Storying School Toilets Workshop Summary from the Sheffield Hallam University Primary and Early Years Conference

On the 12th January 2016, Lisa Procter (University of Sheffield) and I (Jenny Slater, Sheffield Hallam University) ran a workshop as part of the Storying School Toilets project, at the Sheffield Hallam University Primary and Early Years Conference. The workshop was based upon work we had done for the ESRC Festival of Social Science late last year; working with Primary aged children and artist Nicky Ward from The Bower Wirks to create comics of children’s toilet stories. You can view all the comics here (get in touch with if you want any physical copies sending your way!).

The first thing we noticed prior to the workshop was that only two participants had signed up (whereas other workshops had 40+ people in attendance). This sent a message to us about the perceived importance of the toilet space in a school or early years setting. However, over lunch somebody informed us that toilets had in fact been brought up as something that children were worried about in the transition from primary to secondary school – the scare stories of having heads and bags flushed down the loo prominent in children’s minds. Toilets are clearly a space that pupils think about – something which only became clearer as our workshop went on!

Indeed, when it came to the workshop there were only two participants. Both Amy Ambler and Jane Loader were from Rainbow Forge Primary – Amy a TA in the Early Years setting, and Jane the head teacher. Rather than detrimental, the small group led to really interesting and productive conversations. We have themed these below, and shared them with Jane and Amy’s permission.

Working in early years

We discussed how the toilet is often the first thing that children want to see when they visit a new school or home. Amy pointed out that when working with nursery age children, toilets are such a big part of the day. The importance of talking about toilets in relation to early years settings and schools  was then clear from the outset.

Toilet Training

We talked about the very strong social and cultural ideals that  inform perceptions of at what age children should be able to use the toilet independently, and result in toilet training being an  emotive subjects for staff and parents. Both Amy and Jane pointed out how they are often talking to parents who are very anxious if their child isn’t viewed as using the toilet ‘properly’. Assumptions around what it means to use the toilet ‘properly’ seemed to be defined around being clean at a certain age. It can be really difficult for parents whose children don’t meet this expectation and not all school staff can be very empathetic.

There was a conversation about the perception that some parents take less responsibility in their children’s toilet training, so it becomes the job of the teacher/TA to toilet train. This can be difficult for early years staff as it can be the case that the lessons taught at school are unlearnt at home in evenings, weekends and holidays. Yet, as we’d discussed, these perceptions aren’t always fair on the parents either.

We also talked about disability and toilet training – how not ‘getting’ using the toilet related to certain impairment labels. This led to reflections about how although there is an expectation for us to all use the toilet in the same way, some of us don’t and can’t!

We were left with a number of questions: Do we all use the toilet in different ways anyway? Are we all taught how to use the toilet differently? [Do you flush before you pull up your pants, or the other way around?] Should school and early years staff talk to parents so that the messages delivered to children about how to use the toilet are consistent? Or should we be discussing the fact that we may all use the toilet differently  more openly? What do we teach about hygiene and the toilet seat? Hovering? Putting toilet paper on the seat in a public loo?

Toilets as a gendered social space

It was noted that small children do a lot of ‘hanging out’ in the toilets – yet this is more usually thought of (as a problem) in relation to pupils in secondary schools. At Rainbow Forge this happened especially after the toilets had been refurbished as they were a nicer space to both go to the toilet, but also be sociable!

Amy and Jane noted that although the staff see the toilets as separate to the classroom, the children don’t see it that way. When children are asked why they are in the toilet (if not going themselves), they say that they have to be there because they’re playing with somebody that is going to the toilet. We discussed a preferred classroom layout where the toilets would be in the classroom (but this would be expensive).

When children are young there isn’t much gender divide around who uses the toilets as a social space, but this changes as children get older (boys stop using them socially – something we discussed more widely with adults in Around the Toilet).

At Rainbow Forge, the toilets are not gendered for the younger children, but become gendered as the children get older. The toilet cubicles are coloured very traditionally – bright pink for the girls and a bluey grey for the boys (chosen by the children when they were re done!)

There was conversation around whether disabled children have the same opportunities to be social in using the toilets – at Rainbow Forge the disabled loo is in with the other toilets for young children, but is separate for the older children.


Lisa and I talked about how handwashing kept coming up in previous toilet workshops with children – but that it felt quite ‘adult’ imposed. We all agreed that we might have had different stories told in our workshops in schools if staff weren’t present (so children didn’t feel that they had to say the ‘right’ thing). Interestingly, when we ran the same workshop in a coffee shop with children, hand washing wasn’t a part of any of the stories told!

There was a conversation about whether children learn that hands should be washed as a social etiquette thing (e.g. in public toilets and in schools), and that children might not bother at home.

We discussed the ways that children are taught about hygiene. Amy mentioned a nursery rhyme/video that showed different types of germs as different colours. If a child hadn’t washed their hands the TAs would say to them, ‘I can still see the red germs’ and they go and wash them off with soap.

Jane and Amy told us about scuba diver toys in a splash play area. If they got dirty children didn’t just rinse them in the water in the play area (which has bubbles and glitter in it), but take them to the toilet to wash properly in the toilet sink with soap, which they felt was reflective of the importance children attach to these toys.


There was an idea that the toilets may become gendered as the children get older because of fear of sexualisation/toilets can be perceived as a sexual space.

The toilet cubicles for small children are often low in order to allow adult surveillance, but there were issues of privacy here, especially for the girls (and particularly privacy from adults).

Discussion that as adults we also want privacy when using the toilet – but that this is about cultural/social norms/what you are used to and see as ‘normal’.

We talked about the idea of poo and wee being visible – young children want to show adults when they’re had a wee or poo in the potty, but we learn to become ashamed of it later in life.

There was a discussion of whether the pupils ever kiss in the toilets as they are private spaces.

Roles of teacher/TA/cleaners

Whose role is it to clean up the toilets was a big issue in the early years classroom.

Cleaners didn’t want to clean up poo on the wall of the toilet, and there were question marks over whose job this should be. Rainbow House has developed a practice where there are ‘kits’ to allow TAs to clean it up straight away. However, there were also some issues over whether the job of cleaning toilets, and helping children to go to the toilet should always be the job of the TA. Amy said that if you work with 5 year olds, and it was only you helping the children use the toilet, you’d be doing that all day! The consensus was that it should be split between TAs and teachers, but the teachers don’t always like that.

We left with the thought that if we don’t like toilet related jobs, should the person doing them be paid the most money?

The final comment of the day was that Amy, Jane and the others at Rainbow Forge didn’t get enough time to talk about toilets. We very much hope that we’ll be doing more work with them in the future!

Drawings of the closing event

Here are the latest drawings from Smizz, who sketched out the discussions taking place at our closing event, Re-Imagining Toilets, on Friday 27th November. Thanks Smizz!

(Click on the image to view it larger)

Re-Imagining Toilets: An event summary

At the closing event for the Around the Toilet project, we celebrated the provocative, visual and artistic creations produced in our research workshops over the last seven months. The exhibition space provided by Z-arts in Manchester gave us plenty of room to display the ‘Toilet Stories’ comics created by children at a local Primary School, toilet drawings and postcards by Smizz, the alternative toilet symbols created by members of Venture Arts, and the incredible installation game designed and built by MA Architecture students at the University of Sheffield as part of the Live Projects programme. In a separate workshop area, creativity continued to flow on the day thanks to resident artists who helped us to stencil political toilet slogans and designs onto t-shirts and tote bags. A cinema room also offered people attending the event the opportunity to watch a range of activist, artistic and Hollywood depictions of toilets.

Final event pic 2

[Three images: L-R: T-shirts printed with toilet slogans; Venture Arts alternative toilet signs; the toilet installation game. Photos courtesy Eleanor Lisney, Jana Kennedy and Niki Sole.

Activists, campaigners, academics, architects, and others with an interest in toilets, space and access, assembled at our ‘Re-Imagining Toilets’ event on 27th November to continue the conversations that the Around the Toilet project – and many campaigners and academics before us – have been having around the safety and accessibility of public toilets. In particular, but not exclusively, the event considered provisions for queer, trans and disabled people. Dr Jenny Slater, Principal Investigator on the project, introduced the day by reflecting on the social perceptions of toilets, toilet research and campaigns around access. Slater notes that despite toilets playing a fundamental role in all of our lives, the Yorkshire Post recently dropped an article they had invited Around the Toilet researchers to write to mark World Toilet Day. The article was unsuitable, the Yorkshire Post claimed, because it was believed to focus too much on ‘minority issues’. Slater argued that not only were the Yorkshire Post wrong to think that toilet issues were applicable to an insignificant number of us (in fact, we all use toilets), but also that ‘minority issues’ shouldn’t be addressed in their paper.

The speakers joining Slater on the panel had also played key roles on the project. Like Slater, they reflected on how toilets are crucial yet mundane parts of our everyday lives. Dr Emily Cuming, Co-Investigator on the project, considered how toilets are both materially and socially forged, ‘hooked up’ through plumbing and mechanics, but also understood and used as part of a wider public, cultural space. There is nothing natural or given about the categorisations our bodies acquire through toilets, adds Cuming; toilet designs, location and labels are always ideologically loaded. Disability equality trainer, Gemma Nash, spoke about disabled parents’ use of toilets, noting the stigma and moral judgements which place them under greater scrutiny regarding their ability to care for their children. Nash argues that this can unfortunately lead to disabled parents doubting themselves. Communal baby changing spaces may work well for some, Nash adds, but due to the judgement many disabled parents face, shared spaces may feel intimidating or uncomfortable for others.

Final event pic 4

[Three images: L-R: The ‘Toilet stories’ comics; ‘The only good tory is a lavatory’ t-shirt; Smizz’s drawings of the event. Photos courtesy of Action for Trans Health, Jenny Slater and Eleanor Lisney.]

Morag Rose, co-founder of the Loiterers Resistance Movement, discussed how the power structures of our built environment need to be incorporated into our consideration of toilets. She pointed to the rich social history of public toilets, reflecting on whose bodies and identities have been considered in their planning, and the often unexplored boundaries of public/private space. Jess Bradley, Action for Trans* Health Trustee, was the final speaker in the first session. She argued that that by labelling toilets as ‘male’ and ‘female’, we assume that these two categories are the only ones available. Toilets do not only reflect how society understands gender, Bradley comments, toilets produce our ideas about gender. However, things are changing. Bradley notes that gender neutral toilets are becoming increasingly commonplace, and are very often incorporated into building designs without controversy. We do, after all, use a gender neutral toilet every day in our own homes.

Following a refreshment break, the next panel addressed the importance of architects’ perspectives on toilets. Dr Lisa Procter, Co-Investigator on the Around the Toilet project, illustrated how the historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man had been used to design toilet facilities and that these measurements were taken to be a universal standard. Whilst approaches to design have changed, toilets still fail to adequately reflect the diversity of their users. Procter provided many visual examples of the aesthetic potential of toilets. In some cases, toilets are not simply hidden away, but incorporated into the design of the city as their own feature; toilets as public art. Following Procter, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, MA Architecture students at the University of Sheffield, talked about their roles on the Live Projects toilet team. A group of eleven students spent six weeks designing various tools for disseminating and exhibiting our research findings. One of the key outputs from the Live Projects group was the installation game on display in our gallery on the day. Sehmbi and Sole discussed the design process behind the installation, reflecting on some of the challenges of their brief – especially the size limitations, given that the disassembled installation needed to fit inside the boot of Slater’s car. Both Sole and Sehmbi emphasised how participating in the project had transformed their understanding of toilets and the design and planning processes involved in accommodating access requirements.

Final event pic 3

[Three images: Photos of some of the outputs produced by the MA Artichecture students. L-R: Toilet roll with Smizz cartoon drawings; Installation game; Toilet twitter handbook. Photos courtesy of Y Mu.]

Our final panel of the day brought together members of the Loiterers Resistance Movement, Action for Trans* Health, Queer of the Unknown, Truckers’ Toilets UK, the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, Changing Places, Accessible Derbyshire, and the MA Architecture Live Projects programme. It was inspiring to hear so many voices dedicated to putting toilets on the political agenda. We discussed the ways forward for toilet activism, practice and research; covering a wide range of topics including: the closure of public toilets, the re-labelling of toilets to include a gender neutral option, the use of direct action in response to accessible toilets used as storage cupboards, the lack of consideration given to Changing Places toilets when training architects, on-street urinals and gender socialisation, school toilets, menstruation and learning disabilities, and the radical potential of toilet protests. Many of these discussions were framed within a broader context of austerity and welfare cuts. Morag Rose argued that if the city is presenting itself as open 24 hours then its toilets, too, need to be available at all times. Similarly, Jess Bradley reminded us that toilets need to be included in anti-austerity campaigning, just as a critical perspective on cuts and privatisation needs to be incorporated into our discussion of toilets.

After a delicious vegetarian buffet, a performance from Queer of the Unknown brought the event to a close. Jess Bradley and Loz Webb staged their piece within the toilet installation, using the copper pipe arches to create the public cubicle stalls in which their performance was set. The piece drew on a range of performance practices, including dance, poetry, movement, and even some (well-received!) audience participation. They encouraged us to think about many of the themes of the day; access, safety, transgression, policing and solidarity. Scene-by-scene, Queer of the Unknown negotiated an artful balance between funny, political and poignant; proving all three are possible at once.

Final event pic

[Image: Queer of the Unknown performing. Two people: one sitting within the toilet installation and one standing, reading form a piece of paper. Blue lights overhead and the audience sitting at the front. Photo courtesy of Steve Graby.]

Thank you to everyone who attended Re-Imagining Toilets, or has contributed to the project over the last few months. Hopefully this won’t be the last you hear from us…

(A storify of the event is also available to view here).

Latest Toilet Drawings

This is the latest contribution from Smizz, our incredible artist who has been ‘live drawing’ some of the Around the Toilet workshops. This was drawn in response to the discussions we had at our Making/Creating workshop, which was led by Nicky from The Bower Wirks earlier this year. These drawings will be turned into postcards, just like the previous ones, and will be available for free at our final public event on Friday 27th November.

Hope to see you there!

[Image: Lots of small, colourful cartoon drawings of people doings things, including using toilets, alongside captions and questions about toilet embarrassment and discomfort.]

(Click on the image to view it bigger!)

Toilet Installation – Public Presentation this Friday!

If you’re based in Sheffield and fancy a sneak peek of our toilet installation then join us this Friday 6th November at 4pm at Moor Theatre Delicatessen. Masters students in the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield, have spent the last six weeks designing and creating the installation as part of the Live Projects initiative, using a toilet brief we outlined based on the findings of the Around the Toilet research.

Since May this year, the Around the Toilet project has been exploring toilet politics through interactive workshops, discussion sessions, and speaker events. We asked our Live Projects team to produce a durable creation of some kind; something which will ideally be used in the future by queer, trans and disabled people to campaign around issues of toilets and access. After this Friday, the toilet installation will have its official unveiling on Friday 27th November at our final public event, Re-Imagining Toilets: Adventures into the Design of the Public Loo at Z-arts in Manchester. More information about the final event (including registration and accessibility) can be found here.

Everyone is welcome to join us at the Master students’ public presentation this Friday at 4pm!

(Access info: The venue for the event this Friday, Moor Theatre Delicatessen, is in central Sheffield. It has three short steps at the entrance and a temporary ramp. The event will be held on the ground floor level. There are gender netural and accessible toilets. A photo of the venue is below.)

Pissed off with Toilets?

Are you a committed toilet activist trying to make the loo a better place? Or someone who’s angry about the politics of toilets and fed up of struggling to piss in peace? Maybe you haven’t got active in campaigning yet, but it’s only a matter of time? Would you like to meet others who want to revolutionise our toilet spaces too?

The Around the Toilet project has grown out of an activist history led predominantly by trans people, disabled campaigners and feminists, who have been arguing for greater toilet access for years. We know we’re not the only ones who are fighting this battle, so we would love others with similar political goals to attend our final event on Friday 27th November in Z-arts in Manchester. The event is free to attend but registration is recommended. There are limited funds to cover travel and/or childcare. Please get in touch with if this would be useful to you. More information available here.

Please spread the word with anyone who shares our aims for better toilets for everyone, let’s do this together!

toilet logo

Re-Imagining Toilets: End of Project Event

We are excited to invite you to join us for the final event of the Around the Toilet project, Re-Imagining Toilets: Adventures into the Design of the Public Loo, on Friday 27th November at Z-arts in Manchester.

Re-imagining Toilets is a FREE event marking the end of the Around the Toilet project. Over summer we’ve invited queer, trans and disabled people to explore what makes a safe and accessible toilet space. Based on the stories, performances and artefacts created at our workshops, this event launches some of the exciting results of the project, including a toilet-themed game/installation designed and made by a team of Masters Architecture Students as part of the Sheffield School of Architecture ‘Live Project’.

The Re-imagining Toilets event will also include talks from the project team and organisations involved, t-shirt making, an evening performance from Queer of the Unknown, and a free light vegetarian evening meal. The event will run from 2.30pm-8pm but you are free to drop-in and leave at your convenience. The event is free to attend but please reserve a place via the Z-Arts venue website here.

If you’re an architect, city planner or designer, a trans, queer and/or disabled person, have been involved in a toilet campaign, or are just interested in the project, then sign up to come along.

Programme for the day
2:30pm: Arrival
2:45pm: Session 1: Around the Toilet: Project Round-up (60 mins)
4.15pm: Session 2: Architects’ Perspectives (30 mins)
5.15pm: Session 3: Panel – Ways Forward in Toilet Activism, Practice and Research (45 mins)
6.00pm: Light evening meal (vegetarian) (60 mins)
7.00pm: Queer of the Unknown performance (60 mins)

T-shirt printing and toilet films running all afternoon, and a quiet room available all day.

Click here to view a timetable for the day, and click here to view our Facebook event to save the date in your calendar. We would also appreciate support in sharing and circulating the event amongst your friends, colleagues and any interested/relevant networks.

Access information

– More information on getting to the venue here.

– There are limited funds to cover travel and/or childcare. Please get in touch if this would be useful to you.

– A light vegetarian evening meal will be provided. Please let us know if you have any specific dietary requirements.

– Children are welcome to join us for the afternoon and food. We will not be monitoring attendance to the evening performance but it may contain strong language and sexual references.

– There is step free access to the building and all rooms are on the ground floor.

– A quiet room will be provided.

– There is on-street parking around the building.

– BSL interpretation will be provided.

– There will be more information on the programme coming soon, but get in touch if you want more information about any of the activities.

– We endeavour to make this event as accessible as possible. Please let us know if you have any more access questions or requirements.

Toilet Activism Postcards

Action for Trans* Health, one of the community groups collaborating with us on the Around the Toilet project, are offering you the opportunity to get your hands on some amazing postcards for all your toilet-campaigning needs. As well as making use of them for campaign material, you could also use the postcards as teaching resources, wall decorations or notes for your friends – their uses are limitless! Although toilet activism is especially encouraged!

We produced the cards using the excellent illustrations that Smizz, our graphic artist, sketched at one of our workshops. In exchange for these postcards, Action for Trans* Health are asking for donations. They’re a great organization doing lots of really important work, including providing cash grants to facilitate trans* and intersex individuals’ access to healthcare. Please consider sending some money their way.

Click here for more ideas of how you can use the postcards and details of how you can make your order now! Don’t delay…

Toilet revolution

[Image: One of the postcards available. An image of the planet Earth with a toilet above it, which says ‘THE TOILET REVOLUTION!’]

– Written by Charlotte Jones, Research Assistant on the Around the Toilet project

Making Space for Intimate Citizenship – Presenting findings from the project so far

Next week Jenny Slater (Jen) will be travelling to Toronto to take part in three days of workshops called, Making Space for Intimate Citizenship. You can find out more about the workshops, here, including a great easy read summary, and loads of other great resources. You can also follow what’s going on using #makingspace

Jen will be presenting some of the findings so far from the Around the Toilet project. She has 2 minutes to present, and for the rest of the time she will be learning from other academics (who also have 2 minutes )to present!), and workshops run by people with labels of learning difficulty. Jen is going to use some of the Tweets from the project so far to do her 2 minute talk.

You can see a (not yet short enough!) version of Jen’s talk here, which was made using Storify. Feel free to share it about!

Jen will report back from the workshops on her return!

Making/Creating Workshop Summary

On Tuesday 11th August, we held our final toilet workshop of the project; a creative exploration into toilet awkwardness, comfort and safety using recycled art materials and our wild imaginations.

Nicky, an artist at The Bower Wirks, delved into our experiences of toilets in an innovative fashion; starting the workshop by asking us to sit in a circle of chairs and imagine how we’d feel if the chairs were toilets. As we sat, looking each other in the eye and shifting uncomfortably on our imagined toilet seats, we discussed what it was about being visible and audible on the toilet that made us feel so awkward.

Nicky asked what we could do to make our circle of inward-facing toilets even more uncomfortable. We suggested that the toilets could be transparent so that all excretions would be on full view to others; there could be a technology which recorded the noises made by participants on the toilet and then played them back afterwards, and those noises could be accompanied by a screen which broadcasts an image of the individual who made the noise in the first place; there could be a full audience surrounding the toilet-users; we could be sitting in a circle so small that all our knees were touching; and we could be expected to pull Christmas crackers during our toilet act. Despite many of us finding toilets uncomfortable, awkward and unsafe already, we had many ideas of how they could be even worse.

We were then encouraged to work with masses of corrugated cardboard, lace, various kinds of fabric, colouring pens, paper, wooden pegs, lengths of bamboo and many other materials in a creative adventure to find our ideal toilet; one which didn’t present any of those feelings of awkwardness, exclusion, fear or discomfort. Features in our public toilet utopia included huge amounts of space; walls which were inviting to be written upon; a television; a flap to allow goats to visit; a foot spa; a view of the sea and the stars; a Tory-exclusion policy; a cross-word; a sign to stop the policing of toilets; no cost to use; a hoist; a chair for children; and a shelf for colostomy bags or other things.

There were so many ways in which we felt toilets could be improved. We reflected on just how unimaginative most toilets spaces can be, especially accessible toilets, which tend to emphasise functionality and give no extra consideration to relaxation, comfort, pleasure and aesthetic. Nicky asked us to think about the range of ways toilets could be used in our toilet utopia and reminded us just how limiting and regulative current toilet-use tends to be. Our art materials filled the space at Z-arts with an incredible maze of card, colour and toilet politics – a vision of what could be possible in a better future! Thank you, Nicky, for helping us to unleash our imaginations!

And a huge thank you to everyone who has attended any of the Around the Toilet workshops over the past few months.

The next part of the project will be an exciting collaboration with the Master’s students at the Sheffield School of Architecture. In September we’ll be meeting the students to discuss the outcomes of our workshops and they’ll start work on a public installation to get other people thinking about toilets as well. Keep an eye on the blog and twitter account for further updates!

– Written by Charlotte Jones, Research Assistant on the Around the Toilet project