Category Archives: toys

Confiscation Cabinets at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

children's weaponsA Rubik’s cube remade as a weapon. This post first appeared on New Left Project.

Confiscation Cabinets – a new exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood by artist Guy Tarrant – shows a series of artefacts confiscated by the artist from schoolkids, while he was working as a teacher.

The objects include homemade games, toys, adornments, weapons and keepsakes from 150 different London primary and secondary schools amassed over the last three decades. A preview I’d seen of it suggested the exhibition was largely about old toys, a trip down memory lane sort of exhibit. But it’s far from that. You can see products like that in the main galleries anyway. What makes this exhibition different is that they are artefacts of confiscation; objects which show the bits of contemporary urban childhood which are much less marketable.

So, after the plastic spiders, friendship bracelets, yo-yos, hairbands, tennis ball and a headless Mr T doll were largely paper-based hand-made items which were in some ways deeply ephemeral but really brought out the sheer boredom of a lot of school. Paper planes, rubber-band balls, notes kids have passed each other (one heartbreakingly, “Sarah, do you like me? Yes or No” with the “No” box very clearly ticked), a magnificently chewed biro and an entire hand-drawn pack of cards.

And then we get to the weapons. Because childhood can be really, really shit and kids arm themselves, sometimes very resourcefully. There was a glue spreader impressively sharpened to a point, an axe made from a stick and a bit of flint, the old breath freshener and lighter turned flame thrower trick, some olbas oil that had been used in an eye attack (and caused a child to be hospitalised), some computer mouse balls stripped down to act as missiles and a toilet handle fashioned into a knuckle duster. Also ingeniously weaponised were also pieces of a shopping trolly, one of those hanging handgrips there used to be on tubes (with the ball at the end), a taped up table leg, a door knob and a fire extinguisher pull. And some bullets. The most inventive was probably the deconstructed Rubik’s cube which had been turned into a missile.

Overall the exhibition was quite unsettling. But in a realistic way. It’s not an image of London childhood I always like to remember, but it was one I still recognised.

Confiscation Cabinets. 9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014. Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. 10.00 to 17.45 daily Closed 24-26 December and 1 January. Free.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

Poo Books

I have a small collection of “poo books”. For research reasons, obviously. Fancy a tour? Of course you would. Let the poo commence.

pile of poo

By “poo books” I mean books for children about either digestion processes of going to the toilet. Such books often use the word “poo”. It is largely their term, not mine. These are not books about “shit”, “crap”, “faeces”, “defecatory materials” or “excretionary waste products”, but slightly less direct ways of talking about the same topic. Though equally we might call shit or faeces equally euphemistic (either because they choose to swear or because they rely on disinterested-sounding terminology). Indeed, in many ways poo books embrace the whole topic of what comes out of our bottoms with reasonable enthusiasm. This enthusaism is often self-consciously and proudly childish. As such, the “poo” in question is some respects half euphemism and half an expressive avoidance of euphemism.

Poo books for under 5’s are often designed to provide information and reassurance about this stuff that comes out of our bottoms (whatever we want to call that). One of the most internationally famous of the poo-book genre is Everybody Poos (Frances Lincoln, 2002), or Everybody Poops in America. There is a sort of sequel on farting called The Gas We Pass. First published in Japan in the late 1970s, this is typical of the poo-book genre in that aims to normalise by treating it as something fun, even jokey.

different poo

In his 1992 book, Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, John Stephens refers to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as a case study in the presentation of “safe monsters” in children’s literature. By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, Stephens argues, Sendak’s illusions work to defeat the image of that fear (Stephens, 1992: 136). The 2001 Pixar movie Monsters Inc is probably a better example of this; arguably its whole plot is based around this idea.

I think we can apply Stephens’ analysis to a lot of poo-books (indeed, many comic health books in general); an aim to turn young people’s fears about the workings of their body into “safe monsters”. This bottom stuff can, after all, can be both painful and socially embarrassing. For all that we think of scatological humour as childish entertainment, like most children’s literature, these books have a pedagogical and/ or moral aim of some sort. They aim to teach and to help their audience in some way. See also It Hurts When I Poop or, one of my personal favourites, the Moose with the Loose Poops (Hippocractic Press, 2009, pictured). Part of a “Dr Hippo” series (Hippo-cratic, see what they did…), it even comes with a pull-out medical guide for parents tucked into the back cover. Here we have mummy-moose comforting the ill protagonist:

moose with loose poops

Poo books for primary school age (i.e. those passed the toilet training stage) often utalise the apparent comedic value of poo as a hook talk about wider scientific processes. The Horrible Science series is one of the best examples of this approach. We can also see it in some of the medical titles of the larger and more famous parent-series Horrible Histories too, though do note these have different author/ illustrator teams and slightly different take on what “Horrible” might mean. Snot, puke, pus and blood are equally popular subject matter here, it’s not all about the shit. I think the “safe monsters” analysis is still applicable here though, and although there aren’t many poo-books for teenagers, there are perhaps comparisons to be made with titles like Diary of a Teenage Healthfreak.

Horrible Science are keen to show off the use of knowledge, alongside humour, as a way of defeating fears around health issues. At the same time, they continue to draw immense delight from references to poo etc, as well as lightly spoofing the same scientific approaches to studying it which they draw power from (complex beasts, the Horrible Science books). For example, Painful Poisons (2004) starts by stating that “lots of people think poison is a scary subject”. It then goes through a goading, pantomime device of implying you don’t really want this, do you, parodying a patronising adult voice and playing to the idea that this is the secret stuff kids love to read about (pages 5-6), before concluding by emphasising that poisons are everywhere and although it is “easy to be scared” the best way to deal with poisons is with knowledge rather than fear (pages 143-4). You can see similar shifts – from fears “some people” hold and towards knowledge and a delight in the horrible nature of the scientific object – in Angry Animals (2005) and Chemical Chaos (1997).

In the example below (The Body Owners Handbook, Scholastic, 2002, page 23) is possibly my favourite: a cartoon rendering of the sorts of diagrams of the digestive system frequently reproduced in school textbooks and exam papers. There is the sound of “plop” (in a friendly, handwritten-style font) along with the childish, slightly twee “poo”. This is juxtaposed with comical language which pokes fun at whilst simultaneously applying the conventions of talking indirectly about excretory matter in a scientific manner; “solid waste ejection pipe”, “fuel storage tank” and “conveyor belt for waste processing”.


American readers might be more familiar with the Grossology series; it similarly celebrates the gruesome in a sense of appealing to childishness, and applies this with scientific information to help liberate children from fears of their bodies. For example, the cover of Naked Grossology (the title on the body) promises: “Really gross things about your body, It’s stinky, it’s lumpy, its squishy, but hey, it’s your body”. I’m also a fan of Gooey, Chewy, Rumble, Plop, available on both sides of the Atlantic, which includes a beautifully realistic tongue on the cover as well as pop-up technology to give you a view down the gut.

Possibly my favourite of the poo books is Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable (Walker, 2005). I think it typifies the “half euphemistic” approach to poo in many of these books. It clearly relishes poo, and yet maintains some distance from the actual object (partly by cartoon illustration, partly through dry humour). The back cover is especially nice. I hippo declares “I like to spray it all over the place”, a bird sitting on it’s back: “I make houses out of it”. The book contains a lot of detail, and it is worth knowing that the author, Nicola Davies is a zoologist who used to present the Really Wild Show. Note the “natural history” in the title (and white-coated characters on cover). Like Horrible Science, this is a step along from toilet training and seems to self-consciously play with the humour of the serious and detached way science might deal with “poo” just as much as any other humour in the subject.


Maybe it’s not surprising I like this book. As with a lot of poo books, it seems to appeal to grown ups as well as children. I have a copy because it was a birthday present (a birthday in my mid-20s). Indeed, this article from the New York Times about the US publishers of Everybody Poos notes the books are popular with adults buying for other adults.

Arguably, this is true of a lot of children’s books (see also point on the “impossiblity” of children’s media and “generational drag” in latter half of this blogpost). The idea that children will like the yuk of poo and snot and pus is just an adult’s idea of childishness, one that it is interesting to have seen shift slightly in the last century. As I argue in my PhD on Horrible Science, they seem to have roots in a rather Beano idea of childhood. In his 1989 book about working at the Beano, On Comedy: The “Beano” and Ideology, Leo Baxendale, creator of the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx, talks of a desire to depict what he felt was a truer, “scruffier” and more anarchic image of children, in contrast to “soft” fairytale images he felt the Beano applied up until the 1950s. For Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, the social acceptability of the Horribles is largely due to the legacy of Roald Dahl who, according to Deary, made the use of horror and black comedy in children’s books acceptable (Deary, 1999: 97). Considering that historical background I thought it was interesting that the NYT article referenced criticisms that poo-books aren’t very American. I’ve noticed that Grossology is a lot milder than Horrible Science (and the Horrible books have never really made it in the USA). Maybe, despite the various efforts of Warner Brothers, Nickleodeon and the Simpsons, the more anarchic image of childhood is still less acceptable in the USA.

A final point prompted by the Horrible Science books: we live in a multi-media age, and kids science books are, generally, a rather interactive form of “dead-tree” publishing. So, yes, finally, we have the mini-sub-genre of “hands-on” poo books. Obviously, such hands-on interaction is heavily mediated. They don’t actively ask their readers to handle their faeces. For example, Horrible Science’s Disgusting Digestion sticker book (Scholastic, 1998) includes a set of stickers of partially (and not so partially) digested food for you to place along their cross-section diagram of the gut.

Have you the stomach to read on?

It is worth noting that this is true of most so-called hands on interaction in kids science. Whatever their appeal to immediacy, most so-called “experiments” are mock-ups of demonstrations. It isn’t just shit which science books for kids feel a need to fabricate. This is often for quite sensible educational and practical reasons, but worth baring in mind. I think I’ve saved the best till last. Because the book Farley Farts (2003) does actually fart, albeit annoying softly. Play this little video to hear it.

This post has been largely descriptive. If you’re interested in slightly more academic analysis, I can recommend Mills, Alice (2006) ‘Harry Potter and the Terrors of the Toilet’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol 37(1), 1-13. I think Mills nails the differences between boys and girls toilets as dramatic sites in children’s books: Girls toilets, she argues, are relatively private and thus places of solace, where characters go to escape on their own; Boy’s bogs are more um, ‘communal’ and full of fighting, pain and suffering. The rest is a bit too psychoanalytic for my personal taste, but if you like a serving of Kristeva’s idea of the abject with your literacy analysis (and/ or the odd bit of Harry Potter studies), it’s a peach of a paper.

I’ll leave you with a tip for anyone reading this post on the toilet, from the charming Liam goes Poo in the Toilet (2008, subtitle: A Story about Trouble with Toilet Training). Sage advice at any age, I’d say.

relax and push

CSI: the children’s toy

I attended a conference on Forensics in Culture last week. The very first slide in the very first paper was of some children’s edu-tainment toys inspired by CSI. E.g.: this facial reconstruction kit. The speaker implied a sense of surprise that children would be playing with forensics in such a way. I thought it was a bit weird too. I suspect this amazon reviewer speaks for many:

those eyes, man! Those EYES! […] it will be staring at you, waiting to make its move, plotting your demise – or at least that’s what it feels like. Maybe if the head didn’t have such an accusatory look on its face (“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?”) […] “Merry Christmas Timmy! Here’s your CSI Facial Reconstruction head. Now you can reconstruct the ruined face of the victim of a violent and gruesome murder!”

When did forensics become entertainment? Moreover, when did it become so domesticated it could be packaged into a childrens’ toy? It’s about death and crime. The slide of this toy was met with several laughs at the conference. For me, however, it was the lack of humour embodied by the product itself which interested me.

It reminded me a bit of The Planet Science Whodunit, a forensic education event for teenagers I worked on back in 2003. The premise was that someone had stolen a guitar from boy-band Busted. Schoolchildren could sign up for kits to do some forensics-inspired activities to “solve” the crime. There were prizes; we had a panel of celebrity suspects; it was all played for fun. Although in many respects this project was inspired by CSI, we were careful to limit any references to traumatic crime. It was lighthearted. Indeed, one of the criticisms that could be leveled at this project was that it trivalised issues surrounding crime.

Another comparison with the CSI toy is the style applied by Horrible Science (major UK brand of science books for 7-11’s, I did my PhD on them). Perhaps the best example of their approach to blood and guts is the covers of Blood, Bones and Body Bits (1995, and 2008). Here, Horrible Science wraps its dismembered bodies, blood and viscera in a comic book form.

It’s ok somehow because it’s “just for fun”. Blood and guts take center stage here, but in a very comic way. It knows “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” are following you, it camps it up deliberately. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect you to either. It’s childish and Bugs-Bunny like, it’s surreal and so slightly unreal through it’s comic qualities. This is an example of what I described in my thesis as Horrible Science’s “ironic bloodthirsty pose”, something you can see applied across the series, to lesser and greater degrees than in the Horrible Histories, depending on topic. It is one of the many ways in which the series are “Science as Pantomime” (title I gave my thesis).

I took “ironic bloodthirsty pose” from David Buckingham’s great book on children and television, where he listens to children explain what they like about watching horror. One of the points Buckingham makes from these conversations is the appeal of a sense of adulthood in watching horror. For all their slightly childish joking, in some respects what the young people relished was the seriousness of it all, it helped them create distance from an idea of a trivial silly little kid. I remember feeling that the Whodunit idea was a bit more grownup than other Planet Science projects I’d worked on, the allusions to forensics were a key part of that, even framed as a joke.

You can find some more discussion of such ambivalences in Martin Barker’s excellent history of a campaign in 1960s Britain against horror comics. I’ve blogged on this before: why the Horrible books might be illegal. As I mention there, Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has argued that his approach wouldn’t have been possible if Roald Dahl hadn’t already brought about an acceptability of the grotesque in British children’s literature. Or, for slightly different analysis, Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen, in their book Consuming Childhood, also talk about the way contemporary children’s media tries to make children “aspirational”, to want to act more grownup, as a sort of marketing strategy (see also this and this on such late 20th century shifts in style of address in children’s media).

So, considered from the perspective of the comic-gore of Horrible Science, the CSI facial reconstruction kit seems odd that it doesn’t frame itself in humour jokes (though we may laugh at it). Maybe, conversely, the seriousness allows for the gruesome-ness in a US context, where edu-tainment media tends not to have comic-gore and irreverence of Britain’s Horrible books? A rather straightforward example of forensic science lending a form of legitimacy, even in kids’ media?

That said, it looks as if the company who make these toys has gone bust, so maybe everyone had the WTF reaction of the “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” comment on Amazon.

Pink Chemistry Sets

In case anyone thinks the pink construction set (with sparkles) is a new thing: a chemistry set for girls, 1958 (USA). Or rather, a kit for a wannabe “Lab Technician”, because the girl would be just supporting the actual chemist, naturally. Apparently it included a pink microscope. Mother and daughter look terribly happy though, don’t they?

1968 Chemistry set

Apologies for bad quality photograph, it’s of a powerpoint slide. From an event on 20th century popular science I ran yesterday (full blogpost on this forthcoming). The paper was given by Maggie Jack, a History and Philosophy of Science MPhil student at the University of Cambridge, based on the dissertation she wrote as an undergrad at Harvard.

Early/ mid 20th century chemistry sets were marketed quite explicitly for boys and their fathers, as if chemical experimentation was an opportunity for male bonding and general expression of red-blooded manhood. Fear not the explosions, take power over nature, etc, etc. Insert your favourite feminist philosopher of science here. It really wasn’t anything subtle: the box covers and advertising for chemistry sets seemed to want to signal BOY, and do so as unequivocally as possible. This isn’t just an American trend, Salim Al-Gailani (another HPS Cambridge student) gave a similar paper about UK chemistry sets at the 2007 British Society for the History of Science. It’d be interesting to know if the same was true in non-English speaking countries too.

I’m sure 1950s girls played with the non-pink chemistry sets, however they happened to be presented. Just as girls read Harry Potter, even if his name is bigger than J(oanne)K Rowling. It probably goes without saying that when it comes down to their actual use, gender messages of kids media aren’t nearly as simple. In fact, one of the key points Jack wanted to make about Chemistry sets was the way they provided materials for exploratory work; that they allowed play through unintended consequences of science (indeed, they celebrated this), rather than necessarily being a matter of leading kids through a set of pre-ordained educational outcomes. I’m a bit too cynical to necessarily agree with her entirely on this, but it was a worthwhile point. Plus, my expertise on the topic is rather skewed to late 20th/ early 21st century kits: maybe such toys were a lot more exploratory in the past (even if gender identities were not?).

Finally, before we dismiss the pink microscope/ lab technician kit as a funny old 1950s thing, here’s an fword post about chemistry kits, written just last year, which brings out some of the gender issues involved in our recent fashion for retro kids’ non-fiction (*cough* Dangerous Book for Boys *cough*).

EDIT (15:10): from tip-off via twitter, a pink telescope with a lower power than the boy’s model (worth scrolling through the comments on that post).
EDIT (15:25, 2nd April): from various comments I’m getting about this, I just want to underline that I can see how a pink microscope might be seen as something quite empowering, a positive expression of feminine science (now as much as in 1958). Personally, I’m not convinced by this argument, but I don’t think we should simply say pink stinks and that’s the end of the debate. Gender issues are always complex, in toys and in science perhaps no less so.

Student Sci-Art

Some examples of the interpretive practical group project we set our MSc students every year. They work in groups or three or four to produce something (and it can be about anything…) which reflects on some of the history, philosophy and social studies of science they study in the first term.

Four Scientists 2 Mendel's peas
Science Comic - inside Enlightenment Edward - close up

From the top-left clockwise, four scientists of the televisual age argue over how they see “the public”, Mendel’s pea (part of a knitted history of genetics), a philosophy of science influenced comic book, and “Enlightenment Edward” (part of a collection of history of science action men).

Each of the photos are links to flickr, where you can find more notes. You’ll also see further examples of this year’s group projects, including: bottles of cider which they actually brewed (or rather sci-der), some clever photography, an experiment in Romantic Scientific painting, and a mashup of the Large Hadron Collider with Cologne Cathedral.