Posthuman Theory and Practice in Early Years Learning

  • Margaret SomervilleEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


This childhood/nature chapter was provoked by curiosity about the rise of posthuman theorizing in early years learning research and practice. Set in the context of the Anthropocene as the age of human entanglement in the fate of the planet, it takes the view that the primary task of this time is to develop new understandings of the human and new concepts of thought (Colebrook, Extinction: framing the end of the species. Open Humanities Press, 2010). Early childhood has led the field of education in the development and application of posthuman theorizing in response to this imperative, prompting the explorations of the chapter. A review of the literature in this field resulted in the identification of three distinct areas of posthuman theoretical activity: new materialism, child-animal relations, and Indigenous-nonindigenous intersections. The third category Indigenous-nonindigenous intersections which draws primarily on Indigenous theorizing was so divergent from the others, and so complex, as to be considered outside the scope of this chapter. In gathering the various papers together to make sense of the literature in each of new materialism and child-animal relations, different modes of analysis were called for. New materialism in early childhood education and practice is considered using a genealogical generational analysis following the work of Van der Tuin (Generational feminism: new materialist introduction to a generative approach. Lexington Books, London, 2014), while child-animal relations prompted an analytical approach involving Haraway’s bag lady method following Taylor, Blaise, and Giugni (Discourse Stud Cult Polit Educ 34(1):48–62, 2013). A particularly interesting and curious finding was that “life” emerged as a major theme from new materialism and “death” from child-animal relations in keeping with the paradoxical nature of the Anthropocene.


Posthuman New materialism Child-animal relations Early childhood Anthropocene 


The separation of nature and culture in Western language, thought, and practice has long been identified as the reason for the destructive exploitation of the natural world (e.g., Plumwood, 2002; Rose and Robin, 2004). More recently there has been an increasing recognition that this has resulted in massive changes to the capacity of the Earth to sustain life with the proposal of the new geological era of the Anthropocene, the time of human entanglement in the fate of the planet (Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen, & Crutzen, 2010). Despite debates about the timeframe and meaning of the Anthropocene – its emphasis on human power or the reverse – the concept has generated a remarkable flourishing of scholarship across all disciplines with a focus on how to theorize new understandings of the human and new concepts of thought (Colebrook, 2010). This scholarship has a special relevance to education. Young children born into the increasing awareness of the catastrophic impacts of climate change will grow up into a very different sense of the world than the adults of today and can be understood as children of the Anthropocene (Somerville & Green, 2015), leading to the need to learn and research with them. The question to address with these children in their more-than-human worlds is how to move beyond the nature/culture binary in educational research and what does this mean for the practice of education?

Early childhood has long been a leader in the field of posthuman theorizing in its application to educational thought and practice (Somerville & Williams, 2015). My curiosity in contemplating this chapter was provoked by this phenomenon: why early childhood; who are the researchers, what theoretical work are they drawing on; how do they frame their approaches and findings; and how can we apply these new approaches in everyday practice? In reviewing this extensive body of work, three categories emerged to better answer these questions: new materialism, child-animal relations, and Indigenous-nonindigenous intersections. In further engaging in an in-depth analysis of each of these categories, it became clear that the third category of Indigenous-nonindigenous intersections was of a fundamentally different order than the others and would require its own, independent chapter.

In reviewing the many papers in the new materialism and child-animal relations categories, it became clear that different modes of analysis were called for. The trajectory of new materialism was best understood using a genealogical and generational approach (Van der Tuin, 2014), while child-animal relations prompted an analytical approach involving Haraway’s bag lady method (Taylor, Blaise, & Giugni, 2013).

The approach taken to writing the chapter overall employs Springgay’s method of “anarchiving.” This method was developed from creative arts and is used to refer to visual artist’s renditions of new artworks based on the archived work of others (Springgay, 2014). It does not attempt to offer a complete and exhaustive coverage but instead produces new and creative productions from these past works. In naming the approach of anarchiving the writing acknowledges that many of the words and sentences in this chapter are composed of the words of others, gathered together from the range of papers in each of the categories. All of the sources are acknowledged, but for ease of reading, direct quotes are sometimes paraphrased where they occur within the text. Key quotes are indented and remain in their original form. It is hoped that the contribution of this chapter emerges from the unique combination of words and ideas generated from within this amazing body of work.

New Materialism: Genealogy and Generation

Starting from the etymological register, the established methodology related to generation is genealogy… genea-logy enfolds generation… the continental philosophy method of writing genealogies, of engrossing oneself in cartographies of conceptual shifting, allows for ‘a transformation of history into a totally different form of time’ (Foucault, [1971] 1977, p. 160). …the genealogical method helps to understand conceptual shifting along timelines that capture the often erratic, utterly nonlinear generation (of thought, practices, and artifacts) itself. Genealogies… focus is on the very moment of creating innovative concepts … among the most generative of feminism. (Van der Tuin, 2014, p. 59)

This chapter is animated by the question of how posthumanism came to be so prominent in early childhood education as opposed to other sectors of educational thought and practice. My thinking in relation to new materialism began by exploring Hillevi Lenz Taguchi’s landmark text, Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education (Lenz Taguchi, 2010). I was immediately struck with its beginning in the intense materiality of an official meeting. Hillevi writes: “It felt so hard to breathe in here and smelled like an old museum… The wooden chair that creaked quietly as I sat down at the large oval shiny table. The wide leather seat was quickly heated by my jean-clothed buttocks” (p. 1). Hillevi later connects the recognition of the power of the materiality of this room to the book’s exposition of the problem of an ontological divide between theory and practice and between academic knowledge and our sensing bodies, matter, rooms, and material environments and places (p. 3).
But it was not only this that so shaped and disrupted my imaginings of the beginnings of new materialism in early childhood research and practice but a chance remark of an early childhood practitioner when I explained that Hillevi traces her own thought to the Reggio Emilia movement as it was taken up in Sweden:

Reggio was a grassroots movement in Italy started by women immediately after WW2 as Italy was rebuilding. Very little materials and poor, so ‘the environment’ was what they had. They were opposed to the dictatorship experienced in the war and this in part determined the politics of the movement. Started by women, first book written by a male, taken up first in Scandinavia (Sweden) and then USA but differently in Sweden. (K. Power, personal communication, 2017)

The search for these women became a process of archaeology rather than genealogy as I sifted through the traces in the only book I could locate that would reveal anything of the origins of the Reggio movement, The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach – advanced reflections (Malaguzzi, 1998). Chapter 3, “History, ideas and basic philosophy,” is an interview with Loris Malaguzzi, universally credited with the founding of the Reggio Emilia preschools in that region of Italy. At first I mistakenly thought Chapter 3 was an interview with Lella Gandini, expecting to find women’s presence, but it is an interview by Lella with Loris Malaguzzi and features only Malaguzzi’s words facilitated by Gandini. The chapter is framed with a photo of Loris Malaguzzi in the top right-hand corner of the first page. It is labeled “Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the program in Reggio Emilia” (p. 49). Soon after its unpromising beginning, however, I am excited to see the first appearance of the women:

I hear that in a small village called Villa Cella, a few miles from the town of Reggio Emilia, people decided to build and run a school for young children. …I rush on my bike and discover that it is all quite true. I find women intent upon salvaging and washing pieces of brick. (p. 49)

Unfortunately at this point the women disappear into the generic “people” making it impossible to tell whether it is these women’s actions in the rest of the chapter (as one might assume) or in fact a group of “people”: “We will build the school on our own, working at night and on Sundays, the land has been donated by a farmer, the bricks and beams will be salvaged from bombed houses, the sand will come from the river; the work will be volunteered by all of us” (p. 49). I want to find out who these women were who cleaned bricks and salvaged timber from war-torn homes to make a preschool for the children. I want to know more but the story continues to use the plural generic term “people.” I comb through the words, like sifting through the rubble, to find traces of the women. They are few. I learn at the end of the chapter that all the teachers were female: “Until a few years ago Italian law forbade males to teach pre-primary children” (p. 71), which makes the words, “they were ample and greedy (p. 50)” in the description of the teachers, even more meaningful. Even though that is all there is, it is the image of these “ample and greedy” women cleaning bricks in war-torn Italy, maintaining “enough rage and strength to survive for almost 20 years” (p. 50) that captures my imagination and flows forward into reading Hillevi Lenz Taguchi’s book with new insight.

Beyond the theory/practice divide (Lenz Taguchi, 2010) addresses the problem of an ontological divide between theory and practice, drawing “sensing bodies, matter and material environments – spaces and places” into academic knowledge from the pedagogical context of the practices in Sweden that have taken their inspiration from the municipal preschools in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia (p. 3). While many theorists are cited in the context of critical and feminist pedagogies emerging in Western universities in the 1980s, Deleuze and Guattari, and Karen Barad, form the main theoretical underpinnings of this “jumping gene” leap of conceptual thought (Van der Tuin, 2014).

For Lenz Taguchi, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) contribute an ontology of immanence, in which “everything around us affects everything else, which makes everything change and be in a continuous process of becoming” through processes with “a central element of unpredictability, creative and inventive change in the interconnections between different matter and organisms with different potentialities” (p. 15). In this understanding, there is “no hierarchical relationship between different organisms (human and non-human)” (p. 15), drawing a parallel for Lenz Taguchi with Karen Barad’s onto-epistemology of intra-activity (Barad, 2007). Intra-activity is described as all matter having agency emerging through relationship in which different bodies of matter mutually change and alter in their ongoing intra-actions. Importantly, for a book based on the Reggio Emilia tradition of teachers learning from children through pedagogical documentation, learning is understood in terms of different matter – human and nonhuman – making themselves intelligible to each other (p. 4), an idea further elaborated in Lenz Taguchi’s influential paper with Karin Hultman (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010).

In Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual data, a “relational materialist methodological approach” is applied to the analysis of two photographs of children’s activities in an early learning setting (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010). This influential paper is significant for its application of complex posthuman theory to a real-world education setting. It analyzes two photographs in detail: one of a young girl playing in a sandbox and another of a girl on a climbing frame. In the following, I focus on the analysis of the girl+sand photograph as being the most mind-opening application of Barad’s intra-activity and Deleuzean becoming:

…the sand and the girl, as bodies and matter of forces of different intensities and speed, fold around each other and overlap, in the event of sand falling, hand opening, body adjusting and balancing, eyes measuring height and distance and observing the falling movement of the glittering sand into the red bucket. Thus, in a relational materialist understanding, the sand can be understood as ‘active’ and ‘playing with the girl’ just as much as the girl plays with the sand. They come into play. The girl is in a state of becoming with the sand, and the sand is in a state of becoming with the girl (Deleuze, 1990). To be able to see this, we need to think of a relational field of immanence, where there is no absolute or inherent border between the sand and the girl in this event. (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010, p. 530)

In the intertwining of theory and practice in this paper, Hultman and Lenz Taguchi (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010) expand on both Deleuze’s “becoming” and Barad’s “intra-action” through their analysis of the sand+girl dyad. In the above quote, influenced by Deleuzean “becoming,” both girl and sand are in a continual state of becoming with and through each other. Barad’s “intra-activity” is extended in this article to include the discursive as well as material phenomenon for “neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior. …Neither is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are mutually articulated” (pp. 529–530). In this sense “the girl and the sand simultaneously “pose questions” to each other in the process of trying to make themselves intelligible to each other as different kinds of matter involved in an active and ongoing relation” (p. 530). The article destabilizes the fixed identity of the researcher as standing outside of the event of analyzing their data. In a move closely akin to the concept of the “sensing body” and the Reggio women, a “diffractive reading” is offered in which the researcher needs to activate all of her “bodily affective perceptions” when intra-acting with data as an entirely new event (p. 537).

Finally, ethics and politics are never far from the surface in this work, influenced by the enraged women of postwar Italy, because what we do as researchers “creates new possibilities and evokes new responsibilities.” Hultman and Lenz Taguchi articulate the ultimate aim of doing research and analysis in this new way as making it possible “for others (humans and nonhumans) to live differently in realities yet to come” (p. 540).

Miriam Giugni is the direct genealogical daughter of Lenz Taguchi’s sensing body in its material mattering. In Becoming worldly with: An encounter with the Early Years Learning Framework, Giugni (2011) positions herself as practitioner-activist, deeply resonant with the activism of the Reggio women of Villa Cella. While Giugni’s theorizing references Haraway’s “becoming worldly,” her method, as with the Reggio Emilia women, is of pedagogical documentation. For Giugni, becoming worldly “encapsulates assemblages of political, historical and geographical entanglements of relationality between the human and the non-human or more-than-human actants” (p. 11). In her narrative telling of two encounters with young children in a multicultural preschool in urban Sydney, becoming worldly offers Giugni a way to include the more-than-human such as animals, technologies, organisms, objects, landscapes, the weather, and so forth (p. 11).

Of the two vignettes in this paper, it is the retelling of the Easter story encounter with young children that emerges as the most powerful example of becoming worldly through pedagogical documentation. When Giugni invites a group of four multi-faith children to express how they might want to investigate Easter, one of them responds, “Easy – just Google for Jesus” (p. 21). From their Google search, they chose an image of Michelangelo’s Pietà and print it. After a brief discussion about the beautiful sculpture, together they decide that sculpting with clay would be the most practical starting point. As they fashion their brown clay figures, the children observe the similarity of Giugni’s white skin to the marble sculpture, and they explore the topic of skin color, ethnicity, brown color of the clay, and the brown color of the skin of those children who also come from the Middle East with skin color just like Mary and Jesus.

Giugni theorizes at length about the printed image; the brown, gritty clay; the color of her skin; sculpted draping bodies; and the politics of all these elements, as an assemblage of the more-than-human actants that produce their “becomings with” (p. 23). By including the clay, the Internet, the computer, and their diverse views, beliefs, and cultural practices (p. 23), Giugni demonstrates how meaning and matter are inseparable. In a move more typical of Haraway’s theorizing, Giugni “stays with the trouble” (Haraway, 2008), adding a strong activist political dimension as the children and clay become-with in the tensions of their intra-subjective time together (p. 16). This paper extends the possibilities of Hultman and Lenz Taguchi’s analysis of girl+sand and girl+climbing frame in its location in examples from practice and its inclusion of the multiple materialities of clay, the Internet, computer, and diverse cultural practices. At the same time, it acknowledges its generational indebtedness to Hultman and Lenz Taguchi’s work.

Pauliina Rautio is similarly influenced by Lenz Taguchi, adding another dimension from her “ongoing empirical journey into the materiality of children’s everyday life environments” (Rautio, 2013). Rautio’s interest is particularly situated in what she refers to as “autotelic material practices” – things children do for no purpose other than the activity itself. Children who carry stones in their pockets, the first and most distinctive paper of Rautio’s early work, consider “whether bridging the nature-culture divide can be attempted by exploring practices through which children themselves seem to do this” (Rautio, 2013, p. 403). The cited theoretical antecedents of this paper include similar aspects of Deleuze and Guattari, and Barad, as inspired Lenz Taguchi, but the paper demonstrates a more in-depth engagement with Bennett’s (2010) vibrant matter: “Material is vibrant insomuch as it has the capacity to not just impede the courses and wills of other material entities, such as humans, but also to act as a “quasi-agent” with tendencies of its own” (Rautio, 2013, p. 397). The “human” becomes differently with stones. Stones, she says, “have intra-agency: stones do things to us and with us. They have us pick them up, feel them, close them in our fist (if particularly smooth and rounded) or hold them between our thumb and forefinger (if small and edgy)” (p. 404):

We exist as a consequence of stones: the event of carrying stones makes us in the moment. We become stone-carrying with carrying stones. We literally weigh a bit more, balance our walk a bit differently, think certain thoughts and become certain kind of bodies and individuals in relation to what kind of stone-bodies we encounter and interact with. (Rautio, 2013, p. 404)

For Rautio, then, carrying stones with no particular purpose other than the attraction of stones is a political act, differentiated from the economics of extractive mining. In carrying stones, as children do, we come to know ourselves as part of the world, not separate from it (p. 405): “Bodies (human and non-human, organic and inorganic entities) exist as a consequence of the world” (p. 397). The unique contribution of this paper is to think playfully with stones, drawing on Deleuze’s encouragement to experiment with new modes of thinking and being that keep generating novel and endless possibilities (p. 396).
Two further papers by Rautio are based on a study in which 12 Finnish children, aged 4 to 7, gathered once a week for a total of 11 times to assist an adult researcher in studying things, objects, and beings (Rautio, 2014; Rautio & Winston, 2015). Each of these papers makes a distinctive contribution to understanding young children’s play from a posthuman perspective. In Mingling and imitating in producing space for knowing and being, Rautio explores the relationship between children and things, producing insights into the ways that things constitute children:

We need to assign agency and relevance to the things that children move, order, clean up, don’t clean up, combine, attach, stack, throw, dismantle, feel with and talk to. In a materialist vein of thinking, a chaos of things could serve in keeping the children conversant and open to be played with by the things around them. This is how things are able to invite children to play. (Rautio, 2014, p. 8)

Through processes described as “mimicry,” previously regarded only in relation to human to human social learning, Rautio finds that children “engaged in repeating the same bodily or sensory events they witnessed around them – in other humans or nonhumans – so as to try them out” (p. 9). She describes how one child imitated his box by lying flat on his stomach beside the box lid in front of him, on the floor, and then moving the lid with his finger (p. 9).

The categories of mingling and imitating that arise from the analysis of the children’s play with things offer new ways of thinking about the agency of things and understanding children and their play differently. The paper also offers a different understanding of the adult human researcher in its connection with the Reggio Emilia women and Hillevi Lenz Taguchi’s work. In a way that has become characteristic of Rautio’s work, it is the “sensing body” that registers and responds to her full participation in the encounter, continually disrupting the certainty or possibility of any external observing position. Through this she understands the human (child) differently, “children in our meetings were like amebous creatures that overlapped with each other as well as with their surrounding materials, producing assemblages of movement, sweat, cheering and panting” (p. 10).

In Things and children in play (Rautio & Winston, 2015), the question of language enters the picture of the posthuman in early childhood where language is understood in its materiality. Drawing on other researchers of language and play, language is rethought “as material, as form rather than function,” such as in nursery rhymes which are common to all cultures with sounds and rhythms dependent on patterns, and where meanings emerge from their material form rather than shape it (p. 4). Bennett’s (2010) concept of “congregational agency ,” of beings and things, both material and immaterial (p. 21), is newly applied to language’s play with children. In congregational agency, it is the collective, or the combined assemblage of beings and things, that produces the play in its intrinsic value and desire.

The idea of “congregational agency” of languages and play with children is extended in my own research in Emergent literacies in “The land of do anything you want” (Somerville & Green, 2015). In this small informal research project, the emergence of language with and from the world became a significant new insight. Influenced by Hultman and Lenz Taguchi (2010), I became vitally interested in the proposition that the individual subject emerges only through the mutual entanglements of different bodies of matter, each with their own force or agency (Barad, 2007). Two young girls were invited to take part in an “experiment” in which they chose spaces and places to play, recorded in tiny video segments, still photos, and notes on an iPhone. The detailed analysis of these small video segments was surprisingly challenging, and it was in the process of persevering with turning the movements and sounds into Word on the computer that new insights into the congregational agency of language emerged:

(Water gurgling, birds twittering

child singing high bird-like sounds

walks into water with fine stick balancing on stones

flicking stick at water and at stones

wobbles back to stones on island, humming)

that’s a daddy (low sing song voice, lifting a rock),

that’s a daddy, that’s a daddy, that’s a bigger daddy (patting a rock each time)

that’s a little baby (picking up a small pebble), that’s a little baby

got babies cousins dadda (arms wide open in expansive gesture

walks away lifts hands to sky, loud sound to sky

comes back to rock pile singing)

a-gugu a-gugu a-gugu (sing-song to birds trilling)

you’re a baby (to me), and I’m a mama kangaroo

I’m a mama kangaroo, you’re a baby kangaroo

that’s my fire (loudly, pointing to rocks)

that’s my fire, baby kangaroo, that’s my fire, baby kangaroo

that’s my fire, baby kangaroo.

(Charmaine, 3 years, at river)

(Somerville & Green, 2015, p. 119)

Initially in transcribing the small video, the human ear hears only meaningful human words, but when forced to listen minutely to all of the sounds, it becomes apparent that there is no separation of the sounds of birds and water from the soundings of the child. The place is singing to the child and the child is singing to the place. She is also simultaneously playing with stones, telling a story about stones, talking to the sky, opening out her arms and hands, and calling out loudly to the sky, just to call to the world. When the child sings “a-gugu a-gugu a-gugu” with a bird trilling in unison, two songs come together. Both are small incidental songs to the world, with no meaning other than sounding the place, a meaning that suddenly appeared transformative. This emergence of language within new materialism enacts Barad’s proposition of the mutual entanglement of discursive practices and material phenomena as mutually implicated in the dynamics of intra-activity (Barad, 2007, p. 152).

In amongst the glitter and the squashed blueberries (Hackett, Pahl, & Pool, 2017) similarly addresses questions of language and materiality in a study located in a community setting with open-ended exploration of children’s emergent play. It also references Barad (2007) and Lenz Taguchi (2010) but adds some significant new dimensions and theorizing. Based on their collaborative arts-based practice of exploring children’s play with cardboard den constructions, they include concepts of place (Somerville, 2015) and nonrepresentational theories of language (MacLure, 2013). In what they describe as “a methodology of blueberries, glitter, cardboard and chaotic, embodied meaning making” (p. 66), they venture unexpectedly to the “cusp of chaos”:

The scene begins with a shot of the castle and a path made of two narrow parallel sheets of cardboard … Giggling, a little girl climbs into a wooden trolley (intended for wooden bricks), while her slightly older brother takes up position to push her in the trolley down the cardboard path. The trolley is too wide to fit down the path, so as the boy pushes his delighted sister faster and faster down the path, the paths falls apart, the cardboard becomes caught in the wheels, the whole structure collapses. At the end of the path, the trolley falls over, spilling the little girl onto the floor where she lies laughing. (p. 66)

In the many examples of children’s meaning-making with arts materials, they note both the role of intra-action with materials in moment-by-moment meaning-making and the embodied sensations and notions of emplacement in how the children collaboratively create and share meaning through their play with the materials. These insights are connected to a pedagogy of unknowing, the agency of materials within processes, and an understanding that the processes of making were themselves forms of thought. They conclude that this pushes the field of literacy and language away from strongly representational forms and toward knowing from the inside and acknowledging the ways in which we might come to know through place, body, and materials (p. 70).
Language also features, but somewhat differently, in Iris Duhn’s, 2015 paper, Making agency matter, which works to counteract the significance of language as a marker of agency in very young children: “It is argued that agency, when conceptualised with emphasis on individuality and the autonomous self, poses a conceptual “dead end” for those who are not-yet-in-language, such as babies and toddlers” (Duhn, 2015, p. 920). Drawing inspiration from Thrift’s notion of “wild ideas” that “invite the world to speak back and take part in the production of different futures” (p. 920), the subject/object divide is unsettled by viewing toddler’s through the lens of vibrant matter (Bennett, 2010):

The wooden floorboards quiver in rhythm with stamping feet. The phone rings behind the closed office door. A mouse moves through the paper clippings in her little cage on the floor beside the shelf. Mia wriggles in her father’s arms. Carl drops a cup, which he was going to put on the table. The cup rolls under a chair and continues to move in time with the stamping. Jay, Adam and Mia along with the other bodies in this space are affecting, and are being affected, by the forces and forms all around. (Duhn, 2015, p. 927)

For Duhn, viewing the world in this way is “a pull towards life and vibrant matter, a bodily awareness of the world” (p. 928), because infants and toddlers are less caught up in the illusion of a self that controls and governs than older humans who have learned to see, feel, and think the self and the world in other ways. Such “wild thinking” forces thought out of its patterns and opens up possible new futures that are less human-centric and allow for reimaginings of how we might think differently in a world of vibrant matter (Duhn, 2015, pp. 927–928).
Inspired by this paper and its focus on Bennett’s vibrant matter, Marek Tesar and Sonia Arndt (2016) investigated the Vibrancy of childhood things in relation to yet another different approach to language in new materialism. The substantive material for analytical attention in this paper is provided by literature, “the well-loved stories of Pinocchio and Little Otik” (p. 193). These stories are animated by considering “these dead-alive, wooden-thing-materialities as vibrant thing-hoods with agency and power” in a philosophical genealogy of thought embracing both Foucault and new materialist philosophies (p. 193). In an interesting move that resonates with the framing of genealogy and generation, Tesar and Arndt begin the paper with a quote from Barad (2015) on transmaterialities:

Lightning mucks with origins. Lightning is a lively play of in/determinacy, troubling matters of self and other, past and future, life and death. It electrifies our imaginations and our bodies. If lightning enlivens the boundary between life and death, if it exists on the razor’s edge between animate and inanimate does it not seem to dip sometimes here and sometimes there on either side of the divide. (Barad, 2015, p. 390 in Tesar & Arndt, 2016, p. 193)

In this sense, the paper is as much about the process of generation and genealogical thinking as it is about new materialism. The authors’ method is described as “a theoretical re-reading, in a sense a deterritorialization, of Foucauldian thought through new materialist philosophies” (p. 193). Through the genealogical approach, they enable subjugated discourses to resurface as resistance and create possibilities for the emergence of the impossible/possible in assemblages of matter, energies, forces, or things beyond the discursive and beyond the human (Tesar & Arndt, 2016, p. 195). While they draw on Barad’s materialism of all bodies, both human and nonhuman, they rely more strongly on Bennett’s vibrant matter:

For Bennett (2010), a political act does not need to have been consciously planned or conceived as such. In other words, non-human actants – such as worms – might be equally as political in their acts as humans (and perhaps contribute in a greater sense to certain interdependencies and ecologies). Furthermore, matter or things, such as piles of rubbish on the street, also possess agency. Matter, objects, things, and humans become something different as a result. (Tesar & Arndt, 2016, p. 196)

In returning to Foucault, they note the entanglement of past and present, new and old, in genealogies of thought: “Foucault’s thinking about bio-politics … establishes and enacts the boundaries between socially relevant and politically recognized existence and “pure matter,” something that does not possess legal-moral protection and is “reduced” to ‘things’” (p. 7) (Tesar & Arndt, 2016, p. 199). For Tesar and Arndt, materialist philosophies are seen as “approaches, tentacles, and versions that have in common their urge to move beyond simplified, absolute, and objective definitions and classifications of matter as unitary, passive, inactive, and dead” (p. 197).

Summary: Life as a Theme in New Materialism

The overwhelming sense of new materialism as it is theorized and applied in early years learning is about its emphasis on “lifefulness.” New materialism derives its understanding from the processes of life itself, from the cellular level, and from the philosophies of physics to the vibrancy of matter and all material things. Beginning with the women of Reggio Emilia who were “ample and greedy” in their desiring a new life for their children after the ravages of the war, to Lenz Taguchi’s sensing body, the urge of new materialism is toward life. The way is opened for the materiality of sand, stones, things, and children in play, the river’s songs, quivering of wooden floor boards, and wooden images of Pinocchio and Little Otik to generate new ways of thinking and being where the world becomes present in all of its vibrant vitality rather than reduced to the dull and abstract forms of universal generalizations more typical of Western knowledge theorizing.

Animal-Child Relations (Multispecies Ethnographies)

This section largely owes its very substantial contribution to the Common Worlds Collective initiated by Affrica Taylor and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw. I am indebted to their website for its compilation of this work. Although the “common worlds” website includes both new materialism and Indigenous/Western intersections in its collection of publications, its distinctive and major contribution lies in its theorizing of human-animal relations and methodologies of multispecies ethnography. My first question of this collective work, after my experience with the Reggio Emilia women, was to ask from where did it emerge and what was the before of this movement of thought? I found in Queering home corner the beginnings of an interest in child-animal relations in early childhood education in the account of Lily and Margie taking turns performing themselves as horse:

Their embodiment of horse demands a physical performance that appears to be both satisfying and liberating. Margie’s performance is impressive and compelling and the result of her conviction that she is, in fact, a horse. Determinedly equine, she performs horse consistently, only changing to princess when playing in the home corner. However, as Margie’s home corner is a queer heterotopia, it does not require her to commit to one identity category. Rather, it enables her transformation from horse to princess and then back to horse again. (Taylor & Richardson, 2005, p. 170)

It is in this paper that the thread of influences on the emergence of child animal relations is linked to Elspeth Probyn’s (1996) Deleuze-informed musings upon girls and girls and horses (Taylor & Richardson, 2005). Taylor herself, however, locates the beginning of the common worlds research and collective movement to a paper published with Miriam Giugni that first outlines common worlds theorizing. Common worlds: Reconceptualising inclusion in early childhood communities is a landmark paper for the common worlds movement that brings together Latour’s (2005) generative and entangled common worlds, Haraway’s (2008) queer kin, and Massey’s (2005) “throwntogetherness of place,” “to deepen the pedagogical opportunities afforded by place-conscious early years researching, teaching and learning” (Taylor & Giugni, 2012, p. 114). It is important to note the interventionist pedagogical intention of the common worlds framework, largely informed by “the central ethical and political question” of “how do we live together with human and non-human others?” (p. 111).

There are two crucial elements of common worlds theorizing that draw together the work from the past and forecast new work to come. The first, connected to Queering home corner, is Donna Haraway’s “reconfiguration of kinship beyond the conventions of the biological heterosexual human family and into the species (as well as gender) border-crossing terrain of ‘queer kin’” (Taylor & Giugni, 2012, p. 112). Queer kin “encapsulates the possibility of sustaining relations with unlikely and very different but nevertheless significant others through a process of continual questioning” (p. 113). Because “queer kin relations, with all their unlikely intimacies, predictable asymmetries, and radical differences pose significant challenges for living together,” Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” (p. 113) is evoked as a central and repeated feature of the research papers developed subsequently within this framework. “Staying with the trouble” implies going where it is too difficult to go; entering a realm of struggle, difficulty, and conflict; and reflecting there without generating solutions.

Another key feature of Haraway’s contribution to common worlds thinking is the idea of “worlding.” Throughout her prolific writings about human/more-than-human relations, Haraway (2003, 2004, 2008) interchangeably names her generative relational ontology a process of “becoming with,” “becoming worldly,” and “worlding” (Taylor & Giugni, 2012, p. 112). Bringing together “worlding” and common, Taylor and Giugni (2012) draw on Gibson-Graham’s (2006) notion of commons because an “ethical practice of commons management …creates and reproduces ‘common substance’ of the community while at the same time making a space for raising and answering the perennial question of who belongs.” “The commons are the political grounds of belonging” (pp. 109–110). While Taylor and Giugni themselves explicate a very elaborate and rhizomatic web of theoretical connections in relation to “worlding” and “commons,” it is to Latour (2005) that they credit the combination term “common worlds,” which owes its origins to Plato’s philosophy of the commons within the significantly extended notion of “common worlds” (p. 110). Revealing Haraway’s indebtedness to Latour, Taylor and Giugni quote Latour’s assertion “that a common worlds ethics requires us to remain radically open to the composition of these worlds. For it is only when we exercise curiosity to find out more about where we are, and who and what is there with us, that we find hitherto unknown dimensions” (p. 110). This question of who and what is there with us in this place is a perennial question that informs research within the framework of child-animal relations.

Haraway’s Bag Lady Stories as Method

It was at this point in reviewing child-animal relations that any form of generational or genealogical tracing failed as the collective proliferation of common worlds papers functioned as a network, creating myriads of rhizomatic connections and disjunctures. Haraway’s bag lady storytelling (Taylor et al., 2013) offered another analytical possibility:

…the practice of ‘putting unexpected partners and irreducible details into a frayed, porous carrier bag’. …Haraway’s bag lady stories are collections of ordinary everyday encounters between these ‘unexpected partners’ – human and non-human. They are stories that trace the ‘living histories’ of… relations ‘in the contact zone’ of entangled human/non-human lives. (Taylor et al., 2013, p. 49)

The papers were gathered together into bag lady story bags loosely categorized according to the focus animals with the categories enlivened by the frayed, porous nature of Haraway’s carrier bags. As I read and thought with the papers, the idea that birds, bears, dogs, raccoons, and kangaroos are different groupings to ants, worms, wasps, bees, and stick insects (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015, p. 508) became the basis of the bag lady categories. The bags emerged in the following forms: a bird bag, a large animal bag, and a small animal bag. These seemingly childlike categories enabled new questions to emerge about what different theoretical responses are called forth by different animal-child relations and through what events and processes does this occur?

Bird Bag Stories

Miriam Giugni’s bag lady story is the only one in this paper that focuses on early childhood (Taylor et al., 2013). Giugni’s story “attends to the everyday grapplings of a group of early childhood teachers, as they searched for new ways to include chooks’ in search of a companion species curriculum” (p. 56). The theoretical underpinnings are similar to those elaborated in the earlier paper with Taylor, with Haraway’s “worlding” described as “a practice that explicitly recognises that the worlds of animals, plants, places, waterways, skies, technologies and so on, as not synonymous with human worlds, or human imaginaries of the world” (p. 56). In this paper, it is Giugni’s acute observations of the human-animal encounters in practice that offers extraordinary insights from the world of chooks in an early childcare setting. It was the tension between Giugni’s chooks and Rautio’s raven and crow that made these unlikely bird bag-fellows productive.

Giugni’s chooks story is told in the context of the common practice of renting chooks in early childhood settings. Both the teacher and Giugni were keen for the chooks to roam free because “they wanted them to be part of the centre community and something more than an object of study.” They felt that the “children could benefit from co-habiting with chooks, and chooks could benefit from living with the children” (p. 57). However, certain events relating to the rights of the chooks to roam free turned this seemingly straightforward concern into a conundrum of contested rights:

… The children’ s belongings were kept in an open shelf with individual cubed spaces, so the chooks could hop and flap their way into any of them when they were out of their cage. By nesting in the children’ s belongings, the chooks caused two main dilemmas: first, the chooks had laid eggs in the children’s bags … and, second, the chooks had pooed in the children’ s bags and all over the lockers. (Taylor et al., 2013, pp. 57–58)

The story goes on to examine how the teachers “engaged with the ethical dilemmas thrown up by this conundrum of chook” (p. 58), adding that both the children’s and the chook’s relatings needed to be considered, including how chooks also grappled with and responded to this new relationship, to living with unfamiliar plants, people, furniture, light and shade, and new routines of roosting, laying, nesting, and scratching (p. 58). As well as thinking with chooks in this way, however, Giugni’s interest is intentionally pedagogical, desiring a “companion species curriculum” that takes account of an ethics and politics of animal rights. In concluding that a companion species curriculum requires that we “become worldly with,” the response-ability that we share with our nonhuman companions is recognized, reinforcing the collective framing of common worlds pedagogies in their intimate and detailed attention to the ethics and politics of child-animal relations.
Thinking about life and species lines with Pietari and Otto (Rautio, 2017) relates to a personal practice with birds as companion species. While not directly related to early childhood, it is part of the common worlds collective and an important story about human/bird relations. Pietari, a pigeon, and Otto, a crow, “write with” Rautio about life and death. In her moving accounts of growing attachments to the injured and motherless baby birds whose death she experiences as a loss of self, Rautio questions the very idea of species as determining the limits of the way “a life” is categorized and understood:

What if you defined who counts as your family by including all who eat from the same fridge? What if you defined your kin by thinking about who share and get by with the particular environmental conditions in your neighbourhood (in my case the harsh winters and darkness)? What if you bonded with all who have garlic breath? (Rautio, 2017, p. 97)

In thinking with pigeons and crows, “attuning” and “attending” are proposed as methods of understanding how something not-self is similar to your self and attending that not-self as part of your self (p. 97). In following this line of thought and practice, the category “human” is destabilized as Rautio’s relation with animal is formed through their similarity to human: “like her, they suffer, rejoice, feel hunger, face difficult situations and overcome them, sleep, have sex, communicate with others, can be hurt, are vulnerable, can and will eventually die” (p. 100).

By combining these different stories of chooks, ravens, and crows in this bird bag category, the category “bird” itself is fundamentally destabilized, as it becomes evident that in each case, the bird animal becomes other in their human encounters. In this way, species constructs, which differentiate human from animal, break down at the edges like Haraway’s frayed and porous bags. The questions “what is a life” and “what is a death” are fundamental in this category.

Large Animal Bag Stories: Bears, Raccoons, Kangaroos, and Dogs

Large animal stories include bears, raccoons, kangaroos, and dogs as affective presences in early years learning. As a reader, it is the closely detailed accounts of the intimate and intertwined responses of children and animals that animate this work. In bringing the different theorizing from these papers together, it again becomes apparent that animal-human-becoming is part of human-animal mutual meaning-making.

Bear-child stories begins with some charming stories of young children’s encounters with bears in an early childhood community where they go for walks to the forest:

When we encounter holes, both tree hollows and holes in the soil where trees once stood, the children imagine them as ‘bear holes’: ‘This is where the bears would take a bath,’ they chant. (p. 26)

In indoor bear play, the children transform the classroom into an “indoor forest” using sand, tree stumps, rocks, indoor plants, and several sticks and branches, making dinner for bears, feeding them pancakes, and making a dark cave for a bear to sleep in (pp. 26–27).
The paper engages with a number of very different public stories of bears, including news stories, children’s story books, Indigenous stories, scientific stories, and eco-tourist promotions, which are analyzed according to Povinelli’s account of late liberal colonialism, Haraway’s (2008) species interdependence and worlding, and Tsing’s (2005) frictional encounters. The aim of considering these public discourses of bears is to grapple with “the complexities and tensions that emerge in these late liberal colonized and colonialist spaces where bears and human children meet and contradictory images and figures of child and bear abound” (p. 34). These wide ranging stories are then analyzed in terms of how they shape children’s entangled relations with bears in British Columbian early childhood, evoking Haraway’s “response-ability” as a way to disrupt taken-for-granted notions about bear-child relations:

Our stories are entangled, not neatly packaged together, without following a linear trajectory. The stories aggregate; they add up to create other stories and to disrupt taken for granted stories. They are stories that grapple with troubles, with connections that trouble us, but have no generalized moral teachings nor are they finished stories of grandiose research findings. They do, however, have ‘consequences for response-ability.’ (Haraway, 2012, p. 312)

The paper is typically inconclusive as Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” does not attempt to offer solutions but considers how thinking with animals might require paying attention to the ways in which nonhumans are typically left out of children’s histories and futures (p. 49).
Raccoons and roos offer different opportunities for theorizing in Kids, raccoons, and roos: Awkward encounters and mixed affects (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017) provoking a tracing of “the imbroglio of child–animal curiosities, warinesses, risks, inconveniences, revulsions, attachments, and confrontations” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017, p. 131). A family of raccoons actually moves into the early learning center in British Columbia, confounding interspecies separability, in common with Rautio’s animal-becoming-human destabilization of species separations:

One particular encounter on a rainy afternoon especially moved the children to ponder about their relations with the raccoons. Looking from the classroom window into the playground, the children watched the mother raccoon carefully pick up a bucket of water that the children had left that morning and place it in front of her cubs. The cubs set about to splash their paws in the water (as the children often do) and wash the sandbox toys. All the while the mother raccoon attentively watched her cubs, intermittently turning her head to also watch the curious children. (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017, p. 135)

Not only are the raccoons constituted as their own family group who mimic the children in their actions, but they also communicate directly with the children. When one of the children places his hand on the window to say hello to the raccoons, the mother comes to the window and raises her paw to meet the child’s hand through the glass (p. 134). The children are described as beguiled, entertained, amused, perplexed, and confronted by what they had witnessed, suspended between their interspecies experiences and “the ubiquitous public discourses that provoke anxiety and panic about the threats that wild animals pose to human safety” (p. 136).
The kangaroos in this paper occupy a common ground that the children enter, and different opportunities for animal-child relations emerge. The emphasis moves more toward the children than the kangaroos as the children repeatedly engage in mimicking what it would be like to live in a kangaroo’ s body:

They find or make big tails, attach them and hop around. They put their hands on their heads to listen carefully with protruding swivelling ears. They pay new attention to the feel of furry fabrics. This comes into play as they scratch their (imagined) furry chests, tuck themselves up and simulate what it would be like to be securely ensconced in a warm furry pouch. (p. 149)

The agency of the kangaroo comes powerfully to the fore in an account of children’s response to a dead kangaroo that has been killed by a car:

The tension of this grisly and awkward encounter was broken when a couple of the children ran away from the kangaroo corpse and suddenly dropped to the ground. Others ran to try and rouse these dying child-kangaroos… performatively enacting what it is like to die in a kangaroo’s body. It was intense and chaotic. With much shrieking, laughter, and release, the child-kangaroos started rushing around, listening for and fleeing from imaginary cars, being knocked over, lying dead or dying on the grass, and going to the assistance of fatally injured kangaroo kin. (p. 141)

The theories evoked by these raccoon and kangaroo encounters are framed within the context of the Anthropocene and the need for a new ethics and politics of encounter. Mimicry or mimesis is a new addition to this theorizing. In this paper, both raccoons and children can be understood as engaged in processes of mimesis, each trying out what it might be like to be other, animal-becoming-human, and human-becoming-animal. In each case, the other is required, neither animal nor human can be seen as initiating the interspecies mimicry, and there is no particular purpose except the experience of sameness. Especially poignant is the resonance of the children’s response to the dead body of the kangaroo with Rautio’s encounter with the death of Pietari and Otto. Both examples beg the question what is “a death,” asking whether the concept of a life or a death can be limited to an individual or is it much more than that?

Finally, in Reconsidering children’s encounters with nature and place using posthumanism, Malone (2016) considers child-dog encounters in the slums of La Paz, Bolivia. The dogs in La Paz are street dogs who “are neither pets, strays, or wild; they are left to scavenge for themselves, loosely connected to families, coming and going, sometimes wandering into yards, but mainly hanging around on the streets” (p. 51). Dogs associate with children (or children associate with dogs) in different ways and for different reasons, captured by the children’s own photographs and stories: The street dogs are urban scavengers, not Western-style, house-dwelling, middle-class “family pets”; and children spend long periods of unsupervised time on the streets with the dogs, where the dogs live; they coexist as dog-child, as a unique body, and as a street collective entity (p. 47).

In this paper it is as if these intimate, material, and entwined relations between dog and child themselves call forth Barad’s concept of “intra-action” “to help to understand relations in which object and subject are mutually constituted… they do not exist as separate individual elements” (p. 51). The bodies of children and dogs are fully present in “the fleshy detail of the physicality of the relationships” (p. 46). It is as if they merge in these mutual encounters in the streets of La Paz with much in common with animal-child encounters in the more regulated environments of early childhood education.

By pulling the threads of these large animal bag lady stories together, it is possible to weave other insights emerging from the frayed edges. The idea of mimicry is interestingly resonant with Things and children in play (Rautio & Winston, 2015). If mimicry is not a conscious choice for human or animal but an involuntary bodily response evoked by unconscious desires, then this links to the destabilization of species itself (Rautio, 2017). The raccoon family clearly experience themselves as human in many respects and the children as kangaroos. Similarly bears and children are deeply intertwined. Dog and child bodies become as one in La Paz. It is possible to reread bears, raccoons, and kangaroos as all like the street dogs of La Paz, habituated to living with humans, animal-becoming-human simultaneously with human-becoming-animal. The meaning-making that emerges from this theorizing with large animals disrupts the boundary between animal and human child, bringing into question the categorization of species itself, particularly the hyper separation of the human species.

Small Animal Bag Stories: Wasps, Worms, Ants, Bees, and Stick Insects

The last of the frayed and porous bags that make up this section on human-animal relations is the small animal category, probably the most significant and certainly the most numerous form of animal life on the planet (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). More than any other, the small animal bag raises questions about how different animals call forth different theoretical responses. Whatever we think of the concept of species, it is clear that ants, bees, wasps, stick insects, and worms are of a different order than birds, bears, dogs, raccoons, and kangaroos. While the papers engage the same theoretical framings around ethics and politics, mainly referencing Haraway, an additional layer of complexity is added when considering animals that are “less appealing, very small, and invisible and that may bite or sting” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). In the following, seven papers generated by small animals are discussed, first in terms of the separate contributions and finally in relation to the theme of death, which is common to all of these small animal papers.

Learning with children, ants and worms (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015) is generated by worms in the wet forests of British Columbia and ants in the dry forests of Canberra, Australia. In both cases the small animals are agentic: The earthworms “attract the children who are fascinated by the movements of these red wigglers” (p. 517), and the ants get faster and feistier as the weather warms up, sometimes running up the children’s legs or into their clothing and biting them (p. 523). The worms and ants evoke the theoretical framing of Myra Hird’s of “multispecies vulnerabilities,” an extension of Haraway’s entangled species ontologies into microbial worlds (p. 512). For Taylor and Pacini-Ketchabaw, “agency is completely reversed when we become beholden to the myriad of micro life forms we rarely see, let alone acknowledge, and yet which sustain the lives of all large animal species, including our own” (p. 512). This in turn gives rise to “inventive and experimental co-implicated research practices” that necessitate “paying attention to the movements and actions of the worms, ants, water, rain boots, fingers, sticks, rocks, mud, pebbles and dust” (p. 515). The experience of embodied intimacy with these small animals raises awareness of “the precarity of life through (literally) holding the responsibility for another life, at the same time as making themselves vulnerable to another species” (p. 525).

In Wasps-bees-mushrooms-children (Atkinson, 2015), the children walk in a park where they find dark shady places with piles of rocks, prickly mounds of garden debris, discarded pipes, tiles, and chunks of concrete. A slug attaches itself to a child’s princess dress and is rescued by another who places it carefully on a flower that she carries for the duration of the walk. Wasps fly crazily in all directions when the children move a large slab of concrete to expose a wasps’ nest and a bee lands on a boy’s leg when he is observing its movements through the grass. These small animal encounters evoke another new theoretical framing to add to common worlds theorizing: Ginn, Beisel, and Barua’s (2014) “unloved others.” This entails “an ethic of flourishing that requires us to look at the knotty relationships between human and non-humans, to notice who prospers and who does not, who lives and who dies, and the vulnerabilities that emerge in multispecies encounters” (p. 71). The strategy of “deep listening” generates “small conversations” and a sense of mutual vulnerability through which worms, slugs, and wasps are acknowledged as having a role to play in the pedagogies of early learning and in mutual survival (p. 78).

In “Staying with the trouble” in child-insect-educator common worlds, Nxumalo and Pacini-Ketchabaw (2017) trouble human relations with small animals in the very different situation of imported stick insects in a child care center. The stick insects breed so prolifically in captivity that it forces educators to deal with death through the need to reduce the large populations of the prolific breeding insects. For the educators:

acts of culling required them to juggle regret, resentment, guilt. They questioned who these acts of caring benefited – the children? the stick insects? themselves? …They questioned what living and dying well meant for the stick insects… They grappled with how ‘best’ to kill the insects to relieve their crowded living conditions: Should they boil the stick insects or freeze their eggs to death or perhaps withdraw food and water? What practices of ‘mindful killing’ and ‘ethical detachment’ might they enact in relation to the stick insects? One educator asked, ‘Do we keep killing them little by little forever?’ (Nxumalo & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017, p. 10)

In order to address the knotty problem that the stick insects pose, another new theoretical framing, “a practice of becoming witness to others,” is introduced. This involves an “openness to others in the material reality of their own lives [as] noisy, fleshy, exuberant creatures with their multitude of interdependencies and precarities, their great range of calls, their care and their abundance along with their suffering and grief” (Rose & van Dooren, 2017, p. 124, as cited in Nxumalo & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017, p. 6).

The concepts of “wildness” (Collard, Dempsey, & Sundberg, 2015) and “wildlife” (Lorimer, 2015) are also evoked by these tiny commodified animals in order to interrogate what it might mean to live and die in captivity in this way. Wildness encompasses the degree to which the animal can come and go, express itself, work for itself, and form social networks. These are conditions of possibility, of potential, not forced states of being (Collard et al., 2015, p. 328). “Wildlife” is evoked by the concept of wild as “a vernacular political concept that counters the idea of wilderness” (Nxumalo & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017, p. 6). Wildlife describes “ecologies of becoming that provokes curiosity, disconcertion, and care, and demand political processes for deliberating discord among multiple affected publics” (p. 11). Ultimately, the intention of this paper, in common with common worlds theorizing, is to “stay with the trouble” of these imported stick insect pets and the challenges they pose of contemplating the ending of a life.

Finally, Stories for living on a damaged planet (Nxumalo, 2017) considers the endangered Western bumble bee’s engaging presence in an early learning center. This paper introduces new concepts and modes of thought as it “brings attention to the particularities of the emergent assemblage of children and bumble bees as well as its multiple and contingent material-discursive relations” (p. 1). Concepts such as “assemblage” (derived from Deleuze) and material-discursive relations (new materialism) are evoked as the plight of dying bees and failure of pollination are contemplated:

As bees, children and educators responded to their mutual presences, children began to make offerings to the bees they encountered crawling on the ground outside. Some children built ‘homes to try and make the bees feel better’, while others kept their distance and watched. Some children picked up some of the still-moving bees and placed them on flowers in the classroom or outside, or tried to find the bees’ nesting grounds. Some children also prepared, with educators’ help, a sugary water to feed the bees – occasionally a bee would respond to the offering and then fly away, to the children’s delight. Some responded by covering the dead bees with article ‘to stop them blowing away’ and by building a wood ‘bridge’ so that the bees could ‘walk’ to the flowers. (Nxumalo, 2017, p. 8)

This paper reworks Haraway’s “worlding” with related concepts, drawing on Stewart’s (2010) Atmospheric attunements, considering “in any worlding we can ask how things come to matter and through what qualities, rhythms, forces, relations and movements” (Nxumalo, 2017, p. 3). Worlding, then, becomes a methodology introduced by these dying and endangered bumble bees, a methodology that focuses on “particular affects, bodily (dis)orientations and sensory modes of attention in relation to children’s and educators’ situated encounters with bee-life and bee-death” (p. 3). It can be read as a “bee methodology” that focuses on “what potential modes of knowing, relating, and attending to things are already somehow present in them as a potential or resonance” (p. 3).

Death is the predominant concept in this paper in which “children’s modes of bearing witness to bee death and caring for bees” is “inseparable from their knowledge-making about what was harming the bees” (p. 8). Children learn by “touching death” as they interact with the growing pile of dead bees they collect from their grounds. The death of these endangered bumble bees is connected to the question of mass extinctions in the age of the Anthropocene, “because the death, and subsequent absence of a whole species, unmakes these relationships on which life depends, often amplifying suffering and death for a whole host of others” (Van Dooren, 2010, p. 273, cited in Nxumalo, 2017, p. 8).

While these small animals present experiences of death to the human child, they gesture toward the presence of death as an overriding theme across the papers that represent animal-child relations in early years learning.

Summary: Death as a Theme in Animal-Child Relations

Commonly set among the mass extinctions of the Anthropocene, the researchers in the small animal bag stories recognize the smallness of these encounters as necessary minor and incremental steps in young children’s learning. The one commonality across all the different theories these small animal bag stories evoke is the idea of touching and being touched in the double sense of being affected by, or touched by, death and touching death with the hands, the sensing body. The same can be said of the ravens and crows, the dead kangaroo, the risk-taking raccoons, and the dogs in La Paz who get beaten to death and die in the streets. In these encounters, animal and human body become intercorporeal where each is affected by the other. In this affecting and being affected by the intertwined materiality of bodies, each becomes different, and new ways of being and knowing are born for both. Through becoming-with both living and dying/dead animals in these ways, life and death are comprehended differently; the life and death of the individual and of a species are newly understood through death giving ultimate meaning to life and both life and death questioning the singularity of species.

Concluding Thoughts

The dominance of the posthuman in early years learning is traced to two major movements, or categories of theorizing, new materialism and animal-child relations, each requiring different analytical strategies. A genealogical/generational model adapted from Iris van der Tuin (2014) identified the origins of new materialism in the “ample and greedy” women at the beginning of the Reggio Emilia movement in war-torn Italy. This movement informed the materiality of the sensing body in Lenz Taguchi’s influential text, Beyond the Theory Practice Divide, which added Deleuze’s theory of immanence and Barad’s intra-action to open new possibilities of emergent materiality in early years learning. Many researchers have applied these philosophical influences in practice, with a particular interest in language and materiality emerging as a major focus. While additional theoretical influences are noted in the papers, it is the extensive iterations of Barad’s theories of materiality derived from quantum physics that open up a new paradigm of thought. This new paradigm emphasizes the vibrancy of all life and matter where human life comes into being only within the materiality of the world and young children’s play arises from this mutual emergence.

Animal-child relations with its network of common worlds collective theorizing evoked a horizontal rather than a genealogical approach. Donna Haraway is the major theoretical and philosophical influence, and the adoption of Haraway’s “bag lady story” strategy as a rhizomatic analytical tool produced a “bird bag,” a “large animal bag,” and a “small animal bag.” This categorizing animated the papers to make evident the ways that different categories of animals evoke different theoretical understandings. Small animals, for example, call forth Myra Hird’s “interspecies vulnerability,” an extension of Haraway’s entangled species ontologies into microbial worlds. The small animal bag is uniquely powerful in generating the dominant theme of animal-child relations, that of being affected by, or touched by, death and touching death with the hands, the sensing body. The question of what is a (singular) life and what is a (singular) death disrupts the certainty of species categories where animal-becoming-human is as present as child-animal becomings. The animal bags offer a way of reading these papers to make evident their contribution to new ways of thinking and knowing emerging from early childhood research and practice as a major contribution to Anthropocene scholarship.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Western Sydney UniversityPenrithAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Karen Malone
    • 1
  • Iris Duhn
    • 2
  • Marek Tesar
    • 3
  1. 1.Centre for Educational ResearchWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education, Peninsula CampusMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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