Launchpad Toys has a history of designing fantastic story spaces for children through their Toontastic apps which I much admire. Indeed, one of their co-founders Andy Russell and I have spent a lot of time talking and thinking about chilldren’s apps for play and learning. One of these conversations resulted in the Children’s App Manifesto. And they always come back to a child-centered focus that asks: How do we make this digital space most beneficial for children’s development? How do we get them to play and tell stories with each other using digital tools? Not so that they only do it on these devices, but so story writing and story telling and creating worlds and playing exist both off the screen and on the screen—and increasingly jump between the two.
With the recent launch of Toontastic Jr: Shrek, the first in what I expect to be a series of digital storytelling apps created by Launchpad Toys and Dreamworks, the idea of jumping between screens and the physical world becomes more possible. The Toontastic brand begins to enter the world of transmedia story-telling in a deliberate way. Children have of course used the tool to do this already, there are some great Toontastic cartoons on Launchpad Toys’ ToonTube where children have created whole narratives around Angry Birds and other characters they know.
Children do this because they connect with the characters and they know, or have ascribed personalities and traits to them already. Children deserve popular culture. Geekdads know this, they want to have characters and scenarios that they can connect with and laugh at who help drive stories and narrative in their world. So, when Russell recently told me that what they found in the user-testing of Toontastic Jr: Shrek was that children were telling more nuanced and in-depth stories, that the length and quality of the narrative was stronger than in their Toontastic Jr: Pirates, this was a lovely piece of news. Children could do this because they know and love and have a strong understanding of the character and their world (which, as another app publisher pointed out to me, is the world of fairy tales which are timeless and core narratives in human history). It means that educators and parents need to consider the importance of those who are creating the characters and scenarios for our children to engage with, but it also means Dreamworks is showing that they get something that not all content creators do.
Dreamworks is offering up their characters, to the children who connect with them, and saying “You tell us a story.” They are respecting children enough to allow this app to be created and in doing so are being respectful of the capacity and the ability for those children to tell great stories with the characters that Dreamworks has created and own. This is the future of storytelling. Hollywood overuses the term “transmedia”—it is not simply a way to drive more revenue, it is a way to change the relationship audiences have with characters and story worlds.
The world of digital toys and apps for children is both a competitive and brutal one, and so LaunchPad Toys has followed a path that many others have of iterating and building on ideas, learning from mistakes and always observing and watching the way children engage and interact with mobile devices. This means their apps keep getting better. Toontastic Jr: Shrek is a fabulous tool for parents who want to sit alongside their children with an iPad and tell a story together. The Launchpad Toy team recognizes that this is important: look at the way they are positioning their apps in the marketing material. They are not just encouraging people to purchase an app so parents can get respite while the children play on the screen. They are inviting you to consider how you play with your children in digital environments and how that engagement contributes to your child’s development, to your relationship and to our shared ability to tell great stories.