Ten Trends in Interactive Media for Children from Dust or Magic

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Each year technology reveals new possibilities for delighting and educating children. It’s challenging to stay abreast of it all and, at the same time, easy to get overzealous in adopting new platforms and features for the sake of it (it’s a touch screen so now you should be able to touch EVERYTHING right?). In this rapidly evolving ecosystem it is important to pause and seek guidance and inspiration from children, innovative companies and experts who focus on kids media.

dust or magic

That’s why earlier this month I found myself at Dust or Magic, a conference by Children’s Technology Review that owes its name to poet Matsuo Bashō who said, “An idea can turn from Dust to Magic depending upon the talent that rubs against it.” Conference attendees hope to be the talent that rubs against magical child-friendly interactive media products and spend an intensive two days focused on finding the magic in what they do, learning from those who have captured it already and taking the time to reflect on both the purpose and impact of their work.


Continue the learning with a focus on ebooks and kids apps at Launch Kids at Digital Book World 2014. Full schedule.


shutterstock_71261851Many of the speakers and staple attendees have witnessed various waves of children’s’ media – from CD Rom to game consoles and now the latest, apps. In the words of David Kleeman, President of the American Center for Children and Media, child development and how children learn remains constant – even as the context shifts wildly. So while the tech may be shiny, different in shape and number of buttons, the keys to it making an impact with children remain the same. As such, there is a strong focus on influential theories of child development and an unspoken expectation that all children’s product developers need to build these understandings into their books, games, toys and apps.

tabletsTheories of motivation and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Constructivism, Behaviorism, Social Learning Theory, Bloom’s Taxonomy through to Maria Montessori and more are discussed on day one with a preparatory reading pack sent around before you even arrive. Ensuing trend presentations, panels and product demos are then viewed through an academic paradigm that steeps fun and brightly colored interactive products with greater smarts and significance. It’s theory applied to practice in real time to ensure everyone leaves with a true appreciation for the capabilities and learning patterns of children from 0 to 15 years of age. One key takeaway is that while we may have all been children ourselves, that doesn’t mean we understand the minds of kids today, and we can’t possibly deliver a magic experience for them without extensive play testing and a rigorous approach rooted in research.

With a barrage of information overload from the serious and academic to the ridiculous (have you seen the music video The Fox or ‘What the fox say’ that’s becoming a picture book?), ten key themes emerged for me and here they are in no particular order:

1. Existing stories can be told in highly relevant and new ways, on a whole new level with book apps. Disney Animated, a new app from Touch Press, elegantly leverages touch screen interactivity to tell the story of how Disney animated films are brought to life. There are interactive images, animated clips with frame-by-frame control, Disney 3D characters to animate and a rich color block timeline of all 53 Walt Disney Animation Studios features. Co-founder and CCO Theodore Gray’s product exemplified his message that technical limits must be pushed, that the industry needs to aim high and challenge what has come before, and that we can still learn from the best storytellers such as Disney by ensuring that in new media, we still layer meaning to engage adults.

The Disney history also raised a poignant point about this moment in time – just as Walt and Roy challenged the status quo with animated film characters in the 1920s, and risked their business on ambitious projects like the first full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, we too need to realise that interactive media is in its infancy and it takes decades to establish a new medium with norms and a stable audience. This left me with an overarching question, “If we compare interactive media to the film industry, what era are we in?” It’s not a reason to sit on the sidelines and watch with caution but an invitation to be part of shaping the future. Encouraging and hopeful.

2. Technologies that enable cross-platform publishing have become a dominant choice for app developers who see the value in publishing the same app across iTunes, Google Play and Amazon, even though the majority of revenue from paid app sales still comes from Apple. Unity 3D, traditionally a gaming ecosystem, seems to have emerged as the tool of choice for publishers both big and small – and not just for games.

3. Curation in the app store continues to be a significant sales driver and signs are its role will continue to expand. The App Store recently separated out apps approved for clinical use. This raises huge potential for other sectors where quality control is an issue, for example, (ahem) education.

4. PR is effective for app marketing but without a product that catches fire and demonstrates traction, being picked up by mainstream news is virtually impossible. A tech columnist for the New York Times shared that they only cover apps with proven traction in the paper. It in unsurprising then that many app developers who have grown their teams significantly over the last year have yet to add a marketing function. Product, product, product is the mantra and price elasticity to achieve ranking spikes are the key strategies employed to keep products flying off the virtual shelves, therefore demonstrating traction without hard sell and earning media attention.

5. Apps with a strong curriculum focus are on the rise. Certified educators are joining agile development teams and assessment modules are being built into app interfaces for teachers to seamlessly integrate specific activities with clear educational outcomes (often Common Core Standards aligned). The volume purchase program available to schools on the app store as well as the trend of schools adopting tablet devices makes this strategy a no brainer for developers hungry for sales volume. The best curriculum based apps are retaining a playful and approachable aesthetic while ensuring academic rigor is in place (Moose Math and Pet Bingo from Duck Duck Moose are great examples). Whether or not apps with such depth will be commercially viable remains to be seen. The current appetite for highly competitive pricing is making true quality unsustainable for smaller shops.

6. Apps for learning don’t all follow curriculum and we can learn from their approach – especially at the long tail. Tinybop’s stunning debut with The Human Body in August has set a new standard for visually led learning, with a mission to nurture curiosity in children and answer their questions (with a science bend). The app launched in a plethora of languages (easier for a very visual app) and international markets now account for 34% of app revenues. With great content, why limit yourself to English speakers? Localise. It’s going to continue to be a trend with quality translation services on the rise at competitive rates.

7. There are a flurry of digital toy apps with no intent or desire to create curriculum based learning goals. Toca Boca is the key leader in this genre. They don’t claim to be educational, but of course children learn through interacting with everything from toy cars to personalized character avatars in Toca Mini and construction activities in Toca Builders. Interestingly, many of these are found in the education category. Enduring characters and narrative are seen as unnecessary by the app designers, who believe they can both limit creativity and stifle the use of interactivity.

8. Traditional linear storytelling is limiting innovation in digital books and will change. Pictures, sounds, and environments – they can all tell a story. A touch screen world allows stories to unfold through exploration and interaction; we don’t need to constrain ourselves to a traditional mode of sequential narrative. Digital publishers also need to give more credit to young readers who can fill in the gaps without needing everything spelled out. A highly visual, interactive and nuanced book experience is within reach and promises to provide as much value in stimulating the imagination and early literacy through a fresher approach.

9. Toys that interact with touch screen apps are increasingly sophisticated and on the rise. The most innovative and ambitious use of these products thus far is in Disney Infinity and Skylanders where you can ‘play’ with physical characters on the device of your choice. The set up includes a cloud-like feature that lets users upload and download the game’s virtual worlds to all major consoles and iPads for seamless play across multiple screens at home and at friends. It mirrors the way children play without a concern for the boundaries of screens and brands. In the case of Disney, the games encourage imaginary storytelling as users can mix and match characters from different Disney movies, TV shows and theme parks in the Toy Box – a bold and brave move for a company so protective of their IP. Watch this space.

10. Gamification continues to be in vogue – even in creative commons literature. We saw Pride and Prejudice turned into Stride and Prejudice, an endless runner game over the text of Jane Austen’s novel. A novel approach, you may say, to getting people through the book…

There certainly is a lot of magic twinkling and sprinkling out there and the next year will be key to seeing it take shape into products that pave the new normal in children’s entertainment – stay tuned for cross-platform, media optimized experiences that blur boundaries that only adults ever perceived. When it all feels too much, join the crew at Dust or Magic to help distill next year’s tech and trends into digestible insights. You will be overwhelmed but you should also leave inspired.

Watch some of the talks from Dust or Magic on YouTube.


Continue the learning with a focus on ebooks and kids apps at Launch Kids at Digital Book World 2014. Full schedule.


*Image of girl wearing 3D glasses via Shutterstock.

*Image of digital tablets via Shutterstock.

Amy Friedlander

About Amy Friedlander

Amy Friedlander is an Australian currently living in Atlanta. With an honors degree in Media and Communications, Friedlander started her career in PR, learning the ropes of digital marketing during a stint in London working with (amongst others) publishers HarperCollins, Scholastic and Hodder. She embraced the revolution of retail with the wave of e-commerce, leading the successful launch of borders.co.uk. She spent a few years focusing on integrated marketing, advertising and strategy at M&C Saatchi, Sydney where she led the award-winning account for Google Australia as well as other blue chip clients. These days she's embracing entrepreneurial life as a partner in Wasabi Productions, where she focuses on growth and sharing the journey.

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