Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course



Woody: Buzz, you’ve had a big fall, you must not be thinking clearly.

Buzz: No Woody. For the first time I am thinking clearly. I’m not a space ranger. I’m just a toy, a stupid little insignificant toy.

Woody: Woah, hey, wait a minute, being a toy is a lot better than being a space ranger.

Buzz: Yeah right.

Woody:No it is! Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest and it’s not because you’re a space ranger pal. It’s because you’re a TOY!

Toy Story: Walt Disney Pictures 2005

What is a toy?

In its broadest sense, ‘toy’ refers to a plaything. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a toy is an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something. But I didn’t need to tell you that; we all know what a toy is, right? Dan Fleming gives us cause to think again. In his book, Powerplay: toys as popular culture, he (1996) adopts a more critical approach. He explains how an object’s identity as a toy is not given, stable or intrinsically fixed in a unitary way. Rather, an object’s recognition as a toy depends on:

  • its social and economic setting;
  • its culturally derived associations;
  • the cultural representations in which it appears;
  • and the prior experience of its user.

A toy is a historically contingent artefact. Its meaning in any particular era is bound to the dominant conception of childhood at that same historical moment. The concept of childhood itself is not fixed.

Within in my work, I do not define what a toy is in advance of my ethnographic study. Rather, I work with a practically derived, context-dependent notion of the toy, developed through child participants’ own everyday engagements and practices. This practically derived definition of the toy expands upon commercially oriented definitions, allowing the inclusion of books, videogames, scale model kits, made objects, and household objects that enjoy a temporary status as a toy, being drawn into playful practice in an ad hoc, momentary fashion.

Why toys?

Toys feature heavily in anxious accounts about of contemporary childhood. It is argued that toy guns and videogames encourage aggression and violence, that fashion dolls flaunt sexualised images, and that interactive and character-based toys stifle creativity. Anxiety about the character of contemporary toys is intensified by their increasing commercialisation. It is argued that toys are  products of economic interests rather than a desire to enlighten, inspire and educate.
While popular concern about the character of modern toys has sharpened, academic analysis of their social context has lagged. They remain strangely absent or abstract in research on child development, in accounts of children’s geographies, and from the diverse subject matter addressed by material culture studies. This neglect appears all the more remarkable when you consider the vast nature of global toy markets. According to a 2004 Keynote Market Report, the traditional toys and games market in the UK was worth £2.1 billion at retail selling prices in 2003. This figure was predicted to rise by 15.8% by 2008. These figures exclude sales of computer games and consoles, which alone represented a market value of £1.43 billion in 2000.
Two main factors account for the academic oversight of toys:
1) The low status accorded to popular culture generally, and children’s culture specifically;
2) Toys are explicitly associated with play, which is overlooked as an irrelevant aspect of people’s everyday lives.

Where academic engagement with toys does exist, it is often characterised by symbolic analysis. This approach treats toys as texts, reading them for their ideological content. The effects of toys are assumed in an a priori manner. There is little consideration of the potential gap between ideology and reception.

My research offers a critical response to less grounded commentaries on the demoralised and disenchanted character of  contemporary childhoods.  It tells a series of contemporary stories about children’s domestic practices of play that emphasise the meaningfulness of toys in children’s everyday lives. This work moves beyond a purely representational approach to toys. It plays rather than reads, examining and participating in the embodied, sensory and affective relations children share with toys. My primary concern is tracing the object agencies of toys – the ways in which they motivate inferences, interpretations and responses. This approach animates toys, evoking the liveliness of the relations they share with children.



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