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"What happens in the fort, stays in the fort!" Awakening Embodied Play Literacies through Fort Building in an Early Childhood Methods Classroom

by Jaye Johnson Thiel - 2021

Background/Context: Neoliberalism has both feet firmly planted in educational contexts around the globe (United States, Australia, United Kingdom). Due to the precarious nature of unstructured play and its unwillingness to fit neatly into a neoliberal framework of quality and high returns on investments, play for play’s sake has taken a backseat to standards, “evidence-based” curriculums, and high-stakes testing. These changes are often justified as a way to “mind the gap” or as a way to build a quality workforce in years to come, however, there is a large body of research (including a call from the Pediatrics Association) that suggests play for play’s sake is necessary for wellbeing, humanization, and learning itself.

Focus of the study: In this study, I considered how teachers might get reacquainted with play as a practice in early childhood methods courses through engaging in fort building pedagogy. Specifically, I consider the ways an attunement to embodied play literacies opens up possibilities beyond the commodification of schooling associated with the affective forces of neoliberalism. This essay tries to better understand the ways fort building in particular, moves bodies away from stories of neoliberalism through experimentation and playful practice.

Participants and Setting: The teachers represented in this study range from soon-to-be teachers to practicing teachers in undergraduate and graduate methods courses in three different university classrooms across the Southeastern United States. The events that produced this data were part of weekly face-to-face class meetings.

Research design: This paper uses narrative writing and thinking-with-theory as a postqualitative research approach to better understand the ways fort building as an embodied play practice can work against the affective forces of neoliberalism in educational practice. Using action research, this paper analyzes the happenings that took place during fort building pedagogy in several early childhood methods courses across the span of five years and three states. Data sources included: observational fieldnotes, written reflections, videos, audio recordings, and photographs.

Conclusions: Analysis illustrates the importance of teachers (preservice and inservice) getting reacquainted with playful practices from their early years (such as fort building) to unearth and reawaken embodied literacies of play. These reawakenings suggest that when teachers engage in such practices, they actively begin to resist neoliberal ideations of schooling through the process of making forts collectively with peers. The paper concludes that fort building is a vital practice in making way for new stories in education and in remembering why play for play’s sake is important in early childhood settings.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 3, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23618, Date Accessed: 8/1/2021 1:45:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Jaye Johnson Thiel
    University of Alabama, Birmingham
    E-mail Author
    JAYE JOHNSON THIEL, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a part-time scholar at the University of Georgia, USA. Deeply committed to issues of social class and equity in childhood studies, her scholarship works against deficit discourses about young people, theorizes place-based practices for community research, and explores the production of embodied literacies in the everyday play and making lives of children. Before receiving her PhD, she was a PK-5 teacher and before that she proudly worked in the service industry, including taking orders for bus parts, sweeping hair, and serving food at a local restaurant. She recently coedited the book Posthumanism and Literacy Education: Knowing/Becoming/Doing Literacies.
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