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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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!