Reflections on talking toilets with children, bodies and queerness in the classroom #cctoilettalk

Recently I’ve been running some workshops (with Lisa Procter from the University of Sheffield and Nicky Ward, artist from The Bower Wirks) talking to primary-aged children about toilets.

We approached this through fictional story writing (leading to comic making), giving the children starting sentences such as, ‘you’re adventure started in the middle of nowhere’, ‘the toilet was particularly grumpy today, why was it in a bad mood?’ and ‘you go into the school toilet and something unexpected happens…’ Children chose their starter, then worked in groups or on their own to create a story.

We were very loose with any remaining direction we gave – wanting the children to be able to work and create as they wished. This led to stories ranging from chickens being chased by foxes and falling down a loo in the woods, only to realise the toilet was a portal to a talking toilet in Manchester, to ‘cleaner elves’ going on strike as the mean ewok boss was making them work for free.

Yet, although all the stories made were fictional, they nevertheless lead to some really illuminating conversations (we can already see an important debate around the value of work above). Gender came up straight away with one group. We began by sitting around on cardboard cut-out toilet seats, and asking, how would you feel if we were all sitting on the toilet right now? (A workshop activity also used with adults in the Around the Toilet project, which you can read about here). Like the adults in our sister project, the children all agreed that it’d be awkward. However, there was a very gendered divide as to why the situation was awkward. Whereas the boys said that it was because there were girls (or as they put it ‘people of the opposite sex’) in the room, the girls said that it’d be awkward even if only girls were present. This highlights a perhaps obvious divide in the ways different we are socialised to be ashamed of our bodies, dependent upon assumed gender.

One of the things that we’ve noticed in the Around the Toilet workshops with adults, is that talking about toilets has always led to talking about sex. Although this wasn’t so explicit with primary aged children, later in the same workshop I was reminded of Catherine Atkinson’s work on gender and sexuality in the primary school classroom. We were coming to the end of the day when I got casually asked, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’. My reply ‘no, I have a girlfriend’, led to some interesting back and forth between three children debating whether or not this was ‘weird’. Catherine’s research highlights that although some children may know what to say about LGBT (or, more likely, LG, perhaps B) issues in the classroom, when teachers aren’t around, they become much more normative in their thinking around the ‘correct’ ways that boys and girls and meant to act. An undergraduate student of mine, Sam McDonald, found similarly – in his research, although children thought it was okay for two men to get married, two men holding hands or kissing was ‘gross’ and ‘weird’. I read the children’s debate around whether my queerness was something that was okay or not at least in part as working out whether my status was one of teacher or of someone else with whom they could be more honest.

The workshops so far have been one-off pilot events in order to help us work out the usefulness of doing workshops with children around toilets. Like much research with children, the above discussion points to the importance of thinking about the role of adults in the room. This both relates to our role as researchers, but also the role of other adults such as teachers, teaching assistants and parents. There’s always been other adults present when we’ve written these stories – either teaching assistants or parents. It’s been really interesting to see both the reaction of adults to a project talking to children about toilets (including some quite direct questions around what the point of our project is), and the ways that the adults have praised, nudged and directed the children to think about certain topics.

The adult topic of choice so far has undoubtedly been hand washing. Although this perhaps isn’t particularly surprising, it is telling of the kinds of pedagogies that most explicitly circulate the toilet space for children. Most academic research around school toilets also focuses on the subject of hygiene. However, as we see from the other conversations that have emerged during the workshops, there are other lessons also going on here. I’m particularly interesting in the ways that we learn about our embodied selves through the toilet, and how this relates to gender, sexuality, dis/ability, ‘race’, faith and so on, something that hasn’t really been explored in school toilet research. Furthermore, most workshops so far have mainly included children aged 7-11, and it’d be interesting to see if there was a different favoured adult topic with smaller children.

There’s a conversation for us to have as a research team now about where we take this research from here. I feel like there’s loads of potential in it. As has happened in Around the Toilet, talking about toilets can and has led to many more conversations. Yet as toilets are such an embodied space, and the subject of bodies can be one that worries schools, we’re always having to think carefully about our ethical and methodological approach. So far, using fiction as a starting point has worked well – allowing children some autonomy about what they choose to share. One question that will be important will be the role of adults with the room – whether we want to go with and think about the relationship between adults and children in talking about toilets (and accepting that the children may be directed back to hand washing!), or try to create possibilities of more child-led scenarios.

Some of the comic books created, along with further exhibits and talks about research with adults in Around the Toilet will be on show at Re-Imagining Toilets: Adventures into the Design of the Public Loo. 27th November, Manchester. It’s free and everybody is welcome, but please book a place, here.



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