On death in preschool

On death in preschool

My newest research article will be appearing in a beautiful special issue of Ethnography and Education, edited by the brilliant and supportive Debbie Albon and Christina Huf. Debbie and Christina and I met at the Ethnography and Education conference at New College, Oxford, held each September (and yes, I miss everyone there terribly here in what may be the second pandemic conference season without being able to travel– like all ethnographers I believe that there is no bloodless zoom substitute for being there, and hope for a return to real life soon). I was so pleased that my article, Nicole’s Mother Is Dead, was accepted for this special issue and gently shepherded through its steady improvement by Debbie and Christina. The whole volume is gorgeous and I encourage everyone to read the included pieces. You can access my contribution here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17457823.2020.1861956

My piece, with its rather intentionally provocative title, comes from my preschool ethnography project, during which I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours hanging out in one of the best play-based preschools I have ever had the privilege of observing and, eventually, being a part of. It was a magical three years of work, and I am still going through the rich data from that work. The experience not only informed my deeper understanding of the craft of ethnography of childhood contexts, but also was the foundation for current projects looking and gender in childhood and families. I owe those children and their teachers everything, as childhood researchers always do.

The paper itself is about death, full stop, and builds on theorising from other work, namely, on the idea that we can learn about adults themselves from their reactions, censorial impulses and exclusions around children’s engagements with cultural taboos and contradiction. And rather than being a strange or discordant fit, death is everywhere in preschool. It is natural, but also literally present, from the death of pets to the death of people to death in pretend play or children’s media. And, for children in rural settings, the unexpected deaths that occur every day in the natural world that surrounds them. Death is never pedestrian to the children, even as they laugh and mock it and try to understand it through the work of play, but it is fanned into pearl-clutching by some of the adults around them. And to all of this I must add the usual disclaimer that this work is situated in the US cultural context, with its escalating religious extremism, violence, and paradoxical, empty rhetoric around the value of life. I will never get used to living here, a place where children are murdered in their early years classrooms and tortured at the U.S./Mexico border while legislators profit from their deaths. Ad infinitum.

I’ll let the abstract speak for itself:

This paper presents data from a multi-year ethnography of a rural preschool in the United States in which children engaged in substantial free and structured imaginative play. An unexpected death during the course of the data collection period was followed by a spate of death-related play and storytelling by the children, with varied adult reactions. These analyses explore this death play, problematise the adult responses to ‘inappropriate’ play and stories, and question the sanitised and curated nature of what play – and by extension what children – are valued and valorised in preschool. Implications for how children’s unruly or uncomfortable play is understood and acted upon by adults, and the complex importance of play in early childhood learning contexts, conclude the paper.

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