Human-centered design is core to how we develop Jerry the Bear – a smart teddy bear that helps kids learn about their health.
As a team, we spend a lot of time talking to kids, families, and clinicians about difficult challenges that they face in healthcare education. We particularly deal with the educational and emotional challenges for children living with type 1 diabetes and food allergies, since these are the conditions that Jerry the Bear addresses.
One of the big insights that we’ve gathered so far is how kids mirror their health care with their plush animals. In play terms, this role-playing can be an incredibly powerful tool to build empathy and enhance emotional vocabulary. In the process, we’ve learned tons of different ways to leverage play to engage kids in a dialogue about their health.
4 ways you can use plush animals, like Jerry the Bear, to incorporate health into play with your child:
1. Use plush animals to play through stressful locations
Places like the doctor’s office or the ER can be scary. For kids with food allergies, even the school cafeteria can be stressful because they might be the only ones at the peanut-free table. Have your child pick one plush animal, and let this be the protagonist. Facilitate conversations for kids to become more comfortable with difficult situations by acting out scenarios they might encounter at a hospital or at school. Ask your child what their plush animal might be feeling or thinking. Let their answers prompt a conversation about what can be done to make their plush animal more comfortable and combat stress.
2. Use multiple plush animals to show the importance of community
Understanding the caregiver network around children is a key part of health education. For example, when a child with type 1 diabetes is having severe symptoms from hypoglycemia, it’s important to know who, when, and how to ask for help. Bring out multiple plush animals and give personas to each of them like a schoolteacher, a nurse, parents, or close friends. Take on the voices of one more of the personas and begin to role-play through serious situations like having allergy symptoms or just pure fun events like recess with your child. The goal is to show that there are many caregivers around the main plush animal that are there to help. Use these scenarios to demonstrate different ways that the plush animal can ask for help when it’s needed.
3. Develop vocabulary by asking how the plush animal is feeling
Sometimes kids might not feel comfortable sharing what they need to share and how they feel. For kids with type 1 diabetes, we’ve heard stories where parents struggle to understand what “I feel weird” means. When kids use a general word like “weird,” it’s unclear if it’s something like an alarm-raising “dizzy” from a high blood sugar, or an everyday “I feel thirsty” after playing outside. Whether your child has a chronic condition or not, the ability to articulate physical and emotional feelings is key.
Kids can develop their skills in these areas through practice. Similar to the first method described above, use role-play to ask your children on how their plush animals are feeling. This not only helps them practice how to communicate, but also reinforces your relationship as a safe place for them to share their feelings.
4. Practice daily regimens with the plush animal
When a child needs to take medication, check their blood sugar level, count carbohydrates, or even eat healthy foods, play can be a helpful way to encourage them to try new things. First, try mirroring these activities with their plush animals to get them comfortable with what’s about to happen. Show how the plush animal reacts to these various routines. It’s important to give your child an active role in this process so they can feel what’s it’s like to be a caregiver. We’ve seen this technique work incredibly well when parents give shots to plush animals before their children.
Most importantly, keep it fun! When learning about health is integrated into play, children can learn faster and will want to learn more because it’s so much fun. Remember to encourage open-ended play and let them release their endless creativity!
If you have other ideas that you have tried with your child, please share your stories in the comments!