children's culture and new media

Thursday, February 21, 2002
5:00 - 8:00 p.m.
two-part forum

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
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.


First Panel

Howard Blumenthal
has 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.

Second Panel

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 of Squeak.

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.


CRAIG WALKER 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 children’s 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.

Guided by the principle that every Magic School Bus story must 1) be based on a core subject in science, and 2) involve a road trip, Walker’s 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 said.

In 1994 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."

The publishing 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.

Having explored 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.

"We’ve come full circle," Walker said.

HOWARD 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.

"The problem," Blumenthal said, "is that kids won’t tell you what’s 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.

Blumenthal agreed with Walker that once an educational product becomes widely popular it "ages down" and loses some of its educational component.

In another demonstration, he showed a sequence from The Simpson’s in which the characters act out Poe’s The Raven."We’ve reached a point where the media is more important than a teacher at a blackboard," Blumenthal concluded, "and it’s 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."

The challenge in creating educational media for children, Jones said, is to bridge the gap he sees between the emotional and the cognitive sides of a child’s being.

Jones cited his own experiences as a teacher of storytelling. "If I go in as an adult researcher wanting to know what they have to say, they’ll be inhibited. If I go in teacherly, they’ll 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.

"It’s 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.

To bridge 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 children’s emotional lives, learning to accept "kids’ more visceral, more savage" sides.

MITCHEL RESNICK of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten project commented that an important theme throughout the first three presentations was that emotional connections are important to learning.

There was an assumption, though, Resnick said, that for kids to make those connections, things have to be "superficial or easy or violent." But that’s not the only way kids make connections, he continued, "given the right contexts and materials kids will engage with more complex ideas."

Praising 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."

was critical of the first panel’s 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 people’s desires or weaknesses, the point of education is to take the hardest and best ideas that make us powerful and learn them."

Kay likened 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.

When children can use media to create something important to them by manipulating variables, Kay said, that’s when you achieve the crucial "visceral hit. You don’t have to have fantasies, you don’t need Batman, and you don’t need a bunny rabbit.

"Children 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?"

Citing education 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."

Kay then demonstrated the open-source software called Squeak (see 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.

Learning in this manner — affecting the real world through the direct manipulation of variables — is the goal of Squeak, Kay said.