The Play Residue Project

Re-framing the "mess", valuing play

Photography: Assemblages

A photograph then can be seen as a trace of an actual event, proof that something occurred, an image or reflection of how things were. It is evidence of a real tangible world: it visualizes, or makes visible something about the world as it is seen or experienced (Kind 2013, p. 428).

When I set out on this adventure of documenting play residue, I wasn’t sure where it would lead me. My underlying goal has been to highlight the value of play in all its iterations and to provide a counter-narrative of the beautifully set up provocations and playscapes, that while I value creating provocative invitations, can sometimes create unrealistic ideas about how children play. This week I have taken a different perspective, I am thinking about the tool I use for this project – the camera.

I have been meaning to read the Sylvia Kind (2013) article Lively Entanglements: the doings, movements and enactments of photography for the last few months. I learned of the article through a student presentation in the Master’s program I am completing.

Sylvia Kind (at least at the time of writing the article) worked as an atelierista at an ECE program in Victoria. I was interested to think with this article in terms of the play residue project.  While the article has led me down many roads of reflection on my practice and documentation, and the various intra-actions and entanglements between educator-children-space-camera, my focus here is on some of the reflections I have had in relation to the play residue project (though even those cannot be fully separated from my overall practice as an ECE and Forest School practitioner).

This structure of self-other, as Rose (2004) writes, assumes that the ‘self’ is the pole of activity, presence, and power and the ‘other’ is the pole of passivity (p. 20). Sturken and Cartwright (2009) emphasize that the act of looking tends to award more power to the person who looks than to the person who is the object of that gaze (p. 111). This awards primary power to the one with the camera who is doing the looking and subjugates the one being imaged; it emphasizes that the self who photographs is active, and the other who is photographed is passive….. Nevertheless, the power of the gaze, who looks, why they look, what it means to look, how the looking takes place, the violence, voyeurism, or complicity of looking, and the desire to look, are ideas that play powerfully in historical and contemporary photography. (Kind, 2013, p.428-9)

While my focus does not include the children, I am provoked to reflect on my position as I choose what to document, what is included and what is left outside of the frame. I am the voyeur. As I continue to think with this article, I do wonder how it what ways it will provoke me to think in new ways about this project, children’s intra-actions with materials, and play.

I wonder what would children choose to document at the end of the day? Right now, I am the one who chooses what is photographed, what is residue is documented.  If I were to share these pictures with the children what would thoughts, theories, and ideas would these images elicit? How would they engage with these photos?

The children’s own discussions rarely engaged with questions of who took the photo, what it meant, how it reflected a particular view, experience, or perception, or how it gave insight into a particular individual’s process. Their conversations tended towards engaging with the photos and following their prompts, for instance, acting in response to the images, posing as the figures in the photos, enacting and re-enacting moments, playing in their company. In this way we might see photography as a way of worldmaking, not just world mirroring (Goodman, 1976), an event (see Atkinson, 2011), rather than primarily a representational medium or process. Haraway suggests (1997) that we are located in these worlds, worlds that are always for some and not for others. I wonder, if photography’s colonizing gaze produces certain worlds and inscribes identities in particular ways, what might happen if we entertained other possibilities and other ways of seeing? What possible worlds might photography help us imagine?

My mind keeps circling back to worldmaking. I look at these photos which elicit memories, sounds, smells, histories. I start to wonder, again, how the children in our program would experience these photos? If shared with my colleagues, I wonder what these photos would elicit?

Barad (2011) questions how the boundaries around such entities are made and proposes other ways of understanding the materiality of the physical world where all matter, for instance the camera, photograph, and other human and non-human elements, are agentic and in constant intra-action. This means we do not just look at the thing itself, its meaning or essence, rather the dynamic spaces between and consider how things are ‘spun together in a dense web’ (Bennett, 2004, p. 354). So we engage in a world, not of subjects and objects, rather various materialities, material relations, multiplicities, groupings, compositions, alliances, and intra-actions (see also Lenz Taguchi, 2010). We are drawn to pay attention to what happens between child–adult–camera–photograph, and the movements of materials, resulting resonances, traces, and entanglements. (433-4)

While the photos have been taken at the end of the day after the children have gone home, captured a moment before the materials are put back into bins and crates and brought back inside I begin to see them as in a suspended state of play. For me, what I am photographing represents unfinished projects, a to be continued. If the toys were left as is, I wonder what play this would inspire when the children returned to Forest School.

We tend to think that photography is different, that it ‘captures’ a moment and arrests it … But here, in the children’s choreography of movements, compositions and performances, photography, as assemblage, moves with the ways of the world (Kind 2013, p.437).

Perhaps we need more active ways of thinking about photography; to think of making images rather than taking them and to remember ‘photo-graphy’s’ original meaning of ‘drawing with light’. Drawing hints at actions, gestures, marks and movements, and making as processes of invention (Kind 2013, p.438).


Kind, S. (2013). Lively entanglements: The doings, movements and enactments of photography. Global Studies of Childhood, 3(4), 427-441. doi:10.2304/gsch.2013.3.4.427

As referenced by Kind

Atkinson, D. (2011) Art, Equality and Learning: pedagogies against the state. Rotterdam: Sense.

Barad, K. (2011) Posthumanist Performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter,

Signs, 28(3), 801-831.
Bennett, J. (2004) The Force of Things: steps towards an ecology of matter, Political Theory, 32(3), 347-372.

Goodman, N. (1976) Languages of Art: an approach to a theory of symbols. 2nd edn. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Haraway, D. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM: feminism and technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010) Going Beyond the Theory/Practice Divide in Early Childhood Education: introducing an intra-active pedagogy. New York: Routledge.

Rose, D.B. (2004) Reports from a Wild Country: ethics for decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales.

Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking. New York: Oxford University Press.


Play can have a surprising way of unfolding. We may think we know how children will use a space or the materials within it, however I am often amazed at where children’s creativity will lead them. Recently, I have also been thinking about what would have happened if I had not interrupted children’s play. Sometimes I want to comment, take a photograph, or interject in some way. Sometimes it feels necessary, such as to help problem solve.  There are two dilemmas I see here.

1)How can I be more intentional with my interruptions and keep them to a minimum.

2)Learning to trust more (the child/ren) and employing that power of pause.

These two questions can be applied to many different scenarios though my focus here is on child-material encounters.

I would like to focus on those unsettling moments , where children are starting to paint their arms or face with paint, piling all the toys and loose parts into an elaborate sculpture minutes before “clean-up” time, or using paint to make a piece of art … with the wooden unit blocks! I think about these moments because they were scenarios where I jumped right in I didn’t pause to reflect. Just a halting STOP! Though I may not have used those words my body language and conversations with the children definitely shut down the play and any chance of connecting with the children in these moments.

The day a box of new markers were used for making potions (oops). What wasn’t used was quietly put away and warn out markers were provided instead.


Moon Party. I only witnessed the end part of this project. This was taken over a year ago. At the time I felt unsettled by the “mess.” When i look at this photo now, I remember the joy the children had building this and the pride, as they told me all about the party.

Standing back, and letting it all unfold. While I was interested to know the story of this play, I watched from a distance, until I was invited in. I have learned sometimes we need to just get out of the way and let play happen 🙂



As I was reading an article for my Qualitative Methodologies class on the Mosaic Approach, there was a quote that connected with this post. While this article focuses on research, I think it can be argued that as Early Childhood Educators, we are definitely researchers in our own way.

One of the challenges in allowing a shift in relationships is accepting the place of the unexpected. In research terms, this may mean being relaxed about the focus of the study and not worrying if children lead the study into unplanned areas …. The advantages of accepting a shifting in power are a release from the need for adults to ‘know all the answers’ (Clark 2005, p.25-26).


How do developmental checklists, school readiness, the clock, the daily “schedule,” our own agenda, our “planned” activity, worries about mess, noise, and other peoples perceptions of us get in the way of the unexpected?

How do you navigate that delicate dance?


Clark, A. (2005) ‘Ways of seeing: using the Mosaic approach to listen to young children’s per-spectives’, in Clark, A., Kjørholt and Moss, P. (eds.) Beyond Listening. Children’s perspectives on early childhood services (pp. 29-49). Bristol: Policy Press.


Snow – holding traces otherwise unseen

My winter holidays were extended by another day as St. John’s was covered in a glorious (though massive) blanket of snow. I was grateful, it gave me one more day to prepare myself for “schedules” and not being able to nap when I felt like it. it also gave me more time to read, reflect and write. I have spent the past few weeks consumed by Journeys: Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Practices through Pedagogical Narration By Veronica Pacini-Ketchabow, Filke Nxumalo, Laurie Kocher, Enid Elliot, and Alejandra Sanchez.

The Image [of the child] that educators hold is not a fixed essence, but is always shifting, always in the process of becoming – and it does so through the materials and discursive effects that educators materialize in the moments of pedagogical encounters (p.53)… They [the educators,] are part of the image- and of an ongoing articulation of the image of children in the moments of practice (p.54).

This quote struck me, and I returned to it this week as I “tidied” the environment after our Saturday group were picked up. As I stood overlooking the space that had been scattered with children just a few moments before, I thought back to the morning when this fresh layer of snow was mostly smooth and untouched, except for the prints from my snowshoes and a rabbit. Now the area was rugged looking, foot prints, deep impressions, trenches dug, snow stacked, areas slick and smooth from belly sliding.

Even after the materials had been brought back inside and place in their “place,” the traces of the children (and educators) play were left behind in the snow. While materials left behind were minimal – a few shovels, metal bowls and scoops, and a pair of mittens. The traces left behind in the snow were a powerful mapping of the mornings play.

It was somewhat of an epiphany. When I first started to think about creating this blog I started, I imagined posting photos filled with loose parts, puddles of paint, muddy tools and toys – materials arranged like a piece of abstract art.

“Traces of Play in the Snow” – Edited to emphasize the transformation of the snow

Sometimes play is minimal, with hardly any trace at all, and yet it is just as rich, just as imaginative, just as full of joy, collaboration, problem solving, and adventure as the messy and material rich play.

“Traces of Play in the Snow” – Original

Something magical, special, and important happened here^.



Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., Nxumalo, F., 1971, Kocher, L., 1959, Elliot, E., 1947, & Sanchez, A., 1967. (2015). Journeys: Reconceptualizing early childhood practices through pedagogical narration. North York, Ontario: University of Toronto Press



Choosing to choose what they choose to choose (Introduction)


What happens when children can take the lead of their play? Choosing where to play, when to play, when to stop. Choosing to choose what they choose to choose!

The adults? They are still present, on the cusp of the play. Available, as needed. Intentionally yo-yoing in and out. Stepping back, and allowing the play to unfold.
At the end of the day, once the children have left .. what is left behind?

Traces that someone has been here, outside – impressions in the mud from boots; strings and ropes hanging, dangling, connecting, buckets, pylons, sticks collected in a neat pile, stones layed unnaturally – a path? Could it be fairies?

Inside – blocks stacked, tipped, and adorned with ribbon, bottle caps, fabric, and small plastic animals, odds and ends strewn, heaped, and hidden.

What stories do these scenes tell? A child building a fortress for all the animals ? A child figuring out how to tie a knot ? Two children coming together, for the first time, to make a potion ? A moment of frustration ? A quiet moment of relief ?


Something much deeper, many layered, and interconnected (place, child, materials, adults, theory, practice).

Play is sometimes messy, chaotic, and understood only partially by those involved and observing.

What can I learn about myself, my practice, and the children a part of the programs I am fortunate to be a part of (past and present) as I reflect on the residue I captured, reflect on what exists outside of the frame, and make connections to theory and dialogue with colleagues.

This blog is a means of thinking about play and deepening my practice, and maybe connecting with others who may have the same interests and questions.


The Play Residue Project – a (mini) introduction

A little blurb about the project:

“What is left behind after children’s play can often appear to be messy and chaotic. This project aims to use photography to reframe the “mess” and thus reframe how we view play and it’s importance to children’s development. Placing just as much value on the residue of play as the act of play itself.”

This blog will document the progress of the “Play Residue Project.” While I will begin taking photographs in October 2019, I will not begin posting until January 2020. In the meantime, If you are interested in knowing more about the project I will be posting more about it here in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned …

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