Karen Wohlwend Research Collection

Permanent link for this collection

Karen Wohlwend is a literacy professor who studies young children's play, across early childhood classrooms, digital cultures, and media imaginaries. Through play, even very young children can collaborate to create their own pretend scenarios--whether in doll play in the house corner, Lego building in the block center, video games, or animation and filmmaking apps. My research reconceptualizes young children’s play as an embodied literacy that produces action texts made with moving bodies or animated avatars, which is so much more meaningful and dynamic than print on a page or screen. Taking a critical sociocultural perspective, I study play in playrooms, classrooms, museums, and makerspaces, and develop methodologies for looking closely at the ways players interact with toys, popular media, video games, YouTube, Twitter, and other social networks.

Current research projects include:

  • Literacy Playshop: Critical media literacy through play and filmmaking with media toys, toyhacking, and popular media in PK-16 classrooms
  • Literacy, media, and STEM learning in first person video with toys in a Doc McStuffins museum exhibit (with Dr. Adam Maltese)
  • Design Playshop: Embodied literacies across sciences and arts in e-textile makerspaces (with Dr. Kylie Peppler)


Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 20 of 54
  • Item
    P(l)aying online: Toys, apps, and young consumers on transmedia playgrounds
    (Routledge, 2020) Wohlwend, Karen
    Children engage their favorite media toys as interactive assemblages of virtual and real worlds, through popular characters and media narratives that ground a franchise's constitutive products-toys, video games, films, clothing, and other consumer goods. Often, toy transmedia retail websites resemble online playgrounds while advertising toys, games, and apps to young children. Children's transmedia sites are dense webs of consumer and imaginative practices, commercial products and playful desires, and embodied and digitized practices. Blurred practices of playing and paying on transmedia websites entangle children, popular toys, apps, avatars, and game mechanics as co-actants in assemblages in these contemporary play worlds
  • Item
    Keune, A.Recognition in makerspaces: Supporting opportunities for women to "make" a STEM career
    (Elsevier, 2019) Keune, Anna; Peppler, Kylie A.; Wohlwend, Karen E.
    Making is a playful exploration of tools and materials to design personally meaningful artifacts, providing a particularly impactful entry point for traditionally underrepresented youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. However, it remains unclear how these constructionist explorations translate to eventual professional and educational STEM opportunities, especially for women. This paper tracks an exemplary case in a makerspace to theorize, describe, and analyze the behavioral patterns of young women as they engage in making and move toward expertise in STEM. Building on a material-based and constructionist notion of making, we use mediated discourse analysis to examine how recognition (materialized in artifacts as displaying, legitimising, and circulating emergent STEM expertise) leads to transformational development over time. We introduce the notion of tinkering with development, which conceptualizes playful project design, spatial project placements, and emergent online project sharing as drivers of human developmental trajectories. Implications of this work include a set of design principles to support makerspaces and other constructionist learning environments to foster participation in STEM. Further, implications for constructionist theory and STEM gender representation are discussed.
  • Item
    "We need it loud!": Preschool making from mediated and materialist perspectives
    (2019) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Keune, Anna; Peppler, Kylie A.
    In this chapter, we frame data analysis from multimodal (Scollon, 2001; Kress, 2003) and materialist (Lenz Taguchi, 2010) perspectives to expand our understanding of the complex interplay of purposes, properties, and possibilities in a moment of playful making at an impromptu art table in a preschool classroom. This auditory double take-that listens and listens again--problematizes educational assumptions in a prominent anthropocentric pedagogy that reads child/material productions primarily as evidence of a linear, lockstep developmental sequence. To unpack a moment of early childhood art production from two perspectives, we explore research methods that move away from privileging order and coherence, taming chaotic intra-actions among materials and humans, discounting material catalysts and perhaps child purposes. This chapter advances a notion of development as jumbled, recursive entanglement of action, artifacts, and making worlds. Art becomes coproduction through which things and humans communicate purposes and possibilities.
  • Item
    From cutting out to cutting with: A materialist reframing of action and multimodality in children’s play and making
    (Routledge, 2019) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Thiel, Jaye Johnson
    Using examples of early childhood play from our independent research studies, we take a closer look to ask what did we miss? In initial multimodal analysis of these events, how did an implicit human-centered insistence on semiotic affordances and strategic design tame the mobile jumble of children’s play and making? The shift from multimodality to materiality in this retrospective analysis builds on and transitions from Kress’ (1997) ground-breaking work on multimodality in children’s play and making, where he noted that a child cuts around a drawing to bring its image into the world of action. “Cutting out” turns a two-dimensional drawing of a car into a three-dimensional paper toy that can be animated for play. In this chapter, we take a new materialist lens (Lenz Taguchi, 2014) to children’s making that considers the intra-action among all the actants in the toy/player/action assemblage that co-produce a flow of play moves and pretend meanings. When we look for materiality, emergence, and mobility, we can better appreciate play’s haphazard trajectories and recognize the embodied “muchness” (Thiel, 201X) of children’s play, we can see how assemblages of bodies, meanings, and actions create knowledge flows from the most ordinary of school supplies: paper.
  • Item
    Walking dead literacies: Zombies, boys, and (re)animated storytelling
    (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018) Wessel Powel, Christy; Wohlwend, Karen E.; Lu, Ya-Huei
    Abstract Increased emphasis on standardization in primary grades can stifle spontaneous literacy play. The authors argue that allowing playful, collaborative, multimodal literacies into primary classrooms and specifically in writers’ workshop can expand and enliven the way we see students’ literacy strengths. The authors look closely at the unique storytelling processes and final performance of a grades K–1 collaborative storytelling group, the Zombie Boys. This group worked over several weeks during workshop/playshop to produce an original story line rich in special effects, music, synchronized dance, puppets, backdrop, and props design and delivered a meaningful and entertaining play performance. The authors also demonstrate possibilities in expanded, equitable literacy assessment for primary grades by using a multimodal checklist and story line graph to gauge narrative complexity and story shape, tracking the group’s minilesson uptake, and describing how peers and teachers received the group’s story when performed for feedback.
  • Item
    Hacking Toys and Remixing Media: Integrating Maker Literacies into Early Childhood Teacher Education
    (Springer, 2018) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Scott, Jill A.; Yi, Joanne H.; Deliman, Amanda; Kargin, Tolga
    This study examined a literacy playshop curriculum that integrated maker literacies (i.e., collaborative play, toyhacking, filmmaking, video-editing, and remixing media) in two US teacher education classes with approximately 60 university students. Students engaged in digital puppetry activities using makerspace tools, iPads, and puppetry apps for young children. The students used craft materials to hack or redesign the children’s favorite media characters action figures to make interactive puppets for original films and for teaching a filmmaking lesson with a young child. Nexus analysis of literacy playshop activity analyzed pre-service teachers’ knowledge of seemingly “intuitive” digital literacies as a nexus of practice, or the tacit expectations, social practices, and text conventions in viral videos or computer apps that become engrained through engagements with immersive and embodied technologies. The chapter concludes with a summary of maker literacies and implications for early education gleaned from the complex interactions around teaching and learning through collaborative storytelling with iPad touchscreens.
  • Item
    Bringing Maker Literacies to Early Childhood Education
    (Nordicom, University of Gothenburg, 2017) Scott, Jill A.; Wohlwend, Karen E.
    Pre-service teacher training must better prepare teachers to respond to the student’s interests in popular culture, play, and making. Maker literacies (Wohlwend et al., 2017) such as popular media, toyhacking, and creating films can be included in literacy education if pre-service teachers develop an understanding of their value and place within the literacy curriculum. How do we tap into the creative potential of play and making interests in a way that aligns with school literacy goals? How can early literacy curriculum and instruction expand to incorporate making into primary literacy methods courses? This study documents maker literacies that pre-service teachers used when a play, toyhacking, and filmmaking module was added to their primary literacy methods class at the university. The main purpose was to encourage pre-service teachers to transform and expand their notions about what counts as literacy and literacy curriculum in early childhood education.
  • Item
    Playing to Our Strengths: Finding Innovation in Children’s and Teachers’ Imaginative Expertise
    (National Council of Teachers of English, 2018) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    This article reviews recent research on young children’s literacy learning, with a focus on innovative ideas that reclaim a long-standing ethos in early childhood education: child over curriculum. This means the emphasis is on learning with the young child rather than teaching to cover the curriculum. I begin by reviewing early literacy studies that take a strength orientation to development, diversity, and technology in order to highlight fresh approaches that use play to activate children’s imaginative expertise. In other words, this synthesis examines early literacy approaches that assume children are capable, curious, and active learners who learn through play, inquiry, and exploration and produce texts with technologies and resources that are in actual use in their families, communities, and cultures. I then discuss how to make space for innovative curriculum as well as provide suggestions for programs and policies that build on a strength orientation to teaching.
  • Item
    “Cause I know how to get friends- plus they like my dancing”: (L)earning the nexus of practice in Club Penguin
    (Peter Lang, 2013) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Kargin, Tolga
    What happens when young children sit side by side while their avatars play together on global playgrounds in virtual worlds? In this chapter, we examine activity in an af­terschool computer club in which children play in Club Penguin (Disney), a social networking and gaming virtual world website where players are represented online as penguin avatars. Here, we focus on the ways children teach each other a range of dig­ital literacy practices in order to read screens, gather social goods, and send messages to other avatars as they help each other understand how to participate in an online peer culture. We suggest this mediating and mediated activity in a virtual world de­pends upon their face-to-face cooperation, situated in peer-teaching practices that were common in computer affinity groups in the peer culture in one afterschool pro­gram. The interrelationships among peer cultures, popular media, and digital literacy practices of adolescents and young adults have been heavily researched (Black & Steinkuehler, 2009). Many pre-teens and adolescents access and wield spatialized literacies (Leander & Sheehy, 2004) that blur boundaries across time and space as they participate in social media or online games in complex digital networks (Leander & McKim, 2003). Far less attention has focused on how young children who are emer­gent readers and writers interact in online social networks, particularly in new media spheres that host children's digital cultures such as Club Penguin.
  • Item
    Playing to belong: Sharing princesses and mediating preschool cultures
    (Peter Lang, 2015) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    Children's extensive engagements with princess culture have sparked controversy over the potential identity-shaping effects of popular media on young girls, evident in high levels of public debate in social media spheres around recent mass-mar­ket books, including, My Princess Boy (Kilodavis and DeSimone 2010) Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (Orenstein 2011) and The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Prin­cess-Obsessed Years (Hains 2014). Educational research in the past decade shows benefits to literacy learning when teachers build upon young children's diverse strengths and popular media interests that show up so often in their play (Dyson 2003; Marsh et al. 2005). For young preschool girls today, these literary reper­toires often connect to their deep knowledge of princess characters and stories in popular culture (Sekeres 2009; Wohlwend 2009). At the same time, literacy studies have alerted us to the gendered and consumerist ideological messages in these identity-shaping princess texts (Mackey 2010; Marshall and Sensoy 2011; Saltmarsh 2009). Yet we know little about the ways that the target consumers­very young girls-actually enact princess media messages during play. What hap­pens when girls play together in classrooms where teachers provide princess dolls and encourage children to remake the princess stories into versions of their own? In this chapter, I share findings from a year-long study of critical media litera­cy in preschool and primary classrooms that suggest when children collaborate during play, storytelling, and media production at school, they work out issues of belonging in friendships, brand affiliations, and classroom routines in ways that open opportunities for remaking princess texts and mediate children's cultures.
  • Item
    More than a Child’s Work: Framing Teacher Discourse about Play
    (InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 2007-03) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    In early childhood education, tension between accountability pressures and romanticized notions of play influences teacher decisions, shapes classroom activities, and determines what counts as learning. Critical discourse analysis shows how discourses of work and play were activated as the teachers analyzed videotaped instances of children’s classroom activity. Microethnographic discourse analysis tracks the interactional frames within the teachers’ discussion. To interpret and justify their classroom practice, teachers voiced a prevalent cultural model, “play is a child’s work,” a naturalized storyline that circulates expectations for how teachers and children should act in school. Shifts between hypothetical, metalinguistic, and play frames enabled participants to self-critically assess their own teaching and to invent ways of successfully fulfilling teaching ideals within competing discourses.
  • Item
    Child’s Play: Reading and Remaking Gendered Action Texts in Toys
    (Routledge, 2018-11) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    When children pick up and play with their favorite toys, they are also taking up a complex mix of gender messages and cultural expectations about who they can be and how they should play. Drawing on sociocultural theories that conceptualize literacy as mediated action and play as a literacy that produces action texts, this chapter examines pre-schoolers’ pretend play to uncover the literacies that children use to make stories crafted with bodies, toys, and popular media. Toys are invitations to enact beloved character identities and media narratives but also engage playgroup practices and gender expectations for players. Mediated discourse analysis of young girls’ interactions with toys during dramatic play reveals how the smallest actions – cradling a doll or waving a stick – fit into live-action stories and into larger patterns of expectations for “doing girl.” This chapter examines how everyday play reshapes toys’ embedded meanings and remakes these expectations, making child’s play an important site for reimagining gendered possibilities.
  • Item
    Play as the Literacy of Children: Imagining Otherwise in Contemporary Childhoods
    (Routledge Handbooks, 2018-10) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    In this chapter, I examine play as a literacy of children—made by children for children—and argue for early childhood research and teaching that attends to the meanings children make for themselves and one another in contemporary times. First, a definition: Play is a set of imaginative practices through which players voluntarily engage to suspend the conventional meanings in the surrounding physical context and agree to replace these with pretend meanings for their own purposes, with transformative potential for their participation in home, peer, school, media, and digital cultures (Wohlwend, 2013). During play, children produce action-based stories and imaginary scenarios by enacting pretend identities with bodies or by animating toys, props, and other materials that enable players to virtually inhabit a shared pretend context.
  • Item
    Playful Literacies and Practices of Making in Children’s Imaginaries
    (Routledge, 2017-08) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Buchholz, Beth A.; Medina, Carmen Liliana
    In this chapter, we examine literacy research that looks beyond print to recognize the action texts in young children’s media production and to better understand the mutually constitutive relationships among play and making in contemporary childhoods. How do these areas merge in children’s classroom productions in digital puppetry, toymaking, drama, animation, filmmaking, and crafting of artifacts? Our focus is on shared imaginative production in classroom cultures to understand play and making as powerful literacies with value in their own right, producing unapologetically printless texts assembled with physical actions and materials that move and recruit across digital networks. We draw upon contemporary research on imagination and literacies as social action, looking at the nexus of play and making as a site of collective meaning-making and cultural production, that both contests and reinscribes boundaries in digital cultures, resonates and ruptures dominant discourses, and mobilizes youth and materials. Play and making are literacies that run on peer culture passions, often centered on electronic games and digital play with popular media. But it is also important to note that it is not necessary for children to be online or to be using new technologies to be deeply entangled in imaginative labor as young participants in global flows and digital cultures. In the following sections, we survey emerging theories and research that show the impact on children’s learning and participation in classrooms of playful literacies and practices of making within the collective imaginaries that circulate in and through childhoods.
  • Item
    Monster High: Converging Imaginaries of Girlhood in Tweens’ Digital Doll Play
    (Routledge, 2017-07) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Medina, Carmen L.
    This chapter examines the digital dress-up and online doll play that children produce and share on social media and shows that players also make use of the complexity that these entanglements produce to remake imaginaries for their own purposes in ways that both reproduce and rupture normative media expectations. It analyzes the Monster High (MH) website, tracking its connected play spaces for repetitions and ruptures in both the content of the website and content of fan-produced media such as blog posts and videos. MH fanvid makeup tutorials converge fashionista and high school imaginaries with tweens' visions of their future adolescent selves. A corollary of the hypersexualization of the MH characters is the anticipation of imperfection as girls fail to achieve the deathly thin body shape of the MH dolls. Convergences among cultural imaginaries produce resonances when their associated identity texts repeat across imaginaries, amplifying a coherent message.
  • Item
    App Maps: Evaluating Children's iPad Software for 21st Century Literacy Learning
    (Routledge, 2016-11) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Rowsell, Jennifer
    In this chapter, we introduce a rubric and a map that we developed for comparing early childhood apps on five dimensions of participatory literacies: multiplayer, productive, multimodal, multilinear, and connected. Using exemplar data from our North American classroom studies on children’s technology play with iPads, we evaluate and compare four apps to illustrate how the rubric and map can be used to assess each app’s potential for develop ing participatory literacies. A description of each app and an ethnographic data excerpt illustrate how children used each app’s features to provide a sampling of the ways that young children actually engaged with the app during classroom play.
  • Item
    Design Playshop: Preschoolers Making, Playing and Learning with Squishy Circuits
    (Routledge, 2016-05) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Keune, Anna; Peppler, Kylie
    In the hum of activity in a sunny preschool classroom, young children bend intently over their projects on the small table strewn with Squishy Circuit kits: maker kits for crafting working electric circuits with playdough “wires,” battery packs, and LEDs, fans, or buzzers. As they busily stick small white plastic light bulbs into playdough caterpillars, spaceships, and pancakes, the children squeal “It’s red!” or “I made a yellow one!” as each bulb lights up to reveal its hidden color. One 5-year-old boy, Nate, leans across the table to offer helpful advice to a younger girl whose circuit is not working. “I want to tell you one thing. If you put one [battery lead] into one [playdough] ball, it won’t work. You have to make two balls, and put one [lead] into one ball and other [lead] into another ball.” However, the child with the nonworking circuit wants to instead flatten her playdough ball into a pancake. Suparna, a 5-year-old girl whose caterpillar glows with colorful lights, chimes in, “I know! You have to have two. So make a big pancake and then put into two [halves] and then put that battery pack into both of them.”
  • Item
    Mediated Discourse Analysis: Tracking Discourse in Action
    (Routledge, 2013-08) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    Mediated discourse analysis, sometimes called nexus analysis (Scollon & Scollon, 2004), is an action-oriented approach to critical discourse analysis that takes sociocultural activity as its primary focus, looking closely at a physical action as the unit of analysis rather than an ethnographic event or a strip of language (e.g., utterance, turn of talk). In this way of thinking about activity, every action is simultaneously co-located within a local embodied community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and a far-reaching nexus of practice, the expected and valued ways of interacting with materials among people. The purposes of MDA are 1. to locate and make visible the nexus of practice-a mesh of commonplace practices and shared meanings that bind communities together but that can also produce exclusionary effects and reproduce inequitable power relations; 2. to show how such practices are made up of multiple mediated actions that appropriate available materials, identities, and discourses; 3. to reveal how changes in the smallest everyday actions can effect social change in a community’s nexus of practice.
  • Item
    Ghouls, Dolls, and Girlhoods: Fashion and Horror at Monster High
    (Springer, 2016) Wohlwend, Karen E.
    How does a zombie doll in a popular horror franchise for tween girls serve as a productive site of contestation among overlapping visions of girlhood? In this chapter, I examine Ghoulia Yelps, a zombie character in the popular Monster High fashion doll franchise, not only as a toy in a global flow of licensed consumer goods but also as a site of identity construction and digital media production where facile notions of girlhoods are both enacted and reimagined (Forman-Brunell, 2012). Monster High is reconceptualized here as the site of converging cultural imaginaries (Medina & Wohlwend, 2014) in which children play in and out of gendered futures around fashion, adolescence, diversity, and schooling. Critical analysis of tween girls’ digital play with a zombie doll on social media reveals the resonances, slippages, and paradoxes among identity texts produced about, for, and by girls. After describing the scope of the Monster High franchise and how it materializes expectations for characters, consumers, and players, I next examine how these dolls and identity texts circulate three dominant imaginaries of girlhood. Finally, I analyze YouTube videos of girls’ play with the Ghoulia Yelps character to see how tween’s foregrounding of horror and wielding of zombie tropes opens opportunities to rupture and reimagine girlhoods.
  • Item
    Race and rag dolls: Reading the embodiment of diversity in Laloopsy transmedia
    (CRC Press, 2015-10) Wohlwend, Karen E.; Hall, D. Ted
    Young children’s engagements with literacy occur as immersive and embodied interactions with an increasingly commercialized and globalized textual landscape (Carrington, 2005). On a daily basis, preschoolers not only read or listen to their favorite stories but embody their favorite characters and narratives through engagements with media franchises that link multiple products across multiple platforms. As children watch television programs and DVDs, tap through games and apps on tablets and phones, play with dolls and action fi gures, they can also be clothed in licensed apparel, snack on character gummies, tote school supplies in themed backpacks, and so on. These franchises of branded products grounded by a media narrative, or transmedia, produce far-reaching, ubiquitous, and pervasive fl ows of merchandise but also circulate discursive messages attached to media narratives and are amplifi ed through advertising (Lemke, 2009).