Inside Disney’s Imagicademy

From the mag: Disney Publishing Worldwide takes on the US educational product and toy market with its app-driven Imagicademy.
March 3, 2015

Practicing math with Mickey and Minnie and learning science with Anna and Elsa isn’t just a fairytale anymore. New technology-driven brand Disney Imagicademy is taking preschoolers on a learning adventure that offers parents a way to expose kids to fundamental educational concepts while entertaining them Disney-style.

Disney Publishing Worldwide and parent division Disney Consumer Products have entered the education market in an unprecedented way for the House of Mouse with Imagicademy. While based in the digital realm, DCP also intends to move the brand into the physical world and is developing a full CP program to take a bite out of the multi-billion-dollar educational toy and products market in the US.

Of course, Imagicademy’s research-driven curriculum has the educational chops to back up its ambitions. Developed by Disney Publishing Worldwide, along with top academics and education experts, it was designed to meet a growing demand among parents for digital learning options that cut through the clutter and offer one comprehensive curriculum. The resulting apps and products cover key subjects that are important for early childhood development, including math, creative arts, science, language arts and social and emotional skills.

“I’m excited about how Disney Imagicademy has leveraged what we know about early child development to create a compelling experience for children with enduring characters and stories,” says Constance Steinkuehler, associate professor in Digital Media at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a consultant on the program. “There is some terrific research out there on children’s emerging literacy and numeracy, but too little of that research has shaped actual product design so that the digital products in children’s hands represents the best of what we know about cognition, learning and development. Disney’s Imagicademy is a great example of how learning and play, when designed well, can be utterly synonymous. They have taken the time to find the game in the content, and the results show.”

Her enthusiasm is shared by Andrew Sugarman, EVP at Disney Publishing Worldwide. “We saw this as a great opportunity because it fits so well with what Disney is all about,” he says. “Bringing content to life in magical ways is something that is part of our DNA, and the opportunity to interweave our characters and rich stories with great educational content is very exciting.”

The first two apps, Mickey’s Magical Math World and Disney Imagicademy Parents have been available on the Apple App Store since December, while Mickey’s Magical Arts World launched in early February.

The math app features five math-focused activities, including counting forward and backward, sorting and classifying, skip counting, number- and shape-recognition, reasoning and logic. Companion app Disney Imagicademy Parents allows parents to send a digital high five, see their kids’ creations, and get cues about questions and activities to enrich the children’s game play.

“We know that what is happening on the couch is as important—if not more important!—than what’s happening on screen,” contends Steinkuehler. “Disney has managed to design with connected, contextualized, everyday home use in mind—and frankly, they’ve done it in ways that don’t require hours of input from PhD’s in Education to play a direct and positive role in your kid’s gameplay. As a mom of two little boys, I love being able to look over my sons’ shoulders and make their gameplay into a family social activity without having to master every level of the game myself,” she adds.

Helping to get the creative juices flowing, the newest app Mickey’s Magical Arts World helps kids to create their own characters, stylize them and have them star in their very own cartoons alongside their Disney favorites. Disney Stores is supporting the creative arts app with special in-store “art of drawing” areas, where groups of kids can take lessons on how to draw their favorite characters.

Hot on its heels is a science app in March featuring Frozen’s Anna, Elsa and Olaf, followed by a Doc McStuffins language arts app due in summer. The apps are each broken down into four worlds, with all but Doc McStuffins housing five activities—there are 10 for hers. A music app is also planned, but no firm launch date has been determined. All apps in the first year are aimed at kids three to five, and apps for six to eights are slated for year two.

“Reception on the Apple App Store has been very strong. The first two apps are #1 in the kids  categories in 52 countries, and #1 in 41 international countries in the education category,” says Jeff Sellinger, SVP of Disney Imagicademy.

Its recent partnership with First Book has also gotten the apps into the hands of low-income families, with the entertainment giant donating US$5 million in apps and US$50 million in corresponding books to the nonprofit organization as part of a three-year commitment. Social enterprise First Book will provide download codes to educators and programs serving children from low-income families.

And even more kids will be exposed to the brand this fall, when the first physical products head to retail shelves. Retail placement is currently being determined via meetings with both large and small US retailers in all channels of distribution.

The first products out of the gate will be a Mickey and Minnie smart plush, created by Boulder, Colorado-based Smart Toy, acquired last October by Culver City, California’s Cartwheel Kids. (Smart Toy is best known for the Kickstarter-funded Ubooly, an interactive, educational plush toy that integrates with a smart phone.) Each plush has an internal operating system that makes it completely interactive and learns what the kids like, as well as adapting the learning to their interests.

Other products in play for the fourth quarter will be games and activities from The Wonder Forge in Seattle, Washington, and app-enhanced toys from Rahway, New Jersey-based KidDesign. Rounding out the mix will be augmented reality toys and enhanced books from  Mercury Active in Ottawa, Canada. Talks are underway with other “like-minded companies interested in developing items from a cross-product perspective that will allow kids to learn to interact with content as well as engage in physical play by doing, creating and making,” explains Sellinger.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Kidscreen

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