Research Review

Leaning into Messiness: Documenting Play

By Kyle Arlington

Play is messy and complicated. It does more than evoke feelings of joy and extends beyond simple opposite-of-work conceptions. Play can be embodied and contextual, frequently crossing cultural and (inter)generational boundaries. It can exist within the limits and goals we impose, or it can seep out of the containers we use to try and organize it. Play is often assumed to be easy to identify but complex to document. Its messiness requires acknowledgment that the methods we use to study it benefit from considering play layered and interrelational — an exchange “between things that form daily life” (Sicart, 2014, p. 2). 

Play is hard intellectual work worthy of inquiry and investigation despite its messiness. As researchers, the methods we put to work for us in support of these pursuits matter. We honor and revel in play’s messiness by selecting research methods that celebrate how it teeters the line between order and disorder rather than trying to organize and control it. Methodologically speaking, ethnography, collaborative research, and multimodal methods are points of departure for thinking about the possibilities for play each approach makes possible. Further, situating these approaches in a critical childhood studies framework (James, 2017; 2020; James et al., 1998) expands conceptions of childhoods. It opens up space to (re)imagine new and exciting ways of knowing/being/doing research with play, making these spaces messy, too. 

Taking Up Messiness: What is Going on Here?

If, as Sicart (2014) suggests, “play is a way of engaging and expressing our being in the world” (p. 5), then ethnographic approaches to studying and documenting play are well aligned with ethnography’s concern for taking up a related, essential question: “What is going on here?” (Anderson-Levitt, 2012, p. 284). With a focus on everyday life in everyday settings, ethnography is interested in culture —or, in our case, play culture — that might be understood through an analysis of specific individuals rather than superficial conceptions of culture as power, particularly given that “culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly — that is, thickly—described” (Geertz, 1973, p. 14).

Thick description winds around ethnography as a core concern and is widely used in anthropology, sociology, and the social sciences. For example, in childhood studies, ethnography works to center human ideals of “the modern child.” In Ethnography in the Study of Children and Childhood, James (2001) argues that “ethnography…has been critical to the development of a perspective on childhood which, in acknowledging its culturally constructed character, enables a view of children as social actors who take an active part in shaping the form that their own childhoods take” (p. 249). However, even as agentic, political beings whose play helps them conceive their own childhoods, ethnography allows us to see how culture and institutional forces are active forces entangled with children’s play.  

For example, through ethnography, Ann Arnett Ferguson (2020) describes the childhoods of twenty-five fifth and sixth-grade African-American males in a study, which “tells the story of the making of these ‘bad boys,’ not by members of the criminal justice system on street corners, or in shopping malls, or video arcades, but in and by school, through punishment” (p. 2). Through observation, interviews, and time she spends “hanging out with” these boys, Ferguson aims to examine “the beliefs, the social relationships, and the everyday practices that give rise to a pattern in which the kids who are sent to jailhouses and dungeons in school systems across the United States are disproportionately black and male. (Ferguson, 2020, p. 7). The ethnographic moves she enacts include spending time in the boys’ playground space, observing play, and entering into it. This enables Ferguson to capture everyday life in context, thereby opening up space for her to theorize how schools create and mediate children’s social identities, simultaneously broadening conceptions of childhoods. Through her ethnographic commitments, Ferguson troubles the world’s complexities and multiple realities, including schools as one of the primary institutions responsible for sustaining and advancing systemic racism. In her study, ethnography highlights the messiness of children’s play and its messy entanglements with social structures. Ethnography has long been considered a way to unpack the complexities of children’s play — their affective and multimodal engagements as they play with materials (Thiel, 2015; 2015a; 2018; Wissman et al., 2015; Wohlwend, 2008; 2011; 2013), the ways they construct their identities amongst peers (Corsaro, 2003; 2009; Dyson, 1997; 2003; Yoon, 2021), and how they position themselves in institutional spaces in spite of the systems Ferguson describes (Annamma, 2016; Annamma et al., 2013; Tokunaga, 2016). 

Messy Entanglements

Participatory methods for studying play thoughtfully and messily enmesh researchers with participants (Clark & Moss, 2011; Oancea & Punch, 2014; Veale, 2015), further “challenging images of children as ‘passive’ and reconceptualising children as active agents in their social Worlds” (James & Prout, 2001, as cited in Goodley & Runswick‐Cole, 2010, p. 5016). For instance, in her 10-week study with 11 children between the ages of two and five, researcher Tran Templeton put disposable cameras in children’s hands with the prompt, “Take pictures.” By considering children experts at being children, Templeton puts “collaborative seeing” (Lutrell, 2020) to work in her study, positioning “participants as producers of their own lives and their peer groups as contributing to interpretations and understandings of themselves” (Templeton, 2020, p. 5). Children became co-researchers alongside Templeton as they took pictures unpromptedly, labeled their own pictures, participated in interviews about the photos, and directed their own discussion groups. 

Besides focusing on the photos to understand how children image their own space and tell their own stories, her work with children also foregrounds the intra-actions between human and non-human forces in research and the potential ways this acknowledgment may encourage new ways of knowing/being/doing. Templeton leans into the messiness that surfaces through attunement to more-than-human forces in her participatory research with children by using a posthuman orientation towards children’s play. She works with children, creating space for play without a teleological endpoint (Brodhead et al., 2010). While conceptions of participatory methods vary (Fellner & Templeton, 2023; James & Prout, 1997; Langsted, 1994; Qvortrup; 1987), researchers collaborating with children position children as experts who are rights holders and meaning makers of their own lives.   

Affect and Multimodal Messiness 

The attunement of human and non human assemblages (Livesey, 2005) that Templeton considers points to the affective dimensions that may emerge in response to the methods we employ in our research with children and play. Using multimodal methods to document play follows a material turn away from discursive/linguistic methods. Affect is concerned with “nonconscious, visceral bodily forces that register within and across bodies of all kinds (e.g., humans, books, sounds) to shape a body’s capacity to affect and be affected (Thiel and Dernikos, 2020, p. 484). Multimodal methods (Fargas-Malet et al., 2010; Spyrou, 2011; Vasudevan, 2015) reflect affect’s hope of surfacing new ways of being/knowing/doing research about play and may take unlimited forms — digital art creations, artifact creations, collages, and podcasts, to name a few. 

In her study of kindergarteners’ “baby” talk and play, Myers (2016) uses multimodal retellings of children’s performance play where children pretend to act and talk like babies in classroom spaces. Using narrative vignettes and soundbites, Myers looks to trouble the teachers’ conceptions of students’ play as inappropriate for their age and in conflict with the teacher’s view of what the teacher deems developmentally acceptable for children ages five and six. Myers’ multimodal retellings lead her “to recognize and map the ways in which the children, [herself], and the multiple non-human elements/actors of the classroom were bound together in the everyday events of classroom life, and how these events were perceived, articulated, and represented by the children” (p. 2016). Since posthumanism assumes entanglement, multimodal research methods “help us move beyond either/or definitive accounts of playing to develop approaches that can work with the messy, interrelated, and complex nature of minds, bodies, materials, and space” (Lester & Russell, 2014, p. 297). 

Unlearning the Research Process
As we continue pursuing research methods to document children’s play, we might also consider what we need to unlearn. “Learning to do qualitative research means unlearning this social construction of “research,” and opening oneself to the possibility of employing a different vocabulary and way of structuring the research process” (Bogdan & Bilken, 2007, p. 4). This may mean breaking free from the academy’s comfortable way of introducing qualitative methods for nascent researchers: a week of study per method organized with book chapters and articles into neat silos. Taking a page from childhoods and children’s play in our approach to qualitative research allows us to celebrate that, like play itself, our methods cross borders and are messy.