February 21, 2002
5:00 - 8:00 p.m. two-part
20 Ames Street
Media convergence is dramatically altering the landscape of
children's culture. Children are increasingly encouraged to
invest their attention and interest in stories that cut across
multiple media channels and encourage their active participation.
These new strategies are being deployed by educational media
producers as well as commercial entertainment companies. This
forum explores the thinking that goes on behind the scenes in
the development of new media products for children, as well
as examining some of the social and cultural implications of
living in a world where children are media makers as well as
media consumers. Across two panels, we will explore how media
makers think about children as they are developing transmedia
franchises, how children consume and create new fantasies from
the resources the entertainment industry is providing them,
and how technologists are developing tools to enable children
to create and exchange their own media products.
Howard Blumenthalhas worked in senior roles in television,
Internet, book and magazine publishing, music, software and
in advertising and marketing. His television credits include
the PBS show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and
MTV's Remote Control. Most recently, Blumenthal was senior
vice president of media at CDNOW Inc., and previously held a
similar position at KIDSOFT.
Gerard Jones is the author of Killing Monsters: Why Children
Need Fantasy Games, Superheroes, and Make Believe Violence;
Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream;
and The Comic Book Heroes. He is a former comic book
and screen writer whose creations have been developed into animated
television series and video games. Jones also conducts the Art
& Story Workshops for children and adolescents.
Craig Walker, the creator of the Magic School Bus
science series, is editorial director of media and trade paperbacks
at Scholastic Inc. Recently, he developed Scholastic's Jedi
Apprentice series as well as the multi-formatted Pokemon,
Powerpuff Girls, and Teletubbies publishing programs.
Alan Kay is recognized as one of the fathers of the personal
computer, graphical user interface and object-oriented programming.
Through his work at Xerox PARC, Atari, Apple and Disney, he
has had a deep influence on the computer and entertainment industries.
He recently started a nonprofit organization called Viewpoints
Research Institute, and is playing a central role in the development
Mitchel Resnick directs the Lifelong
Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. His articles
have appeared in The Atlantic, New York Times,
Chronicle of Higher Education and U.S. News.
traced the history of The Magic School Bus science book
series, which he helped to create for Scholastic Inc. in 1986.
At a time when science books contained primarily black and white
photos or drawings, the world of childrens fiction was
"exploding," Walker said, with vibrantly colored and
engagingly written books. He began exploring the idea of putting
curricular materials in science for the early grades into a
fictional picture book format.
the principle that every Magic School Bus story must 1) be based
on a core subject in science, and 2) involve a road trip, Walkers
team developed the first book, The Magic School Bus at the
Waterworks, in 1986; then followed with books about geology,
the human body, the solar system, the oceans and dinosaurs.
These books became staples in elementary classrooms, Walker
The Magic School Bus television show premiered on PBS
while Microsoft, a financial backer of the program, launched
a software-based version of the series. While he praised the
software version for its interactivity, Walker said the television
show had the effect of "aging down the audience."
program that was tied directly to the television show has not
been successful, Walker reported, and the core book series was
"beginning to explore less appealing topics" such
as hurricanes and beehives. The final book in the series, about
the human senses, was published in 1999.
all the core curriculum topics with Magic School Bus, Scholastic
turned to digest-sized books with black and white drawings on
more focused topics (skeletons, for example) that still contain
some element of a fictional story, and, finally, to the totally
non-fiction Magic School Bus Fact Finders series.
come full circle," Walker said.
BLUMENTHAL enlisted the onstage help of his 13-year-old
son Steve to reinforce his message that creating media for children
"must involve children" Showing several popular toys
such as Beanie Babies and Pokemon, Blumenthal asked his son
if he liked each one, and why or why not.
problem," Blumenthal said, "is that kids wont
tell you whats on their minds." He said dressing
casually and not asking open-ended questions are helpful ways
to encourage children to respond openly. He showed a clip of
the geography contest that concludes an episode of the television
show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, explaining
that it had been created after discussion with the children
who appear in the program.
agreed with Walker that once an educational product becomes
widely popular it "ages down" and loses some of its
demonstration, he showed a sequence from The Simpsons
in which the characters act out Poes The Raven."Weve
reached a point where the media is more important than a teacher
at a blackboard," Blumenthal concluded, "and its
a scary thought."
GERARD JONES said that much educational media fails to "connect"
with their young audiences in a way that comic books do. The
author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes
and Make Believe Violence explained that comic books appeal
at a "visceral, emotional" level that is "missing
in our approach to education."
in creating educational media for children, Jones said, is to
bridge the gap he sees between the emotional and the cognitive
sides of a childs being.
his own experiences as a teacher of storytelling. "If I
go in as an adult researcher wanting to know what they have
to say, theyll be inhibited. If I go in teacherly, theyll
be inhibited. If I go in as the cool guy who makes comic books,
if I am something non-educational, then I seem to connect.
not a fault in our culture that kids get so much more excited
about entertainment than education," he said. There is
power and energy in entertainment that children respond to and
appropriate creatively. They often have a visceral, emotional
connection to their preferred entertainment forms. Pokemon toys,
for example, achieved such popularity because the range of creatures
in the Pokemon world were so diverse gentle, quieter
species registering with some children, flamboyant or aggressive
creatures appealing to others.
the gap between educational media and the emotional dimensions
of experience often exploited in entertainment forms, Jones
said, programmers and teachers must become less afraid of childrens
emotional lives, learning to accept "kids more visceral,
more savage" sides.
RESNICK of the Media Labs Lifelong Kindergarten project
commented that an important theme throughout the first three
presentations was that emotional connections are important to
an assumption, though, Resnick said, that for kids to make those
connections, things have to be "superficial or easy or
violent." But thats not the only way kids make connections,
he continued, "given the right contexts and materials kids
will engage with more complex ideas."
Alan Kay for his adherence to this idea, Resnick introduced
Kay as among those who "first saw the computer as a media
machine, and not just a calculating machine."
ALAN KAY was critical of the first panels approach,
saying "No child has ever invented calculus, so asking
children what they want to know is a dead end. The whole point
of education is not to market to peoples desires or weaknesses,
the point of education is to take the hardest and best ideas
that make us powerful and learn them."
the approach described in the first panel in which curriculum
is delivered by entertainment-like characters and/or scenarios
to "putting Béarnaise sauce on a hot dog" when
kids would be satisfied with the hot dog.
can use media to create something important to them by manipulating
variables, Kay said, thats when you achieve the crucial
"visceral hit. You dont have to have fantasies, you
dont need Batman, and you dont need a bunny rabbit.
do live in an emotional world," Kay conceded, "and
many children are the heroes of the drama they are spinning
out with the playthings they have. Do we just cater to it, or
can we make use of it?"
theorists such as Maria Montessori ("Children are set up
by nature to their environment through play.") and Media
Lab pioneer Seymour Pappert ("Should the computer program
the kid, or should the kid program the computer?"), Kay
discussed the evolution of his ideas about integrating computing
power and education: his goal involves not just play "but
constructive play in which the child does a lot of the work."
demonstrated the open-source software called Squeak (see www.squeakland.net)
he has helped to develop. Kay showed how a child could be asked
to draw a car, for example, and then could affect changes such
as the direction in which it is moving by manipulating variables.
And because of the Internet, Kay said, children using Squeak
can work collaboratively over distance with so-called student-mentors
who have mastered some aspect of Squeak.
in this manner affecting the real world through the direct
manipulation of variables is the goal of Squeak, Kay