A young child’s Google searching: The affordances of online tools for offline interaction in the home

Christina Davidson 
School of Education, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga

The use of the term affordance is now prolific in relation to information technology and its use, however, there are differences in the ways the term has been defined and understood over the years. For example, Gibson (1979) suggested that for each kind of affordances we should ask “what is the stimulus information that specifies it and how is the information picked up?” Thus, he claimed that an affordance was “a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior” (1979, p. 403). Norman (1988) proposed, alternatively, that we need to think of perceived affordances in order to avoid the problem of specifying what things themselves afford. Others have developed versions of these positions (Oliver, 2005); some apply the term without defining what is meant by it. Oliver concludes that the concept has “drifted so far from its origins that is it now too ambiguous to be analytically valuable” (2005, p. 402).

In this paper, I address the problem of defining affordance (Oliver, 2005) by proposing a respecification of affordance from an ethnomethodological research perspective (Garfinkel, 1984; Schegloff, 2007). From this perspective, affordances are to be regarded as practical accomplishments or social activity that is accomplished during everyday interaction. Addressing practical accomplishment leads to an understanding of affordances as these pertain to situated use of particular tools and to social interactions with others during that use.

The paper examines affordances using data from a broader study of young children’s use of the internet. Data selected is from a recording of a young child’s Google searches. At the time of recording, Denny was two years and eleven months of age. He regularly used the computer with other family members to look for lizard related items on the internet. The paper analyses Denny’s activity as he initiated a Google search and examined search results on Wikipedia and YouTube sites. Denny’s interactions with family members were also recorded during his use of the computer. Later, the recording and transcript of it were analysed using conversation analysis. Questions guiding analysis were: how are online tools oriented to and consequential for social activity during use of the computer?

Discussion of findings establishes important connections between uses of online tools and offline activity, and shows that distinctions made between these in the literature are not always consistent with the everyday use of computer technology where we may find that online and offline practices are “co-articulated” (Leander & McKim, 2003, p. 212). This may be particularly the case with young children and the use of the internet (Davidson, 2011), especially when young children are learning to be online in the environment of the home. As Gibson (1979, p. 68) himself notes, stage of life may influence what is considered to be an affordance. Finally, the paper returns to the problem of defining and applying notions of affordances (Oliver, 2005). Conclusions are drawn in relation to the respecification of affordances, in this paper, as socially accomplished interactional activity.


Davidson, C. (2011). Seeking the green basilisk lizard: Acquiring digital literacy practices in the home. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. doi:10.1177/1468798411416788

Garfinkel, H. (1984). Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gibson, J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Leander, K., & McKim. (2003). Tracing the everyday ‘sitings’ of adolescents on the internet: A strategic adaption of ethnography across online and offline spaces. Education, Communication and Information, 3(2), 211-240.

Norman, D. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.

Oliver, M. (2005). The problem with affordance. E-Learning, 2(4), 402-413.

Schegloff, E. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction: A primer in conversation analysis Vol 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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