Tag Archives: object play

The many “meaning of things”

Seeing as the month of May took me many places quite far away from home, it was oddly acontextual to be reading University of Chicago sociologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s (C and R-H henceforth for brevity’s sake) The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (1981) during my travels.  The book chronicles C and R-H’s 1977 study of 82 families in Chicago and Evanston, IL (home of my alma mater, Northwestern).  Spanning home interviews with 315 people – primarily African-American and White; lower-, middle-, and upper-class; spanning four-generations of families – C and R-H asked people about the household objects they most cherished, and explored their physical and psychological contexts.  The book presents a landmark departure at the time from research on material objects that was focused on “materialism” and marketing, and instead combines a sociology of consumption with one of transaction as well.

While living out of a duffel bag for most of last month, I was far away from the place (Los Angeles) where I currently store most of my physical possessions.  I felt a tinge of guilt calling Los Angeles “home” in conversation with my mom while sitting on my parents’ bed during a stop at my childhood home in NY.  My “home” during the month of May could just as naturally have meant the “homeland” of the Jewish people in Israel, seeing as I was there to visit my youngest sister, who was herself temporarily calling a dorm at Tel Aviv University “home.”  The Meaning of Things had me thinking as well about the pieces of home that myself and other fellow travelers carried in the spaces between homes, liminal zones including a 9-hour layover in the Madrid airport and a Memorial Day weekend spent in Boston for the annual International Communication Association (ICA) conference.

During one leg of my trip – a nearly half-day transoceanic NYC-Tel Aviv flight – I observed one family with small children maintaining a semi-home-like space among and between two airplane rows.  Engaging with one of the main threads of this summer blog – children’s identity negotiation in relation to and with technologies – I was particularly struck by this family.  One unlike my own, the kind in which all three children embody the improbably precise blending of their biological parents’ physical genetic material; these two sisters and a brother, all bright blond haired and suntanned skin, curious blue eyes, and ruddy wide cheeked smiles.

At one point during the flight, having exhausted my library of musical iPod/iPhone options and taking a break from The Meaning of Things, I couldn’t help but study the older sister and brother, probably 7- and 5-years-old respectively.  With the encouragement of their father sitting between them, they each used a digital camera, one given to each child, to take pictures of their baby sister, who was learning over the seat in front while perched on their mothers’ shoulder.  The boy, adept at the digital camera and naturalized to his power over it as well as its inherent power, took one photo and immediately turned it around to view the screen.  He wanted to see the photo representation of the sister sitting in front of him.  He was quite happy to see that he had taken a photo of the baby mid-laugh, and turned the camera around once again, this time to show the baby the photo of herself.  Being a baby, she giggled and smiled, playfully grabbing at the camera.  It seemed to me that the boy took the baby’s playful glee for affirmation of his photo of her causing her happy feelings.  The baby may have just been happy because she was mirroring her siblings’ smiles, or enjoying the attention being paid to her, and was probably not able to see or understand the small rendering of herself on the tiny camera screen.  It is a bit of a conjecture, but it seems the identity captured in the photo had more of an emotional impact of the photographer than the subject.  Reflection on the act caused the boy pride and pleasure.

The camera in the case of this family on the plane served as a domestic symbol in a non-domestic space.  I focus on this brief moment because I am interested in how families with young children create, take apart, and recreate an idea of “home” in places outside of the home using technology, tools, objects, etc.  As well, I am interested how “unequal childhoods” (Lareau, 2003) and inequalities of cultural capital impact young children’s “naturalization” (Bourdieu, 1984; Seiter, 2007) to digital objects inside and outside the “home” (which itself can be a happy or unhappy place for a child to be).  C and R-H’s study focused on how objects within the home make and use those who make and use those objects within the home.  Their goal, they write, was to “explore how the most complex patterns of emotion and thought can become embodied in and symbolized by concrete things, that is, how things themselves are part of the interpretive sign process that constitutes meaning” (p. 98). While C and R-H did not interview children under 8, their chapters on object relations and the development of the self, the transactions between persons and things, and signs of family life are highly relevant to the focus of my research.

Social psychologist George Herbert Mead theorized that any object – inanimate or animate, human or animal, or just physical gestures simulating an object – towards which a person reacts, acts, or responds can be a “role model” (1934, p. 154), as antithetical as it may be to our understanding of that term.  Having attitudes towards an object/other makes one conscious of the self as a metacognitive referent.  For the young boy to take a photo of his baby sister, the production of the object made the boy more conscious of himself: his ability to master the camera, his ability to make others feel good, and his ability to feel good by making others feel good. Through this manipulation, the young boy built his autonomous self – working through questions of “Who am I?” and “What can I do?”

Personal traits emerge and socialization often occurs through young children’s object play.  Erikson (1950) described this process as the child’s decentralizing of the self: moving from one’s own actions to one’s position in a web of relationships.  Many children use rituals in the pursuit of controlling randomness in their daily object play.  C and R-H write that young’s children gross motor actions such as throwing, moving, and breaking objects,

Provide the clearest evidence that there is an agent capable of having an effect.  The more improbably the action, the more it goes against the laws of random chance, the more it defies entropy, the clearer the message that there is a self here that does make a difference.  When a girl hopping on one foot throws a ball against a wall, claps her hands twice, and then catches the ball on the rebound, she demonstrates through this strange ritual how much she is in control of randomness (C and R-H, 1981, p. 117).

The young boy taking the photo used the camera to control and capture a random momentary baby giggle.  The camera serves as a tool for the boy’s self-development, as he learns that taking a joyful photo leads to a joyful reaction among his family members, that the sharing of joyful photos is valued.  That sharing may have occurred historically after the film was developed, compared to the immediate transactions many now come to expect from photography, be it on their digital cameras or phones.  It is not just the person or the thing that gives an object meaning, but also the process, ceremony, or culture of transaction.

C and R-H found that people’s relationships with objects have a lot to do with their relationships with people.  Borrowing from Dewey, C and R-H describe cultivating a “cosmic self” or “that portion of the self whose ultimate goal is the larger harmony of things” (p. 192).  I was particularly taken with a response from the youngest member of the entire sample, an 8-year-old boy, on what all his bedroom objects meant to him:

They make me feel like I’m part of the world.  Because when I look at them, I keep my eyes on them and I think what they mean.  Like I have a bank from the First National, and when I look at it I think what it means.  It means money for our cities and for our country, it means tax for the government.  My stuffed bunny reminds me of wild life, all the rabbits and dogs and cats.  That toy animal over there (points to plastic lion) reminds me of circuses and the way they train animals so they don’t get hurt.  That’s what I mean, all my special things make me feel like I’m part of the world (C and R-H, 1981, p. 193).

The boy’s bedroom is a site of microcosmos, an interconnected energy beyond his Chicago walls.  This relates strongly to C’s later work on flow (1990), of focusing one’s psychic energy into objects and activities in a way that allows the object to return that energy to the person in the form of enjoyment.  Going back to that other boy on the plane, what might C and R-H say about him?  They write,

The drawings and photos of one’s children that so many adults cherish are signs of the self’s extension into the future; they prefigure the development of one’s descendents who will carry on the psychic order one has created to generations to come […] When used in this way, household objects serve a symbolic purpose; the materialism involved in the transaction is instrumental (C and R-H, 1981, p. 242).

The boy on the plane was not the photo subject though – he was the actor onto the object.  Adults may cherish the photos they take of their children – or they may cherish even more the photos their children take, or the photos their children take of their other children.

One shortcoming of C and R-H’s study is that, limited a bit within their sociological frame, much of their discussion does not account for political economy and the infrastructures of power that disenfranchise certain populations from making choices in their daily transactions with objects.  Sometimes being able to selectively take piece of your assuredly static home with you is a luxury.  Sometimes, home is inherently transitory, and the constant movement of a small amount equaling the sum total of one’s possessions, particular for small children in unstable economic circumstances, is a certain kind of torture.

I appreciate The Meaning of Things as another way to understand the nature of relationships between young children and digital and non-digital technological objects in traditional and non-traditional “domestic” spaces; locations like the row of an airplane or a seat on the subway turned domestic in the presence of family members.


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste.  (R. Nice, Tran.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erikson, E (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seiter, E. (2007). Practicing at home: Computers, pianos, and cultural capital. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 27-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

“The Phantom Tollbooth” and The Bulletin Board Moment

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting up for lunch with Lucien Vattel, Executive Director of GameDesk, an exciting new grade 6-12 charter school launching in Los Angeles in fall 2012.  We got to talking about the reading struggles of incoming sixth grade students, as well the intersections of math and the humanities that GameDesk hopes to navigate.  Norton Juster’s fantastical “The Phantom Tollbooth” (TPT) (with equally as whimsical illustrations by Jules Feiffer) immediately leaped to mind as a suggested reading: not only because it seems like the perfect accessible bridge for emerging readers to traverse “STEM to STEAM to STREAM” areas, but also because TPT marks one of the most formative moments in my life as a student, from P.S. 83 to my Ph.D.

the cover art in my childhood copy.

Lucien asked if I’d ever written the following story down, but it had never dawned on me to do so, even though I gush about TPT whenever someone talks about transmedia storytelling and children.  (Here’s chapter 1 to whet your appetite if you somehow missed it during your literary life.)  The announcement of a new 50th anniversary edition of TPT this fall with additional essays from esteemed authors and artists, and a preview of one of those essays by the epic Michael Chabon published recently in The New York Review of Books sparked me to pen my own slightly self-indulgent ode with a simple message.

The Bulletin Board Moment

When your Kindergarten class can walk to the magical Bronx Zoo on any given afternoon (well, any afternoon in September, May, or June barring snow, rain, or absurd NYC humidity), the idea that rich worlds hide in the crevices and corners of your universe – as Milo, the protagonist of “The Phantom Tollbooth” discovers – doesn’t seem too far fetched.

I think some people feel compelled to work in the field of education either because 1) they had a crummy time in school and want no child to ever have that kind of experience OR 2) they had the kind of education that they wish they could gift to every kid.  I completely fall into the latter category.  I count my lucky stars (and a couple planets for good measure) that I was able to spend K-3 at P.S. 83 on Rhinelander Ave. in the Bronx in one of NYC’s “E.G.” or “Especially Gifted” programs.  I suppose they call it “Gifted and Talented” these days, but I like “E.G.” because it has the additive connotation of “e.g.,” of exempli gratia, of being an exemplar.

I took the school bus in from my fourteenth floor apartment in Co-op City (former home of Sonia Sotomayor and Queen Latifah, too), reuniting daily for 4 years with the same group of kids from kindergarten onward.  Even after moving to the suburbs the summer going into fourth grade, I to this day maintain close friendships with a number of kids in the class.  In fact, the discovery on the first day of my Sesame Workshop internship back in college that my mentor/boss Jen was an another P.S. 83 E.G. alum (and from Co-op City too!) made me even happier than the free swag, travel stipend, and the real Oscar the Grouch in the lobby combined.

Meryl & Mrs. GershWe were a very tight knit class who knew all knew each other and each other’s families.  I imagine it must have been difficult psychologically for the teachers who were the only ones new to us each school year.  In third grade, we had Mrs. Gersh.  As evidence of my fondness for her by the end of that year and my general lifelong geekiness, please see the picture to the left, in which I dressed up as her on the last day of school (so basically, the opposite of this).

Every classroom in P.S. 83 had a standard large, wooden-framed, rectangular bulletin board on the wall outside the classroom, to one side of the door.  Having been back in the analog days, you could say it was kind of like our class’ website.  Each month, Ms. Gersh updated the bulletin board so as to represent the class, usually of the projects/poems/artwork variety.  The bulletin board symbolized a collective statement about all of us behind that door to the outside world walking past.  One downside to our insular E.G. community was that I don’t particularly remember in all my years there ever befriending anyone in any other class, not even the “not especially gifted” children our same age in the school.  The bulletin board communicated with them if we could not personally.

That one child in the class could own the entire bulletin board with something that represented them and only them, and that Ms. Gersh would encourage me to be that child, seemed to defy the laws of physics of third grade to me when it actually happened.

Let me map out, by way of the Sea of Knowledge and The Doldrums, how I came to have my “bulletin board moment” and further sketch out the significant role of TPT.

I feel deeply in love with TPT at first read.  Its saturated wordplay and accompanying black pen sketches reminded me of my beloved Shel Silverstein books.  TPT will also always be mentally paired with my other “words + math” crush of a book, “Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbot, another book with a wondrously strange topography.

I felt the human shape of syntax when I read these books.  I had hundreds of little “Wizard of Oz” moments while reading them – but instead of that famous black & white to color scene in the movie, I understood new possibilities when moving from one to two dimensions, or driving through a real or imagined highway tollbooth.  What if math were a caste system?  What if individual letters in the alphabet had personalities of their own?  Like if A, B, and C were a cool popular clique, and D always tried to tag along, but ended up getting stuck with the dowdy pair of E & F.  Imagining social relationships between letters and numbers made them glide more easily in my manipulation of composition and computation.

Our class’ reading of TPT culminated in a hubbub of art projects at our desks.  At some point during the afternoon, Mrs. Gersh must have noticed how my project started to spill over the corners and creep onto the linoleum squares on the ground adjacent to my chair legs.  My rendering of the entire world of TPT with every single major character made from yarn, construction paper, and googly eyes – a version of fellow Bronx-born kid Jules Feiffer’s map above – was too expansive for my single square in a grid of 27 child-sized desks.

So naturally, she gave me and only me THE class bulletin board as a canvas instead.

I’m fairly sure that I missed more than a few lessons, because I remember working on the bulletin board for multiple afternoons after that first one.  I recall feeling such pride and trust put in me, sitting outside the classroom all on my own working in relative silence.  Other students in the class would leave to use restroom or bring a note somewhere, and stop to ask questions of me.  Kids and teachers from previously unknown parts of the school noticed too as they walked by, and struck up new conversation.  I was building a world, and a world was building around me too.  I felt like the official artist-in-residence-of-the-month of my class.  Piece by piece, I bricolaged a public display of craftmanship and personal sense of passionate purpose in my work that I now strive for daily.  Throwing “words + math” onto the metaphorical (and sometimes physical) wall is basically my official job.

Every child deserves to have their “bulletin board moment” – an anecdote to the sort of boredom embodied by TPT’s protagonist Milo.   The moral of TPT – that a child who is disengaged from school and disenchanted with his room full of toys must have access to alternative “tollbooths” to his or her own pathways to imagination – has considerable bearing on recent reports that more US children drop out of school because they are bored, not because they can’t keep up.

All children deserve teachers who bend the rules, the time, and the lessons – and the support of administrators, parents, and the classroom unit to do that very bending.  All children deserve caring people in their lives who notice passion and don’t wait for a timid child to ask for permission to let it unfurl all over a wall, drippy glue and all.  All children deserve the opportunity to talk about their work in authentic ways.  All children deserve to practice learning to be okay with devoting one’s love to something that is inherently impermanent.

MY bulletin board got replaced with THE bulletin board the next month.  I think I held on to my handmade corrugated cardboard figure of Tock the Watchdog for only a little while after, or maybe I just have a really strong tactile memory of running my fingers over the thick brown paper.  Between Tock who had nothing but the time, Milo who had plenty of it, and the millions of Milos in our current educational system, TPT will always be a timeless personal memory and timeless professional inspiration.

An introduction: Or, a young lady Ph.D. student’s digital primer

I was the sort of child who often sheepishly began her sporadic diary entries, “Dear Diary, Sorry I haven’t written in a while…”  While I may not have been able to commit to the physically-bound/locked diary format, hopefully I can maintain this digitally-bound/open blog… especially considering that it’s for school credit.

This summer 2011, as part of my doctoral studies at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, I’ll be doing a directed reading (aka COMM 590) supervised by Prof. Anne Balsamo, and blogging about said readings.  I have been greatly inspired by my work thus far at Annenberg with my academic advisor, Prof. Henry Jenkins and in particular his New Media Literacies class which I took this past spring semester.  In addition, I have to thank Karen Brennan, a Ph.D. student with the MIT Media Lab who I met this past March at DML, for sharing her rich lists of resources on children, community building, and computing with me.

The theme of my directed reading is “Playing with Identity, Embodiment, and Virtuality: Children’s Bonding with Technology.”  I’ve entitled this blog teething on tech because young children literally and figuratively teethe on technology.  Literally, children often try to know objects better by sticking them in their mouths (even iPods).  Figuratively, young children acquire and develop socially, emotionally, and physically through the daily micro-experiments they undertake and the trial and error they experience “cutting their teeth” on technologies.  By “technologies,” I don’t necessarily mean the battery-operated kind, but rather, those systems – digital and analog – that extend beyond that which we can do as humans alone.  For example, the chunky primary color crayon children start with is an assistive technology in building proficiency towards mastering the slimmer crayons in the cool 64-color boxes. (Speaking of which, prepare to have your mind rocked by “Crayon Physics Deluxe.”)

Below is a description of the topic, plan of study, final-ish deliverable (Is a blog, even one that is temporally-bound, ever considered “delivered”?), and a list of references.  Hopefully, over the course of the summer, I’ll make some astute observations, capture the interplay between my summer travels (Tel Aviv!  NYC!  Boston!  Philly!) and readings, and engage some of you on “the Internets” in the research that interests me.



Topic Description
These readings focus on the context of children’s object play with analog and digital technologies from both sociological and psychological perspectives. How do children negotiate their identity in relation to and with technologies? In terms of embodiment/virtuality, how are these understandings of self and belonging enacted?

Study Plan
Starting with the section on identity, and moving through embodiment/virtuality, I will follow the progression through the readings in the numerical order as indicated.

I will post a thoughtful blog post in the form of a short essay at least per piece of reading material. Posts will incorporate the following elements: 1) synthesis of key aspects of the piece, 2) integration with relevant and timely multimodal texts (e.g. news article, photographs, YouTube clips), and 3) reflection on how the piece(s) relates to prior readings and posts.



(1) Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity Press. (Original work published in 1980).

(3) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(2) de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

(4) Sutton-Smith, B.(2001). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(6) Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York:
Simon & Schuster.

(6) Turkle, S. (2008). Always-on/Always-on-you: The teathered self. In J. E. Katz (Ed.), Handbook of mobile communication studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(6) Turkle, S. (2010). Object lessons. In M. M. Suárez-Orozco and C. Sattin-Bajaj (Eds.),
Educating the whole child for the whole world. New York: New York University Press.

(6) Turkle, S. (Ed.) (2007). Evocative objects: Things we think with. Cambridge: MIT Press.

(5) Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.


(4) Croissant, J. (1998). Growing up cyborg: Developmental stories for postmodern children. In R. Davis-Floyd and J. Dumit (Eds.), Cyborg babies: From techno-sex to techno-tots. London: Routledge.

(2) Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149-181). New York: Routledge.

(1) Marvin, C. (1990). When old technologies were new. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(3) Stephenson, N. (1995). The diamond age: Or, a young lady’s illustrated primer. New York: Bantam.

(5) Turkle, S. (1998). Playing with artificial life. In R. Davis-Floyd and J. Dumit (Eds.), Cyborg babies: From techno-sex to techno-tots. London: Routledge.

(5) Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.