offers an important contribution to children’s geographies, which have tended to place children in particular environments, rather than examining the imaginary character of the space-tomes they create for themselves.

Chapter 7 : Traversing Virtual Spaces of Play

In Summary

This chapter further reduces the conceptual; distance between ‘reality’ and ‘play’ and the worlds they inhabit by presenting three ways in which the boundaries between mediated and non-mediated space are blurred. Firstly, it addresses the circulatory flow of knowledge and skill between these different spaces. Secondly, it discusses the cybernetic nature of gameplay, attending tp embodied relations with the handset and onscreen avatars. Thirdly, it emphasises how gameplay involves embodied performances in non-mediated space. Through blurring the boundaries between mediated and non-mediated space, the ‘virtual’ and its relation to the ‘real’  is subjected to empirical scrutiny.

Chapter 8: Affirmation through Animation? Playing and Consuming in Co-fabricated Worlds


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