Splattering paint, embodying energies

At St Paul’s, we have been thinking about how to explode common conceptions of energy – literally. We have been working with paints and other materials to explore children’s embodied energies.

For one activity, we had a large sheet of paper, with different types of balls, which they could cover in paint and throw at the paper. The idea was to demonstrate the embodied energy of different balls – creating different ‘splats’, shapes, etcetera. They could also roll the balls.

For the second, there was again a large sheet of paper. We squeezed out blobs of paint, on top of which we placed cotton wool pads. The children could then hit the pads with plastic hammers to see how the paint splattered outwards under pressure. As Rautio (2014) writes in her account of doing research with a group of children, we did not provide much scaffolding for the task, wanting instead to allow for emerging intra-actions.

The children came in two groups. What was fascinating to us was to see how the two groups of children worked with each other, with us, with the paints, and with the other material objects we had provided, in rather different ways.

Group one came decked out in their red aprons, which were very clean. We didn’t say much about the first task, other than that they should cover the balls in paint and throw them at the paper. This group was very reticent, even though the nursery workers told us afterwards that they were the more boisterous and confident group. One of the boys only had a brief go at rolling the ball in the paint and then walked off. The other two children (a boy and a girl) played with the balls but not for very long. They were not particularly energetic in throwing the balls – staying seated, they dropped the balls, making only a very few splats of colour on the paper.

The second activity was more successful, but again this group was fairly calm. We only had two hammers (for three children) so quite a bit of time was spent ensuring that the children shared the hammer. Again they did not hit the cotton pads very hard. In fact, they seemed to gain most enjoyment from lifting the pads up and looking underneath, saying ‘woooohhhh’ loudly, and giggling, each time they lifted up the pads. They only made small splats and so didn’t expend that much bodily energy in the whole process. The end product of their play was a rather neat (and conservative) looking sheet of paper!

Group two came out and were immediately more engaged with the first task. In fact, they engaged deeply with the game, although one of the girls (there were two girls and one boy) was more hesitant and she and the boy seemed initially uncomfortable at getting their hands covered in paint. Soon, though – especially once they saw us and one of the nursery workers getting covered in paint, they were picking up the balls, rubbing in the paint, rubbing the balls on their hands, and then throwing the balls at the paper with increasing violence. Quickly, there was paint everywhere, with paint not only in large splatters on the paper, but up the sides of the tray, on our trousers, on their aprons, coats, faces and hands! The nursery teacher really encouraged the children to get messy, accidentally covering one of the girl’s faces in blue paint! As the task continued, the game became more and more energetic, with the children standing up to really see the effects of gravity on the size of the splatters. We then decided to put a huge pool of paint on the paper to see what would happened…one of the boys ‘helped’ us with this and probably put out far more of the deep red paint than we would have done, but had great fun squeezing it out. Then we dropped the balls into the paint, which went everywhere.

We then moved to the hammer task. Again, they got into this very quickly. The boy in particular hit the pads very hard, and the paint again splattered everywhere. They really got the sense that hitting the pads harder would create bigger splats. They also succeeded in mushing the pads into the paper so that we created a complicated, mixed up collage of paint, paper and cotton, which they further enjoyed massaging and mixing with their fingers and hands. The paint also splattered out onto the grass around the trays, leaving traces of orange, dark blue and red. The paint also travelled with our clothes, on the nursery teacher’s coat, and into the classroom, where it was washed down the sink, with small remnants remaining on the children’s hands and faces.

It was interesting to us that our time with the second group led to much more discussion. We had much more of a discussion with the children, than with Group 1, talking about their favourite colours and why the paint was splatting further when they hit it harder. There were also lots of games as we shared the paint – clapping hands together, moving fingers through paint, and seeing how the paint moved on the paper (and moved us to act in certain ways).

Our experiences made us reflect on why the second group were not only more active – in terms of the embodied energy they invested into and expended in the task – but also more verbose in verbalising their experiences. Or, rather, it made us attuned to the different kinds of utterances that accompany and articulate (with and as) bodily-material intra-actions. Group 1’s restrained ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ were different from but, we would argue, no less meaning-full than Group 2’s more easily ‘read-able’ reflections on what happened when the paint was hit harder.

We also place our reflections in the context of nearly two decades of nonrepresentational thinking in human geography and elsewhere. Contrary to some readings of these theories, they are not against representation or the rendering of the world open to formal cognitive processes. Rather, nonrepresentational theories seek to witness the multiple ways in which different registers of doing and feeling the world are assembled and disassembled – especially those that have been marginalised in social-scientific accounts that prioritise the practiced, discursive utterances of majority groups. Thus, in the context of our work, we want to think further about how working-with-paints gave rise to a range of emergent practices, affects and artefacts, which are both ‘representational’ and ‘nonrepresentational’ (if that duality can be taken seriously). We attend to the beaten cotton-wool balls, covered in paint; to the different pieces of paper, bearing traces of children’s embodied energies and their interactions with paint, which the nursery has placed on the walls as ‘artwork’; to the utterances and discussions during the activities; and to more, which we may have missed – perhaps children’s unspoken reflections on the feeling of hitting paints with hammers and the muscular efforts required to do so.

And: working with paints was a lot of fun.


Rautio, P., 2014. Mingling and imitating in producing spaces for knowing and being: Insights from a Finnish study of child–matter intra-action. Childhood, 21(4), pp.461-474.