It’s time we started playing together

Can a gathering of big names (and egos) in the children's digital media business yield a collaborative learning environment? The annual Dust or Magic conference shows it's possible, especially when attendees remember to treat play - and not themselves - seriously.
November 12, 2014

Last week I attended Warren Buckleitner’s annual Dust or Magic conference, where we looked at toys, apps, and trends to predict what will become “dust” or “magic” in the coming year. It’s a small gathering by conference standards  (only 75 people), and many are repeat attendees, making it both insular and intimate.

The goal, according to Buckleitner, is “about helping us all—whether we’re publishers or reviewers—do a better job. As a reviewer, I get to debate with other reviewers to hear how we each define the dust and the magic of the passing year. I also learn what products I need to watch; and what areas I’m missing. Publishers get to meet the minds behind the products, and learn how to avoid train wrecks.”

After 36 jam-packed hours, what I walked away with, aside from a crash course in child development theories and hands-on views of fresh and soon-to-be released products (some probably dust, some magic), was a renewed faith in our industry.

Buckleitner opened the conference promoting active learning: child-driven, empowering, and engaging strategies. It was a medium is the message moment. The group, including such industry titans as Barbara Chamberlin, Drew Davidson, Chip Donohue, Chris Heatherly, Jesse Schell, Mark Schlichting, openly shared their knowledge and contacts. Like the polished teachers and professors many of them are, presenters patiently explained theories, methodologies and designs, and then showed how they use research and reality to create the best products. Throughout the two days, developers demo-ed new concepts. We in the audience critiqued the ideas using lasers. Dust or magic? It was experiential, engaging, empowering…and authentic.

Usually when big names (and egos) conference together, there’s a lot of marketing and competing. Don’t get me wrong: I sell Sandbox Summit every chance I can (hint: registration is now open). And healthy competition usually raises the bar on new ideas. But the nurturing, teaching, and collaborating that pervaded this gathering were almost ego-less. Buckleitner describes it as “… a giant ‘stone soup’ where we each put something in, and we all collectively enjoy the end product.” Everyone in attendance had a common goal: to make better, smarter products for kids. Access and support from each other made it so much more effective. It was an embodiment of open source technology.

Chip Donohue, imagining what Fred Rogers would tell app designers captured the magic of Dust or Magic with these tips:

1. Success comes from relationships and connections. In our quick-changing arena, it’s certainly as much about who you know as what you know.

2. Treat play seriously. It’s our business. And our kids’ future. Research, testing and ethical products should always be considered.

3. Keep the child inside you alive. Our business is about fun. Smile.

4. Be authentic. Sharing is personal. Letting others know you is a good thing. Let’s save the games for our products.

It’s always good to hear about great gatherings. Send info to wendy@sandboxsummit.org.



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