Childhood identities and materiality

Cooper, Victoria (2020). Childhood identities and materiality. In: Cooper, Victoria and Holford, Naomi eds. Exploring childhood and youth. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 7–20.



A well-worn blanket that has lived with a child since birth; an ageing teddy-bear which arrived as a gift and continues to remind a growing child of home; a wooden box full of ‘stuff ’, including pictures, a party invitation, letters, doodles, photographs and drawings – are these things important? If so, how – and what might they reveal, if anything, about childhood identity? Identity is not fixed or singular but fluid and multifaceted, and reflects a range of social, cultural, economic and political influences. Identity formation is recognised as a dynamic process in which children negotiate, construct and reconstruct multiple identities throughout their lives (Cooper and Collins, 2008). Some aspects of children’s identities reflect distinct social markers, such as age, gender and ethnicity and family and group membership. Yet there is more to identity, which appreciates the dynamic and fluid quality of children’s everyday lives, including how they play, places they go and how they engage with the material world. A growing body of research calls for a broad understanding of identity which considers how children interact with physical, material things (Cross, 2004; Horton and Kraftl, 2006; Horton, 2008; Jones, 2008; Grube, 2017) to communicate aspects of self. Materials not only leave traces of where children go, the people and places that are part and parcel of their lives – but also the things they enjoy and produce, as well as how they project their own unique identities. However, the materiality of childhood has been somewhat overlooked and is a relatively recent focus of research across childhood studies and children’s geographies (Edwards and Hart, 2004; Jones, MacLure et al.,2012; Cooper, 2017). These research developments recognise that material things not only take on social meanings, but that humans interact with and use materials in a variety of ways which provide order, structure, meaning and a sense of self.This chapter is structured to look, first, at identity and what this concept means, before introducing ideas about materiality. The remaining sections discuss how materiality is a useful medium for exploring childhood identity; first, in relation to how objects such as toys, games and pictures are marketed, selected and often used in ways which reveal how childhood identities are shaped within social and cultural systems; and second, how children themselves engage with and use material things to narrate their individual and unique sense of self.

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