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The Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield

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So, first of all, I’m sorry: I keep telling myself I will write up my impressions of The Children’s Media Conference (July 6 – 8) in a series of brilliantly pithy observations… and then the task sort of overwhelms me and work gets in the way, so I don’t. And I know that I have to do this blog post, so I don’t do any other blog posts. Hey ho.

Anyway…

This was my first visit to Sheffield, and Sheffield – well, the town centre at least – was sort of beautiful. The picture above is of the Winter Gardens, one of many newly constructed landmarks that were as lovely as they were full of people.

It was, therefore, my first visit to The Children’s Media Conference. The content and the delegate make-up of the conference skews towards children’s TV programme makers… and children’s TV is, on the basis of the sessions I attended, in at least as much of a state of transition as is children’s publishing.

I was there to speak at two sessions. First, I presented and participated in a workshop, So You Think You Need An App. Second, I presented in a tell-it-like-it-is session, A Tale of Three Apps, talking about Nosy Crow’s experience of building The Three Little Pigs from scratch, bringing together people with a publishing background and people with a games-making background.

With over forty sessions at the conference, there was a lot to take in.

Of course, I learned some some very specific things – did you know, for example, that only 4% of all video games made earn back their development costs and only 20% of video games that make it to retail earn back their earn back their development costs?

And I listened to some very inspiring people.

Lord Puttnam’s advocacy of a digital curriculum (as opposed to a digitised curriculum) in schools was authoritative and robust. He pointed out teacher Bev Evans’ site as an example of good practice. Here he is addressing a packed Memorial Hall audience:

Michael Acton Smith’s account of the rise of Moshi Monsters was compelling for anyone in the children’s creative industries, and particularly for me, as the founder of a start-up. Apart from anything else, it was also one of those very salutary stories of trying again, and plugging on, even in the face of disappointment, as you can almost see from the graph showing numbers of Moshi Monster users behind Michael Acton Smith in this (characteristically bad – I took it) photograph:

As Michael Acton Smith says, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Just fail fast.”

Michael Acton Smith’s view – and, of course, he would say that, wouldn’t he?… But it was persuasive when articulated by someone who’s got 50 million users – is that the next major children’s properties will originate not in books and not in film or TV but online.

So I learned specific things, and listened to inspiring people, but what is hard is to distill a few thoughts and ideas for the purpose of this blog from the huge mix of – sometimes conflicting – information and ideas in the presentations. Here’s my attempt to convey a few of the things I came away with:

CHILDREN ARE NOT BEING TRANSFORMED BY TECHNOLOGY

Instead, children are incorporating technology into what they’ve always done – playing, learning about the world, connecting with friends, communicating. I think that the best session to illustrate this for me was Seven Myths About Young Children and Technology. Academics Joanna McPake and Lydia Plowman drew on household case studies to counter prevailing myths about pre-schoolers and technology. Here are just a few of them:

Children and technology shouldn’t mix

There’s no evidence that young children are harmed by exposure to technology, or that it impacts negatively on their learning or communication skills. Indeed, the researchers concluded that children are learning skills and are able to expand their knowledge of the world through technology.

Young children are “digital natives”

Children find technology, and especially traditional computers (this research predated iPads, of which, the researchers suggested, there would be few in the homes they studied), difficult, frustrating and sometimes overwhelming. They learned from adults and older children – there was nothing particularly instinctive in their interaction with technology.

Technology hinders social interaction

Children, even those who were, for example, exposed to a TV for most of their waking day, were able to tune out technology to play and have other kinds of interactions with the people around them. And often what they were doing with technology or what they were watching was itself the source of conversation and questions or a different kind of communication: the researchers spoke about children keeping in touch with relatives abroad via Skype, for example.

If it’s interactive, it must be educational

Joanna McPake and Lydia Plowman bemoaned the poor quality of many interactive products available to children that were just “uninspiring workbook stuff” on some kind of screen. I would, myself, completely agree with this!

You can find out more about this area of research here and here.

CHILDREN’S EXPECTATIONS OF TECHNOLOGY ARE HIGH

One of my favourite sessions was Unlikely Visionaries – How Kids are Predicting and Designing the Future. Children were asked to draw something that a computer couldn’t do right now, but that they wanted it to be able to do. The results were remarkable. Children wanted a more human interface with computers – a “person” to whom they could ask questions rather than typing things onto a keyboard. They envisaged breaking down the boundaries between the real and the virtual – being able to enter the “computer world” or take things or people out of the “computer world”. They envisaged enhanced connection and communication with information and with other people, though, for example,the computer reading their minds or the computer facilitating mind-reading between people.

You can find out more about the project here and see some of the images here

STORYTELLING REMAINS PARAMOUNTBUT WHO IS THE STORYTELLER?

Many of the delegates at the conference – myself included – would say, I think, that we pride ourselves in telling and shaping stories for children. But there’s a tension between “the old way” of supplying fixed narratives for children (lstories that are as well-crafted as we can make them) and the opportunities (and, perhaps, the expectations) of digital consumers to make and shape their own narratives. Of course, we could go all Roland Barthes about this and say that any experience of even a fixed story belongs exclusively to the individual and differs every time that individual brings new experiences to it, but what I am talking about here is that books, and films, and TV shows are the same for everyone and stay the same every time, and that’s part of their appeal: the gruffalo always has “terrible tusks and terrible claws/and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws”, because that’s how Julia Donaldson wrote it, and how every adult reader reads it out… to the point that many children can recite those words. The question is, will digital consumers want, increasingly, to create and personalise their own stories – a kind of limitless choose-your-own adventure, where you are the writer as well as the chooser. Personally, I think that there will be a role for technology products that enable children to influence stories, and even create and shape their own work, but there will also be an ongoing role for fixed stories (some of which will become loved and familiar, like The Gruffalo). As Lord Puttnam said, “Innovation is as much about creating new tools as it is about creating new content for distribution”… but, in the end, the reason that J K Rowling and Dreamworks are successful is that they tell a better story than their readers and viewers ever could.

Children’s creativity was brilliantly showcased in the session, Children as Content Creators. Sarah Cox, Director of the Tate Movie Project, described the process of crowd-sourcing the animated movie The Itch of the Golden Nit.

Blue Zoo’s Olive The Ostrich combined animation created by adults with animated images created by children was, and this demonstrated the commercial potential of children’s creative work (it’s on Nick Jr this autumn).

Muvizu showed some funny films (as the speaker said, “children have no appetite for anything sensible”, though he then went on to show some exceptions) made entirely by children, using Muvizu’s innovative animation software package

There’s a collection of blog posts on all the sessions here and new ones are still being posted today, I see.

There was also a good amount of live tweeting going on, and the Twitter hashtag is still being updated and is worth a browse, or you could look at this one of several Chirpstory version

For alternative individual accounts of the conference, you could try this from Ian Wareing of Vision+Media and this from Jeff Norton of Awesome Media and Entertainment.

I plan to be there next year.

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