Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Let's Be Noah: Toys as Material Religion

Stefanie Knauss considers the importance of toys in shaping childrens' embodied conceptions of cultural practices, particularly the significance of religious toys in conveying some of the important characters, ideas, and values of a tradition. She argues that the materiality of toys fosters particular enactments of religious stories but that such exercises are underdetermined; the toys must be a focus of pedagogy for them to take on the particular meanings of a tradition, otherwise, they may simply exist as secular playthings. In short, religious toys present opportunities for teaching about a particular tradition, but are not clearly indicative of such approaches in and of themselves. Knauss sees religious toys as a promising unit of analysis for investigating meaning-making and the interplay of self-determination and group influence in early identity formation.

MLA citation format:
Knauss, Stefanie.
"Let's be Noah: 
Toys as Material Religion."
Web blog post. Material Religions. 1 July 2015. Web. [date of access]

A popular gift for small children is a toy set of Noah’s Ark: made of wood, plastic or plush, it usually consists of a boat, at least one male human (Noah), and a varying number of animals in pairs. 

Figure 1: Screenshot (detail) of the results of a Google Image search for "Noah's Ark toy."

The set is inspired by the biblical story of the flood from Genesis 6-8, when God decided to flood the earth and kill all human beings because of their evil ways, and with them all other creatures, except for Noah and his family and a pair of each kind of animal who save themselves in the ark. In spite of its religious associations, the toy is not limited to a religious context: it is produced by major toy companies (Fisher-Price, Playmobil) and can be acquired widely in toyshops or through Amazon. The Ark has been used as a toy since the 16th century, and kids still love to play with the animals, setting them up in pairs to walk into the ark or arranging them on the boat, keeping lions and sheep, cats and mice well apart, letting the boat swim on water in the bathtub or a pond, simulating storms, drowning or saving the whole population of the known world.

Noah’s Ark is a toy for creative play, but it also provides the opportunity for children to develop and negotiate (religious) identity in the tension between self and collective, freedom and determination. It can be described as material religion because it transmits information about a sacred story of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, communicates religious concepts such as divine omnipotence, sin, forgiveness, and contributes to religious identity formation. It exemplifies very well the ambiguous way in which objects function as/in material religion: these religious concepts are not inherent in the object, but are ascribed to the object and realized through individual and collective practices within a particular context. Thus the object can be seen as negotiating between the self and the collective, freedom and determination, and innovation and tradition as meanings associated with the object are accepted, affirmed or creatively subverted. With regard to the issue of identity formation, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes it possible for the individual to maintain the tension between the freedom of self-determination and collective formation that is necessary in the development of self-identity.

Most psychological and sociological theories of identity formation move between the poles of the formative influence of social structures and the freedom of the individual. Anthony Giddens (1991), for example, describes identity as a project for which the individual is responsible, precisely because social institutions such as religions have lost their formative power. In contrast, Michel Foucault (1994 [1970]) underlines the influence of collective structures so that the self can be seen as the product of discourses of power. Focusing on a particular social structure, the media, Helen Wood (2010) takes an intermediate position and argues that media offer building blocks for identity formation, but that it is up to the individual in how far they are accepted and incorporated.

George Herbert Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism (1934) and Erving Goffman’s theory of the presentation of self (1959) are helpful to understand the visual and material dimensions of identity formation. Mead underlines the importance of social interaction in the constitution of self in which meaning is symbolically mediated and integrated into the self-image of the individual. Individuals use collectively accepted visual, linguistic or material symbols to express their identity and position within the community. Games, play and toys provide both opportunities for social interaction and symbolic materials to express identity. Goffman emphasizes the role of body in the self-presentation of the individual: bodily postures and movements have social significance as expressions of relationships or attitudes. Goffman underlines the management of one’s own body in order to conform to social expectations, and thus the body as an object of control, yet it is important to keep in mind that one’s body can also become an expression of subjecthood and resistance, both consciously through non-conformist behaviors such as tattooing, and unconsciously through bodily “mistakes” such as blushing, that counteract one’s smooth insertion into the social order.

The tension between collective and self, the adaptation to social expectations and resistance against them also characterizes religious identity as a dimension or aspect of an individual’s self-identity. Religions offer or even prescribe specific roles for the individual, such as the one of wife and mother as the ideal of femininity in Catholicism, which can be experienced as both reassuring and delimiting. Religions may also provide the means to resist social expectations and thus offer a space of freedom for individual self-determination, for example in the Christian ideal of an existence “in the world, but not of the world.” With their stories, traditions, and values, religions establish a framework in which the individual can pose questions about identity, sense, and meaning, and find answers that contribute to the development of a sense of self. Religions, such as Christianity, situate the individual within a network of relationships among human beings and between humans and the transcendent. They integrate the individual into the collective of the religious community, and at the same time acknowledge the singularity of the individual and his/her individual responsibility in concepts such as createdness, sin, salvation, conversion etc.

This ambiguous dynamic between social determination and the individual negotiation of or even resistance against these influences, between the collective and the self in the development of self-identity is materialized in the creative interaction with toys and games. The importance of toys and games for the self-development of a child – both on the level of senso-motoric and socio-psychological abilities – has been widely recognized by Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and others. Toys are “cultural tools” (Dyer 2002, 90) that help children to make sense of themselves and the world around them, to negotiate the expectations of others, and their own desires. The connection between toys and religion can be realized at least on two levels. First, toys can communicate religious information, for example as a Bible quiz, puzzles with religious motifs, dolls that teach the correct Muslim prayer, or Noah’s Ark that tells a specific story. And second, they can contribute to the meaning-making function of religions, helping to negotiate a chaotic, often overwhelming world: Noah’s Ark can be used to deal with the experience of threat and vulnerability, for example. The visual and material dimension of toys is central in these processes: colors, forms and materials fascinate children (have you ever tried to compete for a child’s attention with pedagogically valuable, organic wooden toys in subdued colors against a plastic toy in screaming pink, yellow or red?) and motivate them to play. The interaction with toys, and thus the negotiation of the values or worldviews communicated through them, happens first of all on a material, bodily and sensory level, less on an intellectual level. Religious identity is thus, literally, incorporated through the physical interaction with toys which integrate the physical, sensory, affective and cognitive dimensions of identity.

Toys enable the negotiation between self and collective in a religious context in various ways. They offer possibilities to experiment with the different roles and behaviors offered by a religious tradition. Traditionally, toys were intended as preparation for adult tasks, such as the toy kitchen of a girl, or the tool case of a boy. Similarly in the religious context: Colleen McDannell (1995) discusses advertisements for “Little Nun” and “Little Priest” costumes from a US-Catholic magazine from 1957, through which children will acquire “the quiet dignity of those who have dedicated their lives to the Church.” Furthermore: “This fine imaginative play will help them plan their lives … the Catholic Way” (reprinted in McDannell 1995, 56). There are several videos on Youtube of little boys “playing priest” and celebrating mass, and toy mass kits are used by catechists to teach children the liturgy. In the Muslim context, dolls exemplify playfully how to dress appropriately or help to learn the correct postures and words of prayer. Toys have thus also a “magic” power because they can transform “normal” kids into perfect little personifications of religious values and ideals (Bado-Fralick/Norris 2010). Florence Pasche Guignard (2012) particularly underlines the role of toys in the communication of gender-specific values and roles with their associated limitations or possibilities that are inscribed into the gendered bodies of children: “Playing with the ‘right kind of doll’ can transform not only the personality but also the appearance of the developing female body of the girl” (215).

Toys also provide ways to establish and affirm collective identity and membership in a group. As such, they are always situated in a social context and communicate social expectations and collectively shared values that, in the course of playing with the toys, are integrated into a child’s self-image. Through the way in which a child interacts with others in play, with which objects or roles it identifies, it can communicate a sense of self and mark its position within a community. Toys can be chosen specifically as markers of religious identity, for example when Noah’s Ark is given as a present for a child’s baptism, and thus parents, friends or relatives provide the child with a toy that contributes to its integration into the tradition of which the story of Noah is a part. But toys are not unequivocal, exclusive markers of identity: in order to play with Noah’s Ark, a child does not have to be Christian, nor does it become Christian by playing with it. It might have seen the set in kindergarten and likes to play with the animals and the boat without even knowing what they represent.

Toys can express religious values and ideas explicitly and implicitly on the material and conceptual level, and thus offer structures for self-development and meaning-making. Noah’s Ark can, for example, communicate ideas of divine creation threatened by human behavior, ideas of sin and punishment, responsibility for other creatures etc., with which an individual identifies and which s/he might use to evaluate his or her own behavior and that of others. But – and this is essential for the discussion of toys and religion – toys and games are not just instruments for teaching values or socialization but they are – maybe even primarily – characterized by creativity, imagination and fantasy. The world created with toys and in play is an other-world which both reflects social structures and invents different ones: a girl might dress up as a “little priest,” or children might play God and drown the Ark in a spectacular thunderstorm with not a single survivor in the bathtub. In fact, children might not even identify the boat as Noah’s Ark, but instead imagine it to be the swimming zoo of a multi-millionaire. Also, adults might choose religious toys not because of the religious values they associate, but for pedagogical reasons, so that the child can learn the names of the different animals or develop motor skills through handling them. On the Amazon page for Fisher-Price’s Little People Noah’s Ark, for example, a user notes that the children do not reenact the story of Noah, and in fact is quite happy about that because of the story’s cruel message of God killing everybody. Instead, the user appreciates the toy for its use for imaginative play with animals.

Certainly, adult suggestions or even sanctions can reinforce adaptation to social conventions. But this space of fantasy and imagination that is opened up in playing with toys is essential for their contribution to individual self-development and repositioning in relation to traditions. From a religious perspective, the encounter of social expectations and individual creativity in playing with toys can also be seen as an expression of the conviction that there is a gap between the world as it is, and the world as it might be when existing in perfect relationship with the divine, and that it is this gap that provides a space for playful freedom in which the possibility of a better world, a better way of being can be imagined and experienced (Bado-Fralick/Norris 2010). The experience of play can then become a religious experience within the material world of the everyday which gives meaning to the everyday and one’s own place in it.

Toys such as Noah’s Ark can communicate religious values and expectations and thus shape self-identity, yet because their meaning is not inherent to them, but instead inscribed through creative practices and imaginative interactions, they offer a Spielraum (German, literally, “space for play,” a margin of freedom) for the individual adaptation and re-signification of the stories, concepts, values, roles and behaviors suggested by toys. It is this ambiguity between intended meaning and creative re-imagination in toys that provides the material space for the negotiation of individual religious identity within the context of social relationships and shared values, and thus the realization of identity in the tension between singularity and relationality. 


Bado-Fralick, Nikki/Norris, Rebecca Sachs, 2010, Toying with God. The World of Religious Games and Dolls, Waco: Baylor Univesity Press.

Foucault, Michel, 1994 [1970], The Order of Things. An Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York: Vintage Books.

Giddens, Anthony, 1991, Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goffman, Erving, 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Anchor.

McDannell, Colleen, 1995, Material Christianity. Religion and Popular Culture in America, New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Mead, George Herbert, 1967 [1934], Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, vol. 1, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Pasche Guignard, Florence, 2012, “Learn and Play the Holy Way”. Religious Toys and Dolls in the Construction of Gender Identity and Vaues, in: Bornet, Philippe/Burger, Maya (Hg.), Religions in Play. Games, Rituals, and Virtual Worlds, Zürich: Pano Verlag, 197-219.

Wood, Helen, 2010, From Media and Identity to Mediated Identity, in: Wetherell, Margaret/ Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, The Sage Handbook of Identities, London: Sage, 258-276.

This contribution is part of a larger project, an introduction to religion through visual media, in which the author works together with Nathalie Fritz, Anna-Katharina Höpflinger, Marie-Therese Mäder, Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, all of Zurich University.


  1. The feeling of play can then become a religious experience within the material world in the everyday which gives meaning on the everyday and one’s own put in place it.

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