Virtual reality game aims to teach children healthy habits


Kindergarteners playing the virtual reality game must make a decision: What is the name of the fruit they see?

With $15 Google Cardboard glasses and an interdisciplinary research team, Changmin Yan, associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has created an immersive experience to encourage healthy habits for young children in rural communities — particularly those from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Children interact with a new Nebraska-developed virtual reality game that teaches children about nutrition and physical activity. Illustration by Alyssa Amen.

The project’s virtual reality curriculum focuses on nutrition and physical activity, drawing from federal guidelines such as MyPlate. Children can choose among three nutrition games: identifying foods, categorizing them according to MyPlate, and identifying how much of each they should eat — referred to as “go, slow, and whoa” foods. They can also choose between two physical activity games.

“The issue we’re trying to tackle, childhood obesity, is quite complicated,” said Yan, who directs the Center for Health Promotion and Translational Research in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. “That’s why we adopted a team science approach with experts from diverse disciplines. This makes us better positioned to band together and solve problems collectively.”

The research team chose to use virtual reality based on two theories. The first says that kids learn best when they are active and in charge of their learning experiences. The second suggests that if someone is transported into a narrative, they are more likely to be engaged in the storyline.

“Virtual reality is the latest tool that allows us to tap into full immersion with fewer distractions,” Yan said. “The more immersed kids are in our virtual reality game, the more likely they’ll be engaged with the healthy values we’re trying to teach.”

To adapt the game for rural populations, University of Nebraska at Kearney team members Megan Adkins and Matthew Bice engaged Kearney school districts and community organizations to better understand issues of access, affordability and sustainability in rural communities.

These conversations led the team to swap devices: shifting from a more expensive virtual reality headset to the cheaper Google Cardboard glasses.

Additionally, University of Nebraska-Lincoln team members Adam Wagler, Dipti Dev and Lisa Franzen-Castle focused on simplifying the game, allowing users in rural communities to play without depleting their data plans.

“Our team really wants to address health disparities,” Yan said. “We don’t want to make a virtual reality platform as an elite device, or else we are creating another gap. We want to make our game as accessible as possible.”

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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