Material play: children's learning

Year: 2017

Author: Thomson, Pat, Franks, Anton, Odegard, Nina, Penfold, Louisa

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Many early childhood educators are committed to play-full practice, understanding play as a key to individual and social learning. Early childhood traditions, from Montessori to Reggio are premised on the value of exploration and experimentation through play. In this symposium, we focus specifically on arts-oriented play. We ask, when children are 'doing art' play what are they learning with the materials they choose?

Drawing on new materialist theories (e.g. Coole and Frost, 2010; Dolphin and De Tuin, 2012; Braidotti, 2013) this symposium explores the proposition that when children are engaged in working with new, recycled and found 'stuff' they are not only learning practices such as pattern and mark making, not only learning about the properties of materials and how they can be stretched, pushed and pulled or joined together. They are also being called and directed by the materials, forming possible selves with materials and learning what different materials are and do in the world.

In order to illustrate this argument, we propose an innovative format for the workshop. We focus on participant engagement with materials followed by pedagogical discussion and small presentations. We will initially offer participants a choice of materials - plasticine, used paper, markers and pencils, recycled cardboard and string, straws, used plastic objects, leaves and twigs. We will invite participants to close their eyes and explore the material they have chosen. We will offer time for participants to work with the materials that they choose, alone or together. These will form an installation. We will then host a half hour discussion where we focus on the interaction between the materials and the play. Why were particular materials chosen and not others? What memories were evoked during the play time? What was possible with the materials and what wasn't? What about the play experience can be put into words and what can't? Did you feel a desire/need to name, categorize or define your installation? What senses were used, and what feelings were evoked in this event?
We will present our papers in poster format, speaking to each for five minutes followed by questions and further discussion to conclude.


There is increasing interest among academics in the ways in which humans can and need to be decentred to take account of the material, both organic and inorganic, worlds in which we live. However, at the same time, policy makers around the world increasingly position play-based early childhood curricula as trivial and not sufficiently focused on knowledge and skills. Early childhood education curricula and pedagogy is increasingly focused on school-like preparation. In the UK, in particular, the arts are also under threat. This symposium explores and explains the importance of material-ised art play in early childhood.