The High Stakes of Thinking with Borders

Nicole Land thinking with Maria Wysocki, Selena Ha, Andrea Thomas, and Alicja Frankowski

I have been thinking about questions of what borders do. Recently in the sandbox we thought with large sheets of white paper, and about how these sheets of paper might help us to notice how we do and make borders (and why) in the sandbox. As we sat “inside” the paper border that the children created with large sheets of paper in the sandbox, a few of the children began to name what the borders created – the sand area was a farm, it was a track; things, I think, that remind me of strict borders and being penned in. Farms have fences that control how animals move, race tracks have a particular path that you are expected to follow to be successful. I want to wonder what relations with borders this logic comes from: are borders something that control? That certainly seems like an inheritance we have in ECE, the idea that we need to use fences and boundaries to regulate moving. The language that we were using for being “in” and “outside” of the paper border is also fascinating.

Z, for example, was firm that in order to be “in” the border created by the paper, your entire body had to be inside the paper boundary. I want to be curious where these logics of “in” and “out” come from – from where do we get the idea that borders create insides and outsides? What does having an inside and an outside do to moving? I think that questions of children’s relations with borders and how borders shape and restrict and control movement are incredibly timely and relevant. I’m thinking of national borders and the incredible violence of what is happening at American borders, and how that is not unrelated how we are taught to understand (from ECE and into other education) what borders do in society: how do our everyday choices in ECE create borders as something to regulate moving or borders as something that create an inside and an outside? What relations with borders do we want to create conditions for? What relations with borders do we want to stand for in everyday practices? How do we invent non-innocent but different, more liveable, relations with borders in our small practices – and how might this be a move toward making visible how we understand and engage with how borders constantly shape moving in ECE?

I think this raises, for me, questions also about who and what “makes” borders – I am wondering, for example, what happens when we think of the paper as the primary border in the sandbox Or the wood slabs? What happens if we think of the fences around the playground as a primary border? Or the trees? Or the sand? Or the log in the centre of the sand pit? I’m thinking too of the materials, like the shovels, that are part of the sand pit: how do materials participate in border-making and creating certain possibilities for moving? This images makes me think about this – what makes borders in the sand? How? Why? How does noticing multiple forms of borders speak to our question of the relations and moving we want to create conditions for together (and not) with the sand?

I want to remember how taken-for-granted building borders is. In our neoliberal, settler colonial societies, we are super super skilled at, and quick to, building walls. When there’s a problem, we are taught that we can can make a boundary to fix it: paint is dripping off the table so I’ll limit how much paint is part of this activity; children need to learn to read so I’ll create standardized tests that regulate their academic progression; children are running outside so I’ll build a fence; children tumble and climb and fall and run, so I’ll make a series of developmental milestones to bracket these movements into something controllable; I want students to complete their work, so I’ll make deadlines. What our conversation is reminding me of is that I both intentionally and unintentionally build and navigate borders all the time – and, importantly, that these borders DO THINGS. They have consequences for how bodies move and relations are formed and lives are lived. Borders make insides and outsides, they draw lines in the sand (literally and figuratively. Sand puns!), they shape how bodies and materials move, they give us ways of noticing the boundaries of spaces we feel comfortable and loved and spaces that are unfamiliar. Sometimes we need borders because borders are also a way of standing for something, of refusing to contribute to ways of being that we want to disrupt. Andrea has been questions about objects and materials moving: how was it moved? Who moved it?  Why? In what context? These questions seem like questions we can ask of borders too: how was this border made? Why? With who? In response to what? How does this border shape movement? How does it entangle with our relationships? What are its histories? What are its consequences? 

Andrea and Alicja have shared narrations that make me think of the inherited ways that we have of talking about “building walls” and borders, where we draw, I’d suggest, on binary logic: we build a wall or we don’t build a wall. We make a rule or we don’t make a rule. We have a fence or we don’t have a fence. We break down a paper border or we don’t break down a paper border. We keep desirable things in and undesirable things out. I notice myself asking children and myself questions within this same logic all the time: do you think that we should make a wall here? Do you think that this paper border should be here? It’s the logic, as Alicja has mentioned, of wanting to “solve” a problem. We’ve inherited this idea that walls resolve problems. These are yes/no questions, as if a boundary is either always present or never present. It’s a line there or a line erased. And, this idea that borders are something we fully control and that borders behave in predictable ways – borders keep things (movements, relations, materials, people) in or out, possible or impossible, in alignment with our intentions when we build them. I wonder if that logic holds up to how borders happen within the sand? 

There’s almost this messy doubled thing of maintaining borders (it’s a track, it’s a farm, we only have so much water) and transgressing (stepping on, putting things on, pulling at, water tricking through the sand) borders all in the same moment. It makes me think that borders require something of us besides inside/outside, present/not present, maintain/breaking (destroying, removing) logic; that there’s something more porous, more active, more demanding of engaging with borders. Maybe one way forward might mean asking “how” questions of borders? I want to connect this to the question that Alicja has offered of creating conditions – or living with – sand together: how do we want to move within sand together? How do we want to engage with borders together with sand? How do we invent ways of being with borders with sand that aren’t about yes/no, inside/outside, maintaining/breaking? These are questions that feel acutely political and present. How do we co-create different ways of doing and moving with borders, when we make a commitment to want to notice and understand how borders are not easy or binary or apolitical or without consequences? How do we want to make this border? How does making this border create particular ways of moving and being together?

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