Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory = Magic.

A major focus of the Dust or Magic Institute is to bring educators and technologists together in the same space, and to provide the latter with a crash course in Childhood Development. Why? So that they may create age- and developmentally-appropriate products for kids, steeped in sound educational theory. The most important one being that all of us, kids and adults alike, learn best through play.

As a teacher of 20+ years, I was gratified to discover educational theory being applied to children’s interactive media in this way.

However, lacking in the above equation, I felt, was the time-honored lesson to be drawn from the world of children’s publishing: that the visual element serves a valuable role too, and one often neglected in today's interactive media for kids.

As a children’s author and a connoisseur of picture book art, I was shocked by the low visual quality of some of the media products we studied at Dust or Magic. Many of them, I’m sorry to say, were just plain ugly, with illustrations that looked little better than clip art.

Anyone working on behalf of children must appreciate the role that great illustration plays in communicating with and teaching children. In illustrated books, the story and images weave seamlessly together to create something better than the sum of their parts. Indeed, great illustrations tell at least 50% of the story and can make an already great text shine even brighter.

Yet, this is not often the case in today’s digital products.

Not all children’s digital media will contain story. They don’t all have too. But digital media are nothing if not visual. It is imperative, therefore, that we developers make our products visually appealing. To make them works of art.

Beware Madame la Guillotine, for example, is illustrated with great period masterpieces as well as propaganda and popular lithographs dating to the French Revolution. While we place an emphasis on the history as revealed by the story and accompanying treasure hunts, and not on the art per se, the app is also a subtle lesson in Art History. And we trust that this will be understood on some level by each of our user/readers. 

Our kids deserve the total package. It’s not enough to be age appropriate and steeped in sound educational theory. Our products must also be beautiful.

Nosy Crow and Touch Press set the standard in this regard, as do the apps by OCG Studios, illustrated by Roxie Munro. Their products combine great storytelling with gorgeous illustrations, topped off with interactive gaming elements that enhance the narrative and extend learning.

At the Dust or Magic Institute, participants rate demoed products on a scale of one to ten – one being “dust” and ten being “magic”. Judging criteria are not provided, so it’s hard to know what’s behind each participant’s decision. But I'll admit to aiming my laser beam low (see video above for explanation) for any product – even the most educationally sound – if it did not deliver a quality visual experience as well.  

As a children’s author, app developer, educator, and burgeoning digital publisher, I feel most days as if I am contorted on a Twister board, struggling to maintain a viable position; or drifting the northern seas with each of my two feet and hands clinging to a different iceberg, each ice floe representing one the four elements -- educational theory, great story content, and compelling visuals -- I hope to bring together in my ambition to produce quality interactive product for kids.

But it can, and must, be done. As Warren Buckleitner, himself, beseeched us at the close of the 2013 Institute: “Go forth and do right by the kids!”

It is my hope that developers of children's interactive digital media will take a minute to hire a proper illustrator for their future projects. Following on that, I hope that the opening equation of Dust or Magic 2014 be modified as well to read Technology + Learning Theory + Play Theory + High Quality Visual Art = Magic.

What do you think? Should digital media for kids honor a visual aesthetic? Please leave a comment and tell us what you think.

To Learn about Magic-Making Factors #1-3, Click Here.