For 14 years, researchers, reviewers, and thought leaders in the world of interactive media for kids convene at Dust or Magic events to discuss, dissect, discern, and determine where the magic lies – and where it doesn’t – in digital products for youth.

They are helping to chart the way forward for our field, while providing tried-and-true advice to developers as to what constitutes developmentally appropriate learning tools for young people.

I was thrilled to be a part of the Institute for the first time this year.

The overarching goal of the Dust or Magic Institute, I quickly learned, is to define the factors that contribute to making child-focused interactive digital media – whether apps, games, TV, web-based tools and programs, eBooks or toys – worthy of our esteem or otherwise, that is: Magic or Dust.

Products are demoed, analyzed, and critiqued through the lens of childhood development, learning theory, and what can be considered educational play.

At Dust or Magic, the judgments aimed at today’s offerings are binary. But that’s not to say it's all clear-cut. For the world of children’s interactive media is in its infancy – the equivalent of the silent picture show days in the evolution of film – and what makes something “best in class” is changing all the time.

Factors that made magic even five years ago may tend toward dust today. As the devices (hardware) evolve, so must the software, and with it the content. As we learn more about what we can do with our tools, so too expand the myriad options that suggest what we can do with pictures, stories, words, and games to engage and educate young people and lay the foundation for lifelong learning.

Magic-Making Factors #1, #2, & #3

One conclusion we reached this year is that the earliest digital products sought to create one-to-one relationships with users, mirroring the experiences one might have with a book. Also like the book, these products tended to be linear.

Today, however, the strongest products succeed in bursting linear boundaries. They also encourage group experiences and empower users to jump off the screen and relate to each other and their environment.

This can be seen in the many offerings of Toca Boca that inspire creative parallel play among the pre-school set, the screen being their starting point. In Tinybops’ brilliant interactive exploration of the human body, aimed at an older audience, navigating through the app is anything but linear. The same can be said for most of the apps coming out of Touch Press, including their latest: Disney Animated. And Time Traveler Tours’ own innovative approach to educational tourism, in which the screen and story launch users into an exploration of their physical surroundings, was also validated.

The video above shows me demoing not just Beware Madame la Guillotine, but the Time Traveler Tours & Tales concept in general. We came out with a strong 7 out of 10. Pretty good for a first-timer at the Dust or Magic institute, don't you think?

I hope you’ll take a look at it and give us your rating.

Do you have any questions about Dust or Magic? Ask them in the comments. I’ll be happy to address them in future posts. Meantime, stay tuned. More #DustorMagic musings to come!

All best, Sarah