“How can media help children and their families to stay healthy? From understanding how their bodies work, coping with illness, learning about health and fitness, or improving their medical experiences; worthy doesn’t have to be boring and a dose of media medicine can be just what doctor ordered.” (The Children’s Media Conference)
Last week at the Children’s Media Conference, I was lucky enough to present on a panel about using kid’s media to help child health.
I was there to talk about Dubit’s Innovate UK -funded project, with the Royal College of Art, Glasgow School of Art, Sheffield Children’s Hospital NHS Trust and the University of Sheffield, to build a Playkit for preparing children to have an MRI scan. I was accompanied by a range of very knowledgeable people working in this field and this got me thinking about what my tips for design in this area would be.
Firstly, on the panel was Kez Margrie, Commission Editor at BBC Children’s. Since 2012, she has commissioned the CBBC series Operation Ouch, which follows children attending A&E, as well as two identical twin medical doctors undertaking experiments to illustrate the amazing-ness of the human body.
Kez described how the series does not shy away from showing real life injuries. This was demonstrated with a clip of a child, who was featured on the show, having split his head open and exposed his skull. For many adults in the audience, me included, this was exceptionally hard to watch but Kez talked about how children have an interest in how the body works and it is good to show how even severe looking injuries can be treated, allowing this particular child to walk out of A&E by the end of the episode. Herein lies one of what would be my first points to consider in designing kids media for health.
Tip 1: Do not shy away from gore.
Trying to protect children from medical information can make things more difficult for them to understand. Beside blood and guts is the backbone of many a child’s imagination.
Also on the panel was Alisha Aggarwal, a Medical Student at the University of Sheffield. She talked about her involvement with the Teddy Bear Hospital Society. Among other things the society holds an annual event in which children are invited to bring their teddy to have a medical check-up at various health stations that include having blood pressure measured, a consultation with a GP, listening to teddy’s heart and having an MRI scan. The event is aimed at reducing childhood anxiety about hospitals and doctors, and promoting good health practices.
Physical play offers the chance to repeatedly play with health themes regardless of whether a child has access to a digital device or not. The inclusion of a favourite physical toy such as a teddy bear leads me to Tip number two:
Tip 2: Including a well-loved toy means the health narrative being designed can be centred on a character the child is already emotionally invested in.
This brings comfort and familiarity to learning about potentially unsettling health issues.
The third person on the panel was Dominic Minns from Plug-in Media. He is responsible for the production of digital games that link to shows such as Operation Ouch and its younger equivalent Get Well Soon. The app designed to tie in with the latter offers a series of mini games to help a puppet patient get better.
For older children, such as those watching Operation Ouch the app Snot Apocalypse requires players to run from a snot cloud and remove nits from a patient’s hair.
The above examples are designed to give children general medical and health information. Both games use aesthetics and gaming mechanics built on a long history of knowledge of children’s digital play and trends in digital media. Thus:
Tip 3: Just because the message might be serious attention must still be paid to keep the play fun and the aesthetics on trend.
Finally, I was on the panel to show how new technologies such as Virtual Reality can be used to provide help with the requirements of specific health issues. In the case of the MRI Playkit this is to use the technology to teach children not only about the scan procedure but also to practice staying still, in a tight space for a long period of time, which is a requirement of being scanned without a General Anaesthetic. In order to understand how best to encourage children to do this the project started by seeking the knowledge of children. We played the game Sleeping Lions with groups of school children and then asked them how they stayed still whilst the adults were pulling funny faces and trying to make them laugh and move. The ideas shared by the children demonstrated their expertise and provided a starting point for our digital game design.
Tip 4: As ever, I advocate for the positives of including children in the design process.
Overall, I believe we have great potential in the children’s media industry to do good for children’s health. Kez described how the media industry is often viewed as having a negative impact on child health, by making them more sedentary etc. However, work such as the above also illustrates that because we know so much about what makes media attractive and fun for children, we also have the opportunity to use these skills to help them prepare for health procedures and learn about the body. It is time to get rid of all the ugly and boring games that currently exist in the Health Sector and let the fun roll on.