Playing with happiness: Biopolitics, childhood and representations of play

Sue Okerson SALTMARSH, I-Fang LEE

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review


Play is a central discourse in policy and practice pertaining to young children's learning, development and well-being in many countries around the world. Dominant ways of understanding and advocating for play often construct universalising notions of children and childhood, overlooking that play is always-already culturally situated and ideologically inflected. In play discourse, happiness is constituted as an unproblematised condition, goal and outcome of children's play, and as an antidote to contemporary childhoods burdened by geopolitical, social and environmental issues. In this article, the authors analyse images of children at play in curriculum frameworks, documents and reports, exploring the ways that happiness consistently features as a largely unspoken/unwritten expectation and rationale for policies and policy advocacy concerning play in early childhood. Informed by post-structural theories of biopolitical power, everyday practices and the cultural politics of emotion, and utilising analytical techniques from social semiotics and discourse analysis, the authors argue that visual representations in the documents analysed depict play and happiness as co-implicated. They contend that these representations function in the production of play discourses that both assume and obligate children and childhood to happiness. They interrogate play in these terms, critiquing discursive tropes that are contingent on the co-implication of play and happiness with biopolitical subjectification in order to consider the relevance and utility of play as a policy and pedagogical export to diverse parts of the world. Copyright © 2021 The Author(s).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)296-311
JournalContemporary Issues in Early Childhood
Issue number4
Early online dateNov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2021


Saltmarsh, S., & Lee, I.-F. (2021). Playing with happiness: Biopolitics, childhood and representations of play. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 22(4), 296-311. doi: 10.1177/14639491211046958


  • Biopolitics
  • Childhood
  • Early childhood education
  • Happiness
  • Play


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