Early Childhood Literacy, Development, and Learning in Online Virtual Worlds
Rebecca W. Black

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of California, Irvine

Primary Discipline

In recent years there has been an explosion of virtual worlds intended for early childhood populations; however, because the majority of research on virtual worlds has focused on adults and adolescents, we know little about these child-focused spaces. The proposed study attempts to address this gap in the research by providing a systematic content analysis of the literacy-related and developmental features of three popular virtual worlds, Webkinz World, Club Penguin, and Barbie Girls, and by providing in-depth case studies of children who frequent these popular websites. This project is grounded in a sociocultural theory of learning and literacy in which mediation is a primary factor in cognition and development. Through this lens, human action, interaction, and learning are all mediated through tools that shape and constrain our relationships with physical and social environments. Content and discourse analyses will compare and contrast the literacy-related features and developmental appropriateness of three popular virtual worlds. An open-ended, qualitative protocol will focus attention on key features of each site, such as how they provide opportunities for or limit identity play and self-representation, how they promote or constrain opportunities for structured and informal learning, and how they encourage or curtail the development of community and connection among players. Site artifacts will be analyzed using grade level readability and word per minute measures and examined in terms of linguistic, technical, and developmental appropriateness for the target age groups of these sites. Analysis will also include an explicit focus on how gender, race, and socioeconomic status are represented. Case studies will focus on ten children who frequent these sites. In-home observations of participants’ game-related activities and electronic log files will provide data on their gameplay over a six month period. Semi-structured interviews will also be conducted with participants and their parents, and will be based on questions related to ease-of-use, safety, learning, and socialization in these virtual worlds. Analysis will focus on answering three fundamental research questions: 1) What opportunities for learning and literacy development do these virtual worlds offer? 2) How do these opportunities align or conflict with accepted educational standards (e.g., standards for early literacy, benchmarks for 21st century skills)? and 3) What forms of social development and options for belonging and self-representation do these sites promote? Literacy researchers and educators may benefit from considering how the various literacy materials and skills that children are engaging with in these online spaces may intersect with school-based practices, and how these spaces may be leveraged to motivate or complement children’s school-based learning. In addition, this study can provide insight into how virtual worlds may be designed in ways that better facilitate learning, communication, and full participation for early childhood populations, inclusive of diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
About Rebecca W. Black

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