Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Category Archives: Military Geographies

Lest we forget


Artist Mark Neville explores childhood play in collaboration with The Foundling Museum

In preparation for a lecture on children and conflict, I’ve recently been reading Helen Woolley’s work on play in disaster areas. It was interesting to read about an exhibition on Child’s Play by artist Mark Neville, which includes photos from the war torn zones of Afghanistan and Ukraine alongside this work. Tom Seymour writes about this forthcoming exhibition in the British Journal of Photography.

Tom Seymour (reblogged from

As identified by the UN in the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a child has a universal human r…

Read more: Artist Mark Neville explores childhood play in collaboration with The Foundling Museum

To wear or not to wear? Poppies, remembrance and dilemmas

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

                                                                   “In Flanders Fields”, Major John McCrae

It’s that time of year when a splash of red brightens the greying days and people pause to remember the fallen. Each year over 50 million poppies are produced by the Poppy Factory in Richmond, south-west London, and Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Edinburgh to commemorate members of the armed forces, but an increasing number of people are choosing not to wear them. Why? Many, including World War Two veterans, believe the poppy has been misappropriated. The words of Harry Leslie Smith, a 92-year-old World War Two RAF veteran, are indicative: “the spirit of my generation has been hijacked” by latter-day politicians to “sell dubious wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Harry has not worn a poppy since 2013 and is not shy about discussing why.

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As I read Harry’s words I’m reminded of an interesting conversation in a local distillery following one of the university’s Centre for European and International Studies Research seminars last year. Whereas some colleagues were vocal about their choice not to wear a poppy because they felt it symbolised a militaristic ethos above all else, others were torn. On the one hand, they shared concerns about militarism and misappropriation. On the other hand, the poppy, over time, had come to represent a private connection to (sometimes distant) family members; a chance to recognise their experience and sacrifice and to stand alongside them (either literally or symbolically). This little red object gave them a chance to share something with loved ones that was difficult to express via other means. Despite my reservations about the poppy, exemplified by recent vilifications of celebrities for not wearing it in public, I’m sympathetic to this view. Every year, my initial thought on the first sighting of the red symbol is my grandfather, a wonderful man I’ve always been extremely close to; and this is less a thought than a very visceral sensation in the pit of my stomach. I’m lucky to still have my grandfather with me, but we don’t speak about his war time experiences; we’re not really a family for talking. Objects of all kinds have always played a large part in our communications: be it fir cones collected on a Sunday afternoon walk, a board game shared on a rainy day, or trowels and seed trays in the garden. I know that he’ll have the Remembrance Sunday service on the TV or radio, and the poppy is a little way of saying, “I know this important to you, we don’t have to talk about it, we can just share a moment, albeit experiencing this moment in our own personal way”.

Then I see the vilifications of those who opt not to wear the poppy and see the TV screens awash with the small red symbol and cynically think about the obligation to be seen displaying it. In November 2013, I was faced with a particular dilemma. Due to administrative delays the start of our ESRC project, ‘Ludic Geopolitics: Children’s Play, War Toys and Re-enchantment with the British Military’ had been pushed back… to the 11th November. The department wanted to make a fuss of the project launch, proud of achieving substantial funding, but I was uneasy. Given the themes of the project I didn’t want people to think the date had been deliberately chosen, that we were making some kind of comment. With the naval history of Portsmouth, Remembrance commemorations are keenly felt. From my office I hear the cannon marking the two minute silence at the 11th hour. In the end the launch was marked by a hand written note, “Ludic Geopolitics starts today” on a single sheet of A4 on the notice board in our departmental office.

Tensions, such as these outlined here, are a feature of our research as we negotiate our multiple roles as academics, family members, children at heart. Within the team there are different attitudes towards the objects we research, which creates a productive tension we are continuing to work through.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 07.33.08Readers may be interested in reading a recent Guardian article: ‘Five reasons people don’t wear poppies‘, which includes discussion of ‘poppy fascism’ and the white poppy.

Ludic Geopolitics goes continental

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 08.45.45This summer the Ludic Geopolitics project went continental. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to share our now rather vast collection of HM Armed Forces action figures and accessories with German children aged seven and nine years old. This was a chance to extend the domestic ethnography strand of our project, which involves: (1) creative tasks to explore children’s wide ranging toy collections; (2) playing with military themed toys along with the children; and (3) children filming their play. The latter is both a means for the children to become proxy observers of their own embodied practice and highlight key features of their playful practice that may not be immediately obvious to me as an adult researcher. Read more about the approach used in our domestic ethnography research in:

Woodyer, T. (2008) The body as research tool: embodied practice and children’s geographies, Children’s Geographies 6(4): 349-362.

To date, I’ve been playing with children based in Hampshire, UK. Marking out enemies as German, even when action is set in desert environments more reminiscent of contemporary sites of conflict involving British Armed Forces, is a common feature of this play (albeit when it follows an explicitly military theme, this isn’t always the case). Given this trend I was really interested to see how the German children engaged with the toys modelled on British Armed Forces.  The sample size was too small to draw any firm conclusions, but it was really interesting to see how the children initially engaged with the toys in the embodied manner I’ve become familiar with, but also developed superhero themes to follow. The hot summer weather and large garden space available to us allowed the action figures to scale and jump from trees (aided with a parachute) and to undertake daring water-based rescues in the paddling pool. I’m looking forward to exploring ways to extend cross-comparisons of the playful practices of children from different national backgrounds. Find out more about the Ludic Geopolitics project here.

Ludic geopolitics: An interim progress report

Ludic Geopolitics

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Image Source: Klaus Dodds (@klausdodds)

Last week, we held a project advisory board meeting at the University of Portsmouth and it was a great opportunity for the team to catch up and discuss with advisory board members the interim findings of the Ludic Geopolitics project. We also had an opportunity to record our thanks to Dr. Phil Kirby who was the research associate for project based at the University of Exeter (January 2014-March 2015), and now is going on to a post at the Sutton Trust.

The day was organized into three themes, after a brief introduction by PI Dr. Tara Woodyer about the intellectual rationale for the project; addressing the role of young people and children in geopolitics and security studies, thinking about play in ways that go beyond interests in playing with guns and ‘obvious’ objects of warfare, and connecting up the various sites and spaces of play…

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Commemorating Auschwitz through models

Ludic Geopolitics

An attraction in Birmingham, Wonderful World of Trains and Planes, has been criticised for recently including a model of the Auschwitz concentration camp as part of its display. For the owner, the exhibit was designed to emphasise that, “The Holocaust was only possible because of trains”. For Matt Lawson, though, a lecturer at Edge Hill University, “It’s a step too far and I really don’t understand the thought process […] I think the Holocaust is a vital part of kids’ education. But I also think that during a light-hearted, family day out to suddenly be confronted by a model of a concentration camp is bizarre.” A member of the Birmingham Central Synagogue stated that, “I’m sure it has been done for all the right reasons, but not providing a full account of what happened and why, after drawing people’s attention to it, is an omission.”




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History Today

HOT OFF THE PRESS! The December issue of History Today may not have been the cheeriest with murder, war and deadly diseases featured on the cover, but the Ludic Geopolitics team were pleased to have a new piece published in the magazine. P1080578 Do war toys encourage violent behaviour and make conflict more acceptable? Or do they offer genuine insight into military history? We examine the evidence. P1080579

D-Day commemoration in pictures

Below is a series of photographs I took of the D-Day commemorations held in Portsmouth. Read more.


D-DAY1, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY2, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY3, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY4, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY5, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY6, Tara Woodyer

D-DAY7, Tara Woodyer


FLOTILLA1, Tara Woodyer

FLOTILLA2, Tara Woodyer

FLOTILLA3, Tara Woodyer

FLOTILLA5, Tara Woodyer

FLOTILLA6, Tara Woodyer


REDARROW1, Tara Woodyer

REDARROW2, Tara Woodyer

REDARROW3, Tara Woodyer

REDARROW4, Tara Woodyer

REDARROW6, Tara Woodyer

Portsmouth – commemoration and inspiration

20140510_150419[1]What could make a better site for the Ludic Geopolitics HQ than a city steeped in military history, with a strong naval presence? The city of Portsmouth on the south coast of England is an interesting and inspiring setting for our research examining how children make sense of war and conflict and enact geopolitics through play. There has been a naval base at Portsmouth for over 800 years, and despite unsettling times of late, this history continues today. Portsmouth’s modern naval base will be home to the new 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a remarkable military operation to liberate France during WWII. A series of events will remember Portsmouth’s vital role in this historic episode. The city was a key strategic location for the D-Day landings, acting as an embarkation point for thousands of troops on route to Normandy. Many specialist ships used in the landings had been modified at the city’s naval dockyard. The operation was planned from Southwick House, just to the north of Portsmouth.

As part of a series of commemorative events unfolding in the city this week, a veteran’s centre will be set up on Southsea Common and Portsmouth-based Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond will contribute to a flotilla of ships sailing to Normandy for the international commemorations. There will also be a local remembrance service, military parades, an amphibious landing demonstration, a RAF aerobatic display, orchestral and 1940s themed concerts, film screenings, a Lindy Hop and Swing afternoon at the bandstand, combat displays, military vehicle exhibitions and talks by veterans. The Normandy commemorations will be live streamed to big screens on Southsea Common.


Whilst Woodward (2005:719) rightly remarks that ‘[m]ilitary geographies may be everywhere, but they are often subtle, hidden, concealed, or  unidentified’, this is certainly not the case in Portsmouth, especially at times of (inter)national commemoration. The city is a useful starting point for thinking about everyday cultures of militarism; a departure point for seeking out less readily visible influences and practices. The city is also a useful setting for thinking about the three contemporary approaches to military issues in Anglophone human geography outlined by Woodward. Let’s take the D-Day landings as an example. Firstly, a traditional Military Geography approach concerned with the military objectives of the state might focus on the planning activities unfolding at Southwick House during the summer of 1944. Secondly, a geography of militarism and military activities approach concerned with the spatiality of armed conflict might focus on the role of Portsmouth as an embarkation point. Thirdly, a critical military geography approach concerned with the wider imprint of militarism and military activities might focus on the contemporary commemorations and the ways in which the military heritage of the city and its continuing role as a naval base is marked in the civilian landscape – from parks to pubs, streets to squares –  and civilian everyday practices.

 As we start the school-based recruitment sessions for our research, it will be interesting to find out more about how schools engage with such commemorations and use the local landscape to teach children about war and conflict, and how this finds expression in children’s play alongside wider influences.

Last chance to register for Sensing War

Registration for the Sensing War conference closes Friday 6th June.

Don’t miss out!


Sensing War

International Interdisciplinary Conference. 12 – 13th June 2014. London, UK.

War is a crucible of sensory experience and its lived affects radically transform ways of being in the world.  It is prosecuted, lived and reproduced through a panoply of sensory apprehensions, practices and ‘sensate regimes of war’ (Butler 2012) – from the tightly choreographed rhythms of patrol to the hallucinatory suspicions of night vision; from the ominous mosquito buzz of drones to the invasive scrape of force-feeding tubes; from the remediation of visceral helmetcam footage to the anxious tremors of the IED detector; from the desperate urgencies of triage to the precarious intimacies of care; from the playful grasp of children’s war-toys to the feel of cold sweat on a veteran’s skin.

Recognising the recent growth of ground-breaking work on the senses across the humanities and social sciences, Sensing War brings together researchers from a wide variety of disciplines to foster creative dialogue and critical exploration of the multiple and shifting relationships between war and sensation.  What concepts, resources and methods does the sensuous turn in scholarship offer to further our understandings of the myriad experiences of war and militarism?   As war continuously shape-shifts, bleeding across the global flows of late modernity, how might attentiveness to sensory experience help us to rethink its genealogy and ontology?  How might we enable innovative and critical sensory engagements with war that allow us to see, hear, sense and understand it anew?


•       Soldiering and Sensory Practice
•       Affective Spaces of War
•       Violence, Aesthetics and Late Modern Wars
•       Witnessing and War Work
•       Sensory Distinctions and Deceptions
•       Veterans, Intimacies & Sensory Aftermaths
•       Military Life and Militarism
•       Objects and Sensory Engagements
•       Technologies of Sensing War
•       War and the Body
•       Sensory Immersion and Targeting
•       Sensory Memories and Hauntings

Keynote: Ryan Bishop (University of Southampton) and John Phillips (National University of Singapore)

The full programme and online registration are here.

Conference registration is £120 or £90 for postgraduates.