When young children play together in school, they produce action stories with themes that draw upon experiences from their worlds, including themes from their favorite media. When playing heroes and villains, this often involves mock fighting, which can be prohibited in school. Yet children sometimes play these forbidden themes “under the radar”, claiming that a Tinker Toy sword or a gun made of Legos is "just a stick” or “ car” or “design” or anything else in order to turn a pretend weapon into something innocuous and acceptable within the classroom. Of course, this shows so much about the ways children negotiate the complex tensions among peer culture, school culture, and popular culture in ways that allow them to play themes that matter to them. But this pivoting and pretending also shows how play functions as a literacy of fluid action texts.
During one of my studies of literacy play in early childhood classrooms, several boys created paper tubes which they immediately used as light sabers in impromptu Star Wars play but when the teacher approached, they stopped dueling and began swimming the tubes along as "electric eels". When the boys enacted eels, they quietly held the tubes horizontally and maneuvered individually, walking side-by-side, sometimes tumbling the tubes in slow circling motions or undulating waves. When they enacted light sabers, they turned toward each other, tilted the tubes diagonally or vertically, and voiced the shoom, shoom, shoom of humming light sabers as they engaged each other in momentary fencing moves.
This Star Wars example shows how play functions as an embodied literacy to produce play narratives with action texts that the boys could use to pivot the meanings of their paper toys. Action text describes how movements convey meanings when children play a shared narrative together. In other words, their swooshing sword fights relied on moves with paper tubes that conveyed a nonverbal (and covert) meaning shared among the boys. Their swings and taps with paper tubes could be read and reread as fencing moves in a laser swordfight by other children who were also Star Wars fans.
We tend to look for some print on a page when we consider children’s literacy development and overlook the action texts in children's play. In a digital world where webpages routinely include YouTube links to videos on every imaginable topic, actions clearly speak louder than words. In this dynamic textual landscape (Carrington, 2005), children’s played texts take on new significance as a way of understanding and producing live action texts. At the very least, we should be looking beyond print media and recognizing and mediating the fluid meaning-making and embodied storytelling in children's play that develops skills for communicating through digital media.
For the full paper, see:
Wohlwend, K. E. (2013). Playing Star Wars under the (teacher’s) radar: Detecting kindergartners’ action texts and embodied literacies In V. M. Vasquez & J. W. Wood (Eds.), Perspectives and provocations in early childhood education [National Council of Teacher of English Early Childhood Assembly Yearbook] (pp. 105-115). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.