Let kids make the best games in town

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Today's software and TV producers recognise the importance of involving children in designing tomorrow's interactive digital toys and entertainment.

I know this is going to sound a bit, excuse the expression, child-centred, but please believe me, it's all about cutting-edge technology. At a conference last week entitled Digital Childhoods, one theme stood out.

People who make successful children's television and software are telling us that the most effective ideas, the ones kids like best, are the ones that inspire them to play.

The stereotype of mini-couch potatoes staring blankly at the box for hours on end, engulfed in a cacophony of sounds and images that do not really mean anything to them, may be mistaken.

This does not only apply to deliberately educational programmes such as Sesame Street and Blue Peter (which has stood the test of time because it involves the audience in doing things). It also pertains to shows made for pure entertainment - the ones teachers and parents wring their hands over in fear that they are melting children's brains.

One speaker at the Cambridge conference, organised by Nesta Futurelab, was Jocelyn Stevenson of HIT Entertainment, which has brought us Bob the Builder, Barney and Angelina Ballerina. She began her career with Sesame Street in New York, and was therefore horrified to find that her first-born son's favourite programme was He-Man Master of the Universe, the unreconstructed 1980s superhero cartoon. But it turned out that he was organising creative games in the playground based on the characters. The children had made the programme their own.

The importance of ownership was highlighted by a number of software and TV producers who had actively worked with children as co-designers.

A poignant story came from Lieselotte van Leeuwen of Sunderland University, who is working on a European Union project to develop interactive games for blind children. These youngsters feel left out of the fun that other children have, she said, and want the chance to play and learn independently. They feel they do not have the chance to communicate who they are.

The blind children in the project wanted to be able to use voices to create characters for their storytelling. They wanted to be able to use sound effects. They came up with a specification for a sound toy. It should incorporate a real-time voice-changer, be small enough to fit in a pocket, and should feel and look cool, so that other children would envy them.

Sadly, so far, this toy has not been built.

For children who can see, there were wonders aplenty. And the trend was very much toward providing a platform for children's creativity.

A stunning example is Kahootz, from the Australian Children's Television Foundation (ACTF), a rich visual digital world, which children can pick and choose from to make animated films, build pictures, add in their own creations, tell visual stories, or simply explore the caves, nooks and crannies which have been built in.

Peter Maggs, a new media education specialist at ACTF, showed an animated film of a raft carrying a family across dolphin-filled waters to a beach - it had been made by a nine-year-old refugee girl in Melbourne whose family had escaped from Afghanistan. Another film depicted a spooky castle filled with sinister equipment, and circled by a dragon. It was created collectively by long-term ill children to describe their experiences of hospital. Mr Maggs said Kahootz enabled children to learn from each other as they collaborated, teaching each other quirky technical tricks and building on each other's ideas.

Sometimes, though, kids just need to relax, as adults do, and a bit of couch potatoing can be restorative and necessary.

"Kids in today's world are under huge pressure," said Anna Home, chief executive of the Children's Film and Television Foundation. "Is there enough space for quietness, just for messing about?"

"Sometimes they need to watch rubbish," said the former head of BBC children's television. "It's good for their souls."

Kahootz is for sale in Australia. More information from www.kahootz.com

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