Nutrition series gets US$2 million to fund research on its educational value
An innovative approach to tackling the childhood obesity epidemic in the US Hispanic community could spawn a new way to educate kids through evidence-based content.
New York City’s LanguageMate has developed a new animated series aimed at the four to seven demo that’s built upon wide-ranging research into how to depict issues surrounding health and nutrition to preschoolers. The investigation specifically targeted the US Hispanic community, whose rate of obesity is estimated at 25%.
Through the course of the research, LanguageMate discovered that there is an inherent connection between nutritional knowledge and communication tools. ‘We found kids don’t have the communication skills to even talk about healthy foods,’ says Bill Z. Tan, founder and president of LanguageMate. ‘They know how to ask for a lollipop or a new toy, but there just isn’t a lot of discussion about healthy food.’
The resulting Flash-animated series The Big Adventures of MiniMities (six x 15 minutes) features three children: César, Milo and Mei. Each ep follows the trio to Yummy Town as the kids quest to find a healthy ingredient for their grandmother’s kitchen. Along the way, they must deal with Junk Food Punks who try to steer them in the wrong direction. In one ep, for example, the trio meets Broccorella, who expounds upon the health benefits of the cruciferous vegetable. And at the end of each journey, a grandmother prepares a healthy meal using the new ingredient. (The bilingual series has five versions, mixing the use of language from 95% English to 95% Spanish.)
And in an innovative twist, LanguageMate undertook an intense 10-month study after the eps started screening to find out if the show’s message was getting through. ‘We set up a randomized controlled trial to study the issue,’ says Tan. ‘To our
knowledge, this type of study is not frequently applied to
children’s television – it’s time-consuming and resource-heavy.’
The series and research were funded to the tune of US$2 million by the US federal government’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The organization vets thousands of grant applications each year in a rigorous process with strict criteria. Far less than half of applicants are deemed worthy of funding by the org.
‘I think the series is a great way to reach kids,’ says Peggy McCardle, chief of the Child Development & Behavior Branch at the Center for Research for Mothers & Children that works under NICHD. Upon approving LanguageMate for funding, she says she was impressed with the company’s efforts. ‘The series was adorable and I think kids are really going to benefit from this.’
With the grant money in-hand, LanguageMate set up a randomized controlled trial in which 69 Spanish-speaking families were split into two groups. The first group received a DVD of The Big Adventures of the MiniMities to watch, while the other group got a written brochure containing the same basic health and nutrition information.
The study concluded that kids who watched the DVD enjoyed a 12% increase in their ability to name different fruits and vegetables, while the kids reading the brochures experienced an increase of just 1.75%. Additionally, 65% of parents in the DVD group actually tried making the healthy recipes from the series at home.
‘There are few proven studies that an educational program actually modifies behavior,’ says Tan. ‘So these numbers were a significant indicator of positive behavior modification. It was very exciting.’
Tan says that LangaugeMate is currently in talks with several US TV networks, as well as a broadcaster in Spain, about airing the series and possibly using the format to address other issues like physical fitness. ‘Most of the networks are looking for 26 episodes,’ he says. ‘But having a series that is supported by a reputable organization like the NICHD and being able to prove that it works, certainly has opened some doors.’