Mercantile parenting: the circulation of
information about children’s literacy
and development in commercial spaces
Sue Nichols, Helen Nixon & Sophia Rainbird
University of South Australia, Australia
Jennifer Rowsell, Graduate School of Education,
Rutgers University, USA
Funded by ARC Discovery Grant 2007-2009
Rutgers University Development Grant
Our Questions
• How are resources for early learning
produced for and circulated among parents?
• How are resources spatially located and
networked in community, government and
commercial spaces?
• What messages do these resources and
practices send?
• The interactions between all these elements.
Project Elements
• Ethnographic approach (Bloome and
Green, 1998)
• Geosemiotics (Scollon & Scollon, 2003)
• Network theory (Law, 1999, 2003)
• Three sites:
1) small rural community outside of Adelaide, SA
2) larger outer suburb of Adelaide, SA
3) suburban, university town in Princeton, NJ
Research Design
Parent survey
Interviews with parents and service providers
Resource inventory & mapping (Neuman &
Celano, 2001)
Artefact collection
Web-site investigation
Opportunistic information gathering
Data analysis: geographic, social and
virtual affordances
• Spatial context – where is this text/display/shop? What kind
of space is this? How easy is it to find/reach/see?
• Cost – how much time/money/effort does it take to: get to
this place/access this resource/take this thing home?
• Social relations – which people are hailed to read this
text/come to this place and which people do?
• Mobility – how do information resources move in and out of
this space?
• Networking – what kinds of connections are made between
information resources in different spaces and across
material and virtual spaces?
Gumtree Plaza, a Westfield mall in NE Adelaide, viewed from library and local council
offices- a late 1960s planned separation of civic and commercial suburban spaces.
Mum’s Tips
Kids and Computers
I let my kids use the computer to access
some very good web sites, such as 'ABC
Kids', 'Happy meal', and some colouring
website..., even 7,9,10 news. I create links
that they can easily get on.
Shu-Fen (Mum of 2)
Inside the ABC shop Gumtree Plaza
Books, spin-off merchandise from ABC and BBC TV shows,
and Reading Eggs literacy materials displayed
Online ‘ABC branded stores’ for themed merchandise
‘Reggie’ animated
Tally of Games
Bought – formerly
View of RE world with animated avatars
Kmart is located alongside an open-style café where parents can sit and observe their children
playing in Playworld, a feature common to Westfield malls worldwide.
ABC books, DVDs & themed clothes in Kmart
The Physical and Virtual Worlds of
Babies R Us, Target, and Walmart
• Three commercial hubs in close proximity in
US site in ‘strip malls’
• Used a Sarah Pink lens for observations to
explore, “the production of both material and
social realities” to derive a sense of place. (Pink,
2008: 179)
• Documented ‘entangled pathways’ or making
of routes for sensory experiences.
• Such a perspective accounts for researcher
Using a Geosemiotic Framework
Babies R Us
Interaction Order: Interact with BRU representatives
Visual Semiotics: Texts are read at stations, large reception for
questions, answers, and requests.
Semiotics of Space: Open, expansive, modern, focused on
babies in all domains of philosophy and practice
Interaction Order: Little to no seeking out of help and most activity
in children’s clothing
Visual Semiotics: Parenting has a variety of books - not separated
by genre like B R U - privileging of children’s clothes instead of
Semiotics of Space: Muted colours, darker lighting, vast, busy and
hectic feel
Interaction Order: Focused shopping and interactions looking
for specific items
Visual Semiotics: Generic design with sections in the same
place in each store. Informational texts at the front of store
by the cash registers.
Semiotics of Space: Clothing in front of store and toys in back,
darker lighting and more chaotic feel.
On Walmart:
Moving into the store and walking east along the
side you hit: food; drugstore/chemist at the front
of the store and on the other side as you walk into
the main part of the store you hit: stationary items;
housewares; and gardening/landscaping. You walk
through aisles and aisles of housewares; sporting
goods; electronics; until you hit children’s toys in
the back of the store. Most of the toys have to do
with pure fun, but there is one row dedicated to
educational toys. (12/09)
Comparing Online Spaces
Babies R Us
Top Rated
What’s New
Bed + Bath
Walmart (Baby
Bedding and Décor
Car Seats
Diapers & Potty
Gifts for Baby
Toddler Room
Travel Solutions
Placement of semiotic artefacts like store signs
and toy packaging work to position parents in
particular ways vis a vis other people (e.g.
parents, education experts, children), objects (e.g.
books, websites, toys) and practices (e.g. giving
children pleasure, singing to children) as they
learn about how to care for young children as
‘proper’ adults from the perspective of
organizations or corporations and their sponsors.