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Playing with Capital: The Enactment of Class in Children's Playgroup Experiences Open Access

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In a society that is regarded by many of its residents as a meritocracy despite ever-increasing income disparities across social groups, free early childhood developmental playgroups are a resource for children of all racial and class backgrounds. This paper argues that the experiences of young children who attend three playgroups in Virginia are shaped by the playgroup culture through an intricate web of class-based institutionalized and individual-level practices. The social dynamics that typically play out in innovative and diverse settings, like these early childhood developmental playgroups, tend to reproduce social inequalities over time despite the settings' promising reform potential. Children, as soon as they can walk and talk, exhibit capital-based differences in their playgroup navigation styles and peer association strategies. As social actors, children as young as one year-old take the capital conferred by their families and not only act on it, but act with it to accrue additional advantages or disadvantages in the playgroup setting. The playgroup culture appears to strongly influence children's perceptions of difference and subtly encourages affinity towards members of their own race and social class, which could be a mechanism that promotes and sustains inequality over time. The continuing influence of adult caregivers that rely upon class-based caregiving practices, as well as a playgroup structure that is predicated upon traditional middle-class values and practices permits the exacerbation of class-based differences within the child participants. Yet, the presence of caregivers whose social locations generate caregiving practices that do not conform to typical class patterns, and playgroup environments that challenge institutionally-perpetuated values and practices offer the potential to undermine the social reproduction of class inequalities. This paper concludes by providing strategic recommendations for playgroups, specifically, as well as addressing a multitude of more wide-ranging, large-scale policy implications.

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