Stars, Rainbows, and Michael Myers: The Carnivalesque Intersection of Play and Horror in Kindergarteners’ (Trade)marking and (Copy)writing

Yoon, Haeny S.
Teachers College Record

Background Research on children’s play asserts that children’s identities are performed and (re)formed in peer groups where they try out identities and make sense of their social worlds. Yet there are kinds of play (e.g., violence, gore, sexuality, and consumer culture) that are often hidden and taken underground, deemed inappropriate for public spaces. These underground spaces are potentially revolutionary (#playrevolution) as children disrupt power hierarchies and regulatory boundaries in both subtle and overt ways. These spaces are important for children who are consistently marginalized by intersecting identities, further complicated by negative perceptions attached to certain topics constituting dark play. Thus, what if we look beyond labeling certain play episodes “inappropriate” and consider how children produce and enact culture? What seems nonsensical and irrational to the adult gaze is about creative participation, agency, and autonomy for children. Focus Bakhtin described “carnival” as a countercultural space where folk ideologies dominated, hierarchies were removed, and people engaged in joyful laughter, playful mockery, and the enactment of various discourses. This unofficial space allowed for multiple voices, giving individuals an opportunity to (re)create identities in dialogue with others. For young children, free play can be considered carnivalesque—children learn to disrupt social structures and norms, question authority and power, test boundaries, and understand conflict. Taking up Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, this study examines the lived experiences of young children as they construct (counter)cultural spaces of creativity, play, and resistance. Research Design Drawing from a five-month qualitative study in a Midwestern kindergarten classroom, I take up Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, or the practices of everyday individuals when free from authority or boundaries. Data for this project were collected during writing workshop times, occurring 3 to 5 times per week for 45–90 minutes; the sessions were audio-recorded and transcribed, and writing samples were collected daily. The focus is on five children who sat together at the same table; limited to their table space, they navigated around curriculum while collectively cultivating their own cultural community. Through an analysis of artifacts, written texts, transcriptions, and popular media content, this study examines how children destabilize hierarchies and subvert the authority of traditional and “appropriate” genres. Conclusions Children actively took up tools and ideas from horror story genres (e.g., chainsaws, blood, and masks), while their local context served as the setting for their own stories: the nearby high school, Halloween parties, and popular costumes. They remixed stories to include curricular demands (e.g., true stories) with popular culture interests. However, they did not reveal these seemingly “inappropriate” topics to their teacher and the demands of school literacy. Their resulting written stories were not pictures of chainsaws, bloody deaths, and killer dolls: They were “masked” by attempts at writing letters underneath pictures of houses, trees, cars, rainbows, and people. Arguably, the children knew how to navigate the official space of school, understanding which ideas were appropriate for their secret conversations and which were appropriate for public sharing. In the midst of their play, children learned how to write from one another: Certain words were borrowed across the table, pictures (e.g., rainbows) symbolized common practices, and storylines were “copied” and reappropriated from others. These literacy attempts were trademarked and encoded on their written texts to signify belonging and participation at the intersection of popular culture and play.