The research presented in this article focuses on the multitude of relationships that occur in an early childhood educational environment. The research explores and discusses how children between the ages of three and five and their educators perceive and visually and verbally narrate the indoor environment of six early childhood education settings.

Early childhood education, or what is generally called preschool education in Sweden, is available for children from the ages of one to five. Although it is not compulsory, 85% of children between these ages attend.Footnote 1 Even though the curriculum (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2018) governs the Swedish preschool, there is no guidance in it about how to design or organise the educational environment. The main guidance relating to the preschool’s physical environment refers to what the environment should invite the children to do, e.g., inspire play and stimulate their creativity, explorations and learning. In addition, educators in today’s preschools are free to design their own teaching (Garvis et al., 2018), which means that they can organise the educational environments in different ways to suit their teaching (Magnusson & Bäckman, 2022).

A general prerequisite and starting point in the presented study is that education takes place in an institutionalised environment that is specifically designed for that purpose, and that the design plays a fundamental role in how the pedagogical and educational processes take shape (Eriksson-Bergström, 2013; Matthews & Lippman, 2020; Nordin-Hultman, 2004; Nordtømme, 2012, 2016; Westeberg, 2021). Moreover, the educational environment is seen as a dynamic place and as ‘an event or process’ (Page, 2020, p. 2) where placemaking occurs in social and material relationships. In this way, the place is understood as active and both the children and the educators in it ‘make place and learn place’ (Page, 2020, p. 3) simultaneously.

The data was generated by means of pedagogical walk-throughs (CoReD; de Laval et al., 2019) with the educators and camera tours (Clark, 2010; Magnusson, 2018) together with the children. The study aims to make aspects of sociomaterial assemblages (Fenwick et al., 2011) that seem important, interesting or troublesome for children and teachers in the educational environment visible. This will add to the somewhat limited research on the intersection between teachers’ and children’s perceptions, narrations and experiences of the indoor preschool environment. The questions guiding the study are: What kinds of things and materiality engage teachers and children in the indoor educational environment? Which sociomaterial assemblages are seen in the entangled intersection of human and non-human participants?

Mapping Some Aspects of the Field

The research presented here concerns the educators’ organisation of the educational environments in question and the children’s use of them.

In the early 2000s, Nordin-Hultman (2004) conducted a study comparing how children’s identity and subjectivity were formed in preschools in Sweden and England and highlighted the educational environment as a place in which these processes took place. According to her results, preschool children in Sweden had limited access to many things, often due to materials and objects being placed high up on shelves or in closed cupboards. The rooms were also ‘strongly classified and framed’ (p. 204), and the different Swedish preschools appeared to be homogeneous in their organisation of space and time. Nordin-Hultman (2004) also showed how Swedish preschools were organised into several small rooms, while in England preschools often consisted of one large classroom divided into several smaller activity areas. According to Garvis et al. (2018), several small spaces, as in the Swedish context, can offer different places for children to play and in that way contribute to good preschool quality. However, another and more problematic factor in the use of small rooms is highlighted by Lindberg et al. (2019). Their research shows that small, fixed spaces can become cluttered and noisy, lead to homogeneous play and a gender-homogeneous division of children in the educational environment. In contrast, rooms with flexible materials, rearrangeable furniture and movable walls can stimulate different types of play, create a greater freedom in play and make space for more hidden play.

Nordtømme (2012, 2016) suggests that the educational environment can provide opportunities for children’s experimentation and movement, both in terms of the architecture, the design of the rooms, the choice of materials, artefacts and location. In addition, these choices may significantly impact the type of activity that can be pursued and the kind of opportunities that children can be offered, such as moving their bodies and making their own choices, in these environments. For instance, whilst running or spontaneously dancing in the preschool, children may respond to the invitation of a long corridor, a soft carpet or a large empty room and together participate in the process of placemaking with the spatial design of a room or with the things and materiality in it (Hackett & Rautio, 2019; Rautio, 2013).

The educators who work in the preschools are responsible for creating an educational environment in which children, learning, care, play and adults can meet and interact. Lindberg et al. (2019) suggest that all spaces should contain flexible and firm materials that support and develop play and learning. When using a room in the here-and-now (Rautio, 2013), children’s bodies become part of how they belong to it (Magnusson & Åkerblom, 2022). In addition, by using their bodies children embody and experience a place whilst simultaneously communicating with the site (Nordtømme, 2012, 2016; Page, 2020). By walking, running, or dancing, children show their multimodal communication with the place and Hackett (2014) suggests that running and walking are part of children’s multimodal communication practices.

Katsiada and Roufidous’s (2020) research shows how a specific part of the environment, the floor, is of the utmost importance for the youngest children in the preschool. This is because the floor affords relationships at an appropriate height and is a space that ‘could be seen from different angles, such as standing, laying, crawling, and looking at it downwards or upwards’ (Katsiada & Roufidou, 2020, p. 1520). The floor thus becomes a space in which the youngest children can ‘do space’, as Nordtømme (2012, p. 319) describes the relationships of children, bodily movements, the material context and unknown and known places in the preschool environment.

The physical environment determines what can be done, who is allowed to do what, and the various aspects of spaciousness in the organisation of space and time in the educational practice can both regulate and invite children’s activities and engagement in play and learning (Eriksson-Bergström, 2013; Nordin-Hultman, 2004; Nordtømme, 2012, 2016; Westberg, 2021). Children can perceive and occupy a room differently than an educator. An educator can organise the educational environment for future-oriented learning, while children can use it as a here-and-now space (Rautio, 2013). Eriksson-Bergström (2013) highlights that the circumstances in which the affordances are offered are to a large extent dependent on how the preschool educators are ‘able to deviate from conformity and representation of rules and regulations to the benefit of concertedness’ (p.199). This could mean that the environment regulates the educators, but also that opportunities for change exist for both the educators and the children.

In the encounter between the children’s and the educators’ experiences of the educational environment, it is important to point out that children use and negotiate the environment and materials in ways other than the educators may have intended (Elm Fristorp, 2012; Eriksson-Bergström, 2013; Gitz-Johansen et al., 2001). In addition, children can question the design of a room when the educators are not there (Eriksson-Bergström, 2013). Although educators design the educational environment, children also create the spaces and the places they need and make them their own. For example, children may need rooms in which they can hide from the educators’ control, share secrets, or hide their play from the educators (Gitz-Johansen et al., 2001; Nordtømme, 2012, 2016). Children can, thereby, negotiate the use of existing places and sometimes create their own. In this way, the ‘places for children’ that have been organised by the educators can be turned into ‘children’s places’ by the children themselves (Rasmussen, 2004, pp.155–156). The research conducted by Magnusson (2018) and Magnusson and Åkerblom (2022) shows how preschool children, by having access to cameras as part of the everyday practice in the preschool, can transform ‘places for children’ into ‘children’s places’. In this process, how the educational environment is organised and governed is under negotiation.

Methodological Approach and Ethics

The study is a multiple case study (Cohen et al., 2018) involving three Swedish municipalities (two preschools in each municipality) and the indoor environment of six early childhood settings. In this study, 23 adults (principals and preschool teachers) and 28 children, aged between three and five years, participated. The financier selected the participants. The selection is related to the fact that all the participating municipalities are currently building new preschools and that the participating preschools are in the process of moving into them.

The data production started with informal visits during which the researchers were introduced to the educational environment and introduced themselves to the children and the educators at each preschool. Pedagogical walk-throughs (CoReD; de Laval et al., 2019) were then used to generate data with the principals and the preschool educators and camera tours (Clark, 2010; Magnusson, 2018) were used with the children. The research underwent ethical review and was approved by the Swedish ethics board. In addition, the principals, educators and children’s guardians agreed to participate in the study. However, with regard to the children’s participation, the researchers asked the children for permission to follow what they did during the camera tours. Children’s willingness to participate in research is something of a balancing act. In this study, all the data relating to the children making it clear that they did not want us (researchers) to accompany them on their camera tours has been excluded. All the participants have been given pseudonyms to ensure their anonymity.

Pedagogical Walk-Throughs with the Educators

Pedagogical walk-throughs (CoReD; de Laval et al., 2019) are an inductive method that has been developed in order to map, examine, and review the weaknesses and strengths in an educational environment. In this study, the pedagogical walk-throughs were carried out as follows: a group of two-four participants (preschool educators and principal) walked around a preschool department with the researchers. The group pre-selected three rooms in the department that they wanted to take a closer look at. In all the locations visited, the participants made notes on a notepad based on the following questions: Activities—what can you do here? What is positive—what kind of opportunities are there? What is negative—what are the limitations? What kind of improvements can be made?

In our case, the researcher leading the tour took photographs and recorded the conversations at each location when the participants described their thoughts about the room/location based on the notes they had made. These conversations were then transcribed word for word. Each of the six pedagogical walk-throughs in the three rooms took between 45 and 70 min.

Camera Tours with the Children

A camera tour using digital cameras is a visualising, place-active and place-activating method, in that it allows children to look critically at various aspects in the environment (Clark, 2010; Magnusson, 2018).

The camera tours with the participating children were carried out as follows: A group of two to four children, a preschool educator, and the researchers gathered in one of the rooms in each preschool. The researcher then invited the children to use digital cameras to photograph the educational environment. They said that they were curious about what the children did in their preschool and where they played. Their use of the cameras was guided by all or some of the following questions: Can you photograph a place that you usually play in here at the preschoolCan you photograph the things that you enjoy playing with? Can you photograph something that you find interesting and like here at the preschool? Can you photograph a place in the preschool that you find boring and where you do not usually play?

The children chose where to go on their tour and how to use the digital camera. The researcher recorded the conversations with the children using the same recording equipment as in the walk-throughs with the educators and photographed the events that took place. The recorded data from the camera tours with the children was not transcribed. Each camera tour lasted between 30 and 60 min.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical and analytical prerequisites of the research presented here are rooted in a sociomaterial (Fenwick et al., 2011) and new materialistic landscape (Barad, 2007; Page, 2020). We use different theorists to follow and discuss the children’s and the educators’ visual and verbal perceptions of the entangled relationships in-between them, the educational environment, things, and materiality.

Moving in a sociomaterial and new materialistic landscape as a researcher has many advantages in research concerning younger children. For example, the theoretical premise loosens the question of where knowledge is created and how it is created, thus intertwining ontology and epistemology (Barad, 2007; Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). In addition, moving in this theoretical landscape helps to focus on what is said (i.e., written or spoken language) and on other ways of expressing opinions, experiences, thoughts, ideas and relationships. This broad focus on what is described in the ongoing relationships is important in this study, in that the data that forms the basis for the analysis not only consists of verbal dialogues but also of bodily actions (laughter, dancing, jumping, hiding, running, photographing etc.) and tangible things (toys, carpets, paper, camera, photographs etc).

The Sociomaterial, New Materialism and Assemblages

Fenwick et al. (2011) argue that a sociomaterial approach offers educational research resources to follow the unpredictable, rather than already defined categories or knowledge. By following sociomaterial assemblages (Fenwick et al., 2011), the educational environment’s materiality and spatial design are understood as part of the educational practice together with the children and the educators. For example, a wall, a child, and their access to a toy or materiality are entangled in the sociomaterial assemblages, which is understood as an entanglement of experiences, spatial conditions, educators, children, bodily movement, feelings, ideas and materiality. In the assemblage, place is created in the everyday sociomaterial practice, and the sense of a place is based on entangled human and non-human perceptions and experiences (Page, 2020). Hence, the assemblage is seen as an entangled joining, a ‘process of making and unmaking’ (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 1). By following a new materialistic landscape, humans and non-humans play a vital role in entangled processes (Barad, 2007) in that the social and material are connected. The materiality found in early childhood education can consist of spatial conditions, things, drawings, paint, toys, the corner of a room, a table, or a carpet. The concept of materiality also includes bodily movement and laughter and does not just pertain to tangible things, but also to the social, relational and cultural meanings that are activated jointly (Barad, 2007; Magnusson, 2021; Nordtømme, 2016). In this way, things and materiality become part of the cultural, relational, and social intra-actions (Barad, 2007) in early childhood settings.

Following this argumentation, humans and non-humans are seen as agents in the entangled processes of ongoing intra-actions. Whereas intra-action is an ongoing event, ‘an enactment, not something that someone or something has’ (Barad, 2007, p.178). In this way, different intra-actions occur depending on where and how one looks at the ongoing relationships in the world and where the cuts (sections of events) are made (Barad, 2007). Therefore, materiality and humans are not fixed and a sociomaterial assemblage is not static (Fenwick et al., 2011; Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). By analysing the intra-actions in-between humans and non-humans using diffractive readings (Barad, 2007, 2014), the different cuts are connected by the diffractive readings and contribute to making the sociomaterial assemblages visible.

The Analytical Approach

We use diffractive readings to highlight the entangled connections and the intra-acting agency (Barad, 2007, 2014; Magnusson, 2021) of humans and non-humans in the sociomaterial assemblages. Diffractive readings focus on relationships and entanglements, rather than firm representations of reality. Diffractive readings are thereby an excellent analytical tool in that they facilitate the tracing of difference rather than any preconceived notions of reality (Barad, 2007).

Diffraction is a scientific phenomenon that occurs when, for example, water or light collide against or pass by or through an obstacle. The waves of water that collide with an obstacle will bend and overlap each other, thereby creating new patterns that also carry what was before (but in new ways). Diffractive readings can be used as a metaphor to search for and understand differences, and to connect different types of data when analysing and re-analysing events, and to see more complex understandings of the entanglements of the world (Barad, 2007, 2014; Magnusson, 2021). In the analytical work, we make agential cuts in the data set and connect them with other cuts that touch on different events and intra-actions (Barad, 2007, 2014). The cuts are then read through each other to make the differences and similarities in the children’s and educators’ narrated perceptions of the indoor educational environment visible, which means that we can follow human and non-human relationships as sociomaterial assemblages.

Some events in the data started to ‘glimmer’ (MacLure, 2010, p. 282) during the data production in the six preschools. These glimmering aspects of the sociomaterial assemblages were seen in the ongoing verbalising and visualising of the events. These events triggered the analytical work, and they also encouraged the researchers to return to the data repeatedly to identify what was not glimmering at the first site and what was disguised or not seen in the first encounter with the data (e.g., Magnusson, 2021). This way of moving back and forth with the data made new events and narrations glimmer. However, the movements also troubled the idea of a given or fixed understanding of the relationship in-between humans and non-humans in the educational environment and, in that sense, revealed new aspects of the sociomaterial assemblages.

Sociomaterial Assemblages—Some Findings

Moving back and forth whilst following the data in the analytical process of using diffractive readings made new cuts (Barad, 2014) visible in the exploration and examination of the questions: What kinds of things and materiality engage the educators and the children in the indoor educational environment? Which sociomaterial assemblages are seen in the entangled intersection of human and non-human participation?

During the analytical work, the carpets took part in and constructed a carpet-child-educator-assemblage. Intra-actions with carpets can be identified in the data from most of the six preschools. The carpet events glimmered (MacLure, 2010) during the data production and when returning to the data later.

The Blue Carpet—A Placemaking Materiality

At a general level, the participating children engaged with the cameras in different ways, e.g., someone immediately started photographing on their own without the researchers, educators, and the other children; someone else asked for help to turn the camera on or asked an educator or a peer to follow the camera tour. Some children went back and forth between the researcher and the educational environment, while others chose to walk around and create ways of seeing, making seen, and taking photographs based on one or two questions asked by the researchers. A few children frequently returned to the educators to show the photographs on the camera’s display, whereas others stayed together, talking, laughing, and photographing, followed by the researcher or an educator. However, in one of the preschools (municipality 2), when five-year-old Noah walked around with a digital camera. he was relatively consistent in his choice of places and motifs to photograph and engaged more actively in two of the prompts from the researcher: a place where you usually play and things you enjoy playing with.

Noah did not talk much about the photographs he took, but moved through several of the many rooms in his department and engaged fully in depicting and seeing his surroundings with the camera. Noah returned to one particular part of the department—the corner of one of the larger rooms—and stayed there for a very long time. In this room, low shelves created the feeling of several smaller activity areas and was described as a room-in-a-room by the educators Maria and Daniel. In the corner that was of particular interest for Noah, there was a large, soft, blue, circular carpet on the floor. Noah sat down on the carpet and repeatedly moved one of his hands back and forth over the carpet’s soft blue pile. He held the camera in his other hand and directed the lens towards the blue surface and then to a large board with geometrically shaped magnets on it. Noah and the camera looked as though they sank into the carpet. The soft pile of the carpet, the camera and Noah seemed to become one in the ongoing intra-acting.

When following the educators in Noah’s department, the soft blue carpet and the magnetic board were not mentioned or highlighted during the pedagogical walk-throughs. However, following a direct question from one of the researchers during the walk-throughs the educator Maria described the place as ‘a place in which to wait’. When the researcher asked yet another question about what kind of waiting took place there, Maria clarified that it was a place for rest after eating and waiting for peers who were still having their lunch. She added that ‘a carpet is good because it picks up sound’ and sometimes ‘there is a lot of noise’ in the room.

One of the other educators, Daniel, who took part in the walk-throughs with Maria, overheard this conversation. After finishing the joint walk, he thought that the carpet was more than just aplace for waiting. Daniel argued, with emphasis, that some of the children seemed to enjoy engaging with the carpet while whispering, hugging, laughing, or holding hands and waiting for their peers to finish their lunch. He concluded that ‘it is a place for waiting’, but not waiting ‘as in passive waiting, but instead seems to be an activated, creative, intense, relational waiting while coming together in the moment with the carpet and with peer-relations. Later, Daniel, inspired by Noah’s bodily and photographic intra-action with the carpet, engaged with the soft blue carpet himself. He sat on the carpet in exactly the same spot as Noah had done and felt the soft blue pile with his hands. Daniel then exclaimed that he understood why Noah liked this place: 'it is like a room of its own’.

Carpet Assemblage as Trouble, Extra Work and a Place Changer

Some of the sociomaterial assemblages, including carpets and the ongoing intra-actions in the carpet events in the data, involved conflicts and extra work for the educators. For example, during a walk in one of the preschools (municipality 1), a principal declared that his preschool had acquired and bought all the carpets seen on the floors in the department contrary to the municipality’s rules. The rules state that cleaners do not clean carpets: they neither vacuum-clean them nor lift them up to vacuum underneath. These rules caused extra work for the educators because they were obliged to do the cleaning themselves. Despite this, the principal argued that carpets were essential in the educational environment because they created a place for children’s play at the floor level that also acted as insulation in the winter months. The principal also added that the carpets were selected to signal inclusion and make the children belong, in that they were designed with the faces of children of different ethnicities. On one of the carpets, the children’s faces made a frame around a world map, while on others, animals from different continents framed a symbolic map of the world (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

This is where I like to play. Photograph taken by one of the children

Apart from the fact that the educators had to clean the carpets both on top and underneath, the carpets contributed to the everyday educational activities in many ways. When conducting a walk-through in one of the preschools (municipality 1), an educator, Loretta, expressed that a carpet could change how the children used a place or part of a room. She said:‘When we put the carpet [on the floor] it became a calm place where the children wanted to sit and play. Before that there was an empty floor where no-one wanted to sit. It wasn’t interesting at all.’ (see Fig. 1).

Loretta elaborated on her comment during the walk-through by saying that the carpet changed how the children used and populated this part of the educational environment and emphasised that they seemed to enjoy being there. She also said that a ‘carpet is inviting’ ‘when you sit on it and put things on it’ for play or teaching activities. Loretta concluded that the carpet was a ‘democratic area’. The same carpet was verbally and visually described by one of the children, Emma, who proudly said, ‘This is where I like to play’ while pointing at the carpet and the DUPLO seen in the camera display (see Fig. 1).

In another preschool (municipality 2), a child photographed a carpet whilst talking about play and peers. She said: ‘[…] we pretend that this is the whole world when we play’ (see Fig. 2). At yet another preschool (municipality 3), one of the educators expressed that a carpet could be the best place for monitoring and controlling activities in the educational environment. She said: ‘It is also an excellent place for keeping an eye on the rest of the department. If you are in the middle of the carpet when the children are playing you have good overall control.’

Fig. 2
figure 2

The whole world. Photograph taken by one of the children

Carpets and Cameras for Creating joy and Disturbance and the Entangled Assemblage of the Hidden and the Restricted

Four-year-old Anna was one of the 28 children taking part in the study (municipality 1). She started her camera tour by verbally inviting her peer, John, to follow her. The researcher asked them if they could: ‘photograph a place that they liked to play in in the preschool and the things they enjoyed playing with?’.

At first the two children seemed to listen half-heartedly. Instead of following the researcher’s request, they engaged in intra-actions, such as examining and challenging the camera and its capabilities together with their gazes in an entangled process by following what they saw in the indoor environment on the digital camera’s display. A playful capacity of looking, capturing, and making the details visible in an entangled activity with the camera captured the two children’s interest. They followed the details in the display by verbalising and photographing what they saw: ‘Ah, the sofa! Look at this, your hair, the floor! Look—I took a picture. I can see your hair!’.

The children moved in and out of the different rooms with the digital cameras. One of the small rooms in Anna’s and John’s department was set aside for reading books, storytelling and what was expressed by the educators as ‘soft low-voiced activities’. The children also had to ask an educator for access to the room. A blue carpet framed with letters of the alphabet lay on the floor in this room, with soft pillows surrounding it, heavy curtains at the window, bookshelves on two of the walls, paintings on another and furniture around the carpet. Anna and John entered the room without asking anyone for permission. They invited a researcher to follow and verbally informed her about the usual policy of asking an educator for permission.

At first the children looked around, then their eyes, bodies, and voices seemed to engage with the carpet. Next, they started to move their bodies in a running circle dance whilst shouting: ‘jiiii, jiih, woho, whoo. They seemed to follow the power of the intra-acting force in-between the camera, the framing of the soft, dark blue, rectangular carpet with their feet in a swift and hasty movement while bodily becoming part of a camera-carpet-child-assemblage. The carpet’s rectangular form became a stage for an entangled process of dancing, photographing, running, shouting out loud, and laughing. Anna’s and John’s preschool was initially built as flats consisting of many small rooms; some were corridors and walk-through rooms due to three previous flats being connected. These walk-through rooms and corridors’encouraged’‘invited’, and ‘provoked’ the children to run in accordance with the educators’ descriptions during the pedagogical walk-throughs. Running was expressed as a ‘huge dilemma’ by more than one of the educators. However, at the same time, and as observed during the pedagogical walk-through, one of the small rooms designed for dance and movement in the department was a restricted room that the children were not allowed to visit without permission from an educator.

Similar examples, like that with Anna and John, show children engaged in ongoing intra-actions, not only with restricted places but also with the hidden things and materiality stored high up on shelves or behind closed or locked doors. This entanglement shows Nathan’s and Sonia’s photographic traces (municipality, 3) of shelves that are placed out of reach of the children, where the educators store beautiful or not-yet-known things, like blocks, puzzles, unique toys, paper, books, games and art materials. The two children opened the doors of closed cabinets so that the camera could engage with the content. Sonia pointed at a game, nodded and said: ‘I like to play.’ On the other hand, an educator at the same preschool pointed to the hidden or high-up storage of material and argued that such an organisation of things and materiality was both practical and self-evident.

However, during one of the pedagogical walk-throughs in yet another preschool (municipality1), and whilst making notes about the capacity of the room, its affordances, and limitations, the educators used their bodies to engage with the floor and the low chairs. One of the educators verbally argued that she was trying to connect with the material and relational affordances of the room and how children might experience them. When one of the educators was asked by one of the researchers why things and materiality were stored so high up, she looked around and said that the children should be able to access more materiality and that they ought to rearrange the room. The same question received the opposite answer during a pedagogical walk-through in one of the other municipalities (municipality 3), when the preschool educators argued that it would get messy otherwise and that young children found it difficult to choose.

During a camera tour, Mira (municipality, 1) acted in a similar way to Noah and the camera in the first of the carpet assemblages. This entangled camera-child visited every room in the department, followed the direction of the camera lens and visualised the surroundings in the display. At the end of the tour Mira returned to and remained in the preschool atelier (art room) for a long time. In the entangled process of looking, seeing and making in the atelier, things and materiality were captured in pictures (see Fig. 3) and simultaneously verbalised: ‘there are the big papers […] we use them…. Sometimes.I cannot reach! I can get a chair and then I can reach!’ The camera engaged with paint in bottles, rolls of what Mira described as ‘beautiful’ crepe paper, and pens in different colours stored on the high shelves. The child and the camera were engaged in viewing and photographing the otherwise hidden and stored out-of-reach materiality.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Paint bottles behind a closed door. Photograph taken by one of the children

Discussion and Some Concluding Thoughts

As indicated at the beginning of the article, the aim of the study has been to explore and discuss how children aged between three and five years and their educators perceived and visually and verbally narrated the indoor educational environment of early childhood education in Sweden. Informed by this, several entangled events in-between humans and non-humans and different ways of becoming within the sociomaterial assemblages of the educational environment have been identified. The sociomaterial assemblages show that materiality appears as an invitation, as democratic, as messy, as softness in a carpet, as the restrictedness of a room, and as laughter and dance. However, we also see things like hidden paint bottles, rarely used paper and desired games stored out of the children’s reach.

Children like John and Anna become place changers when their bodies and voices, in togetherness with their cameras, act in an otherwise low-voiced room in a here-and-now event (e.g., Rautio, 2013). With the bodily expressions of dancing, running, and shouting whilst enjoying the use of the spatial design of the restricted room, they not only contradict the educator’s standard framing of the room, but also contribute a renewed (and another) way of using the open carpet area. The children trouble the order of what Nordtømme (2012, 2016) and Eriksson-Bergström (2013) in their research describe as a strong classification of a room. Through the intra-actions in-between the children’s bodily activities and the camera’s communication within the room, the place is framed in new ways (e.g., Hacket & Rautio, 2019; Page, 2020) and turned into a children’s place (Rasmussen, 2004). The children and the cameras in the sociomaterial assemblage also enable the researchers and educators to understand how the right to move indoors is essential as a placemaking activity (Page, 2020) in the educational environment. Although the partaking educators find running around children to be a considerable dilemma, running and dancing seem to become how the children ‘do space’ (Nordtømme, 2012, p. 319). Here, dancing and shouting can be seen as an entangled process of becoming and belonging in the educational environment (e.g., Magnusson & Åkerblom, 2022). In addition, the children seem to need to be able to gain access to places where their teachers cannot see them (e.g., Gitz-Johansen et al., 2001). They not only open up to their interpretation of the quality of the room, but also to new possibilities beyond the educators’ planed framing of the room (e.g., Elm Fristorp, 2012; Nordtømme, 2012, 2016; Rautio, 2013).

The children’s and educators’ various and parallel ways of intra-acting (Barad, 2007) in the educational environment occur in different ways in the data. For example, during the pedagogical walk-throughs some of the educators verbally describe the hidden or high-up material storage as something that is obvious, rather than something that affects the play- and teaching activities in everyday educational practice. These educators’ straightforward ways of looking at the placement of games, things and materials is on a collision course with how many of the children in the three municipalities make things and materiality visual. The children’s gazes and the camera’s lens point and make the hidden and inaccessible visible. This is exemplified by following Mira and the camera in the atelier, the opening of doors, and the photographing of otherwise hidden, beautiful, and valuable materials stored high up.

Mira and the photographing capacity highlight that these materials make the atelier a meaningful, exciting, valued, and essential place for her. They constitute the placemaking materiality in the sociomaterial assemblage. This event is diffractively ‘cut-together-apart’ (Barad, 2014, p. 168) with how one of the educators, during a pedagogical walk-through draws attention to the fact that many things and materials are stored too high up (so that the children cannot reach them). For her, change is as possible as Mira visually and verbally expresses it. In this way, and regardless of each other, the children and the educators show that the capacity for change exists in the indoor educational environment.

The children and the digital cameras answer the questions posed by the researchers, and by doing this also show their embodied relations in the processes. Most of the participating children focus on the questions a place where you usually play and things you enjoy playing with. In this way, they highlight aspects of their access and right to use the things and materiality in the educational environment. Following the yearning eyes of the camera-child we find restricted areas and art materials stored high up as well as carpets as place changers. The children’s and the educators’ entangled relations with the carpet assemblage show how materiality framed in a certain way can become a placemaking materiality.

The carpet assemblage engages the educators and the children in contradictory ways, e.g., as a place where children ‘like to play’ and a place for controlling children’s play. As placemaking materiality, the carpet also becomes a place in which children can highlight a favourite place to play with significant play materials. According to one of the educators, the carpets are also democratic spaces for rest, waiting, and relationship building. She uses the same argument raised by Katsiada and Roufidou (2020) about the preschool floor and to everyone being able to see each other. At the same time, the carpets are part of a rebellion against municipal rules and contain the children’s entire play world. In addition, the carpets can protect against draughts during the winter and, at the same time, constitute a complex and child-attractive place for dynamic waiting, as in the case of Noah. When the educator Daniel follows the child Noah and the camera on their camera tour, he experiences and learns that the soft blue carpet is a particular room-within-a-room; a place in which children can enjoy being with friends and peers and a place for activated relational waiting. This waiting includes joy as part of the assemblage. Inspired by Noah, Daniel’s visit to the soft carpet and engaging pleasurably with it becomes an embodied and entangled experience in-between Daniel and the carpet in the educational environment. Noah thus draws attention to the fact that a carpet can be both a placemaking materiality and a place changer in the educational environment.

To conclude, the entangled movement of a camera-child does not direct their gaze towards the ‘strongly classified and framed’ (Nordin-Hultman, 2004, p. 204) in the educational environment. On the contrary, it seems as though the children visually and verbally narrate an educational environment that encourages experimentation, movement and new ways of accessing the place (e.g., Hackett, 2014; Nordtømme, 2012, 2016; Page, 2020). By following the sociomaterial assemblages in the data, the educators and the children can clearly outline the need for change. The participating children and some of the educators are open to another alternative, namely the yet-not-seen understanding, organisation and design of the indoor educational environment, which is made visible by following the placemaking materiality and materiality as a place changer.

The study's findings can be summarised as advice for educators who would like to develop the educational environment of early childhood educational settings. We recommend that educators: (a) examine the room in the context of the children's physical height and imagine what can be done and what can be accessed, (b) follow children’s actual use of the indoor environment rather than the educators’ already planned educational outcome, and (c) remember that children sometimes know more than adults about how a place should be organised to allow for the optimal use. Furthermore, changes that are determined by the children's own perspectives in the educational environment can result in the need for places for the children to run or hide from the educators' control, which could constitute a changed indoor educational environment in the preschool that benefits all users.