Digital magazines designed for kids are giving new meaning to the phrase “early adopter.”
Children’s magazines have come a long way from those dusty print editions at the pediatrician’s office. While adults struggle to join the transition to digital magazines and apps, their offspring are moving seamlessly into the new age of publishing. Kids now have a variety of digital publications and related apps at their fingertips on the iPad and other devices.
Both established publishers and startups are experimenting with new ways of reaching this audience, while reshaping what it means to be a young reader by creating new interfaces and social tools. Their creativity should inspire those working on digital magazine products for adults, and also shows us what today’s young magazine app users may expect as they grow into sophisticated, experienced readers of digital media.
Playing, Educating, Informing with Apps
Though many parents are familiar with kids’ games offered for mobile devices (and the easy distraction they can offer at key moments), children’s magazine publishers are moving beyond them.
The app Timbuktu, for example, is an iPad news magazine developed for kids that offers news in fun ways. With text, videos and graphics developed by a global group of contributors, the app is cleanly designed and offers creative presentations of news for children.
Timbuktu editor in chief and founder Elena Favilli said the magazine’s goal is to “combine education and technology to display everyday news.” She said news is typically presented only for adults.
“Children are usually completely cut off from it,” Favilli said. “We tend to think … that children only like fantastic and imaginary tales, but the themes we read every day in newspapers also have great potential for [children’s] personal growth and learning.”
The publisher of the Ladybug and Cricket print magazines for young readers is also extending those brands through the development of educational, reading-focused apps. The Ladybug’s Bookshelf iPhone app offers stories with animation and sound so that kids can either read on their own or have the story read to them, along with other interactive features.
“To my mind, nothing replaces the parent at the bedside reading the story, or looking at picture books in the library, but I think more and more of these different platforms and options give children different ways of connecting with literature,” said Alice Letvin, editorial director for the Cricket Magazine Group at parent company Carus Publishing. “The imaginative engagement can be heightened through these apps, [as well as] the pleasure of being in control of your own learning, doing it at your own pace. It’s something that can be very motivating.”
Bringing Digital Magazines into Children’s Worlds
Some might question whether even the best-designed children’s magazine app or game can offer a valuable experience for growing minds.
Allison Druin, associate dean for research at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, researches children’s use of technology. She believes that digital magazines won’t even register with today’s children as distinctive from reading experiences in other media.
“It’s not just going to be one medium or another. It’s going to be a technology ecology,” Druin said. “Sometimes they’re going to be reading on one form of media, sometimes another. Kids do not care what they’re reading on, as long as they can curl up in their bed, on the floor, in a corner.”
Druin suggests that the main concern in designing reading-related apps for kids is “whether the interface gets in the way.” Accessibility and ease of use are key, as well as maximizing the capabilities of the digital device.
Making Apps Accessible for Children
Publishers and developers are striving to make their magazine apps intuitive, immersive and fun for kids.
KidsMag is a brand-new iPad app released in early May that includes a collection of informative and educational games, such as number and letter games and an interactive audio-based story about firefighters.
KidsMag’s creator, Gabriel Pasqualini of Portegno Apps, was inspired by watching his own children, ages 1 and 3, interact with the iPad. The children test new games before they’re released.
“The relationship they have with the iPad is incredible, the way they handle it and play games,” Pasqualini said. He’s found that kids can do more than expected using the iPad interface, challenging assumptions about his target audience of 3- to 9-year-olds. He’s also used advice from teachers to make the app age-appropriate.
Translating Print Mag to Digital
Finding the best way to translate an established magazine brand into the digital platform can be challenging. Highlights for Children, one of the best-known American kids’ magazines, doesn’t yet offer a digital edition, but has licensed its name for iPhone games created in collaboration with an outside developer.
“Our initial apps are an extension of the magazine in that the art assets originated in print. Our focus, however, was to create the best experience we could for [the iPhone and iPod Touch],” Christine French Cully, editor in chief of Highlights, said via email. “It just so happens that our Hidden Pictures puzzles translate very well to this platform.”
For Cricket, part of the appeal of creating apps was finding new audiences for their magazines’ content. Letvin says they wanted to “go beyond the PDF” of digital replica editions, and capitalize on their publications’ unique strengths.
“We felt we had distinctive content, and a lot of fine art — not just cartoon art or computer art,” said Letvin. Future content for their Ladybug’s Bookshelf app will include a rebus and original music based on the work of author Edward Lear.
Advertising is also a challenge when children are the target audience. Timbuktu, a free app, will likely begin to include more contextual advertising from carefully selected companies that fits the editorial content.
“It’s something that, together with editorial content, contributes to the stories, and so to the growth of children,” Favilli said. “Of course, advertising, and especially advertising for children, has a negative perception among people, but we think a good form of advertising can be just another instrument of communication and learning for children.”
Young Readers Interact Socially, Globally
One of the most exciting possibilities of kids’ magazine apps is the potential for children to enjoy reading with each other. Interactive magazine apps potentially offer a new social environment for young readers, where they could discuss stories and play educational games together. The ease of circulating digital magazines globally can draw readers from many countries into the discussion.
Letvin of Cricket says kids love the magazines’ Letterbox sections. They enjoy reading what other children have written and contributing their own thoughts.
“Children’s magazines are wonderful for creating a sense of community,” Letvin said. She anticipates a time when “digital magazines are able to do some of these things, including some social connections, particularly if it involves international contexts with other schools.”
Timbuktu includes a section called “Ask Auntie Rita” that uses letters from children. Favilli says they hope to open the section to readers’ letters in the next issue, which could be written by Timbuktu’s worldwide audience and submitted within the magazine app.
Kids are also increasingly taking control of their own digital experiences. “When our first apps came out, they were primarily downloaded by parents and ‘passed back’ to children. Since then, more and more kids have been getting their own devices,” said Cully of Highlights.
This means that many children now have direct access to apps developed especially for them — apps that are offering sophisticated, interactive reading experiences, which will soon be social and globally interconnected.
These truly early adopters of digital magazine technology are growing up with high expectations for the media they consume. The question is whether publishers will anticipate this youthful audience’s demands and fulfill them.
Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.