The federal government is financing puppet shows with fruit and vegetable characters in order to train preschoolers to eat more healthily.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has paid $374,670 thus far to a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine to create the "motivational theater," which will feature a fruit and vegetable character having more fun than a little boy with a bag of potato chips.
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"Theatre performances are a promising approach for engaging children with messages about healthy eating," the grant reads. "Theatre interventions appear to be most effective when they involve a story (also called narrative)."
The project is using theater in the hopes that the puppet shows will help "create a deep affection for the characters" among children enrolled in the government preschool program Head Start. The study is specifically targeted at low-income African-American and Hispanic children.
The puppets will be modeled off characters created by Theresa Nicklas, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who is leading the project. Nicklas created animations of two characters "Judy Fruity" and "Reggie Veggie" that talk about the fun of eating fruits and vegetables at a circus.
A third character will be used for the project: "Bag Boy," a sad unkempt child with a bag of chips over his head and pockets stuffed with burgers, donuts, and lollipops.
"Reggie Veggie©, Judy Fruity© and the Bag Boy© are three characters that have been created to encourage children to eat more healthy fruits and vegetables," explains Innertainment, a media company that helped develop the characters. "Research conducted using Innertainment’s I Matrix, Motivational Theater and the Translation Narrative Model of change indicated a positive shift toward eating more vegetables in Head Start children."
"This research is conducted through a research grant with Dr. Theresa Nicklas at the Baylor College of Medicine," the company said. "The characters have appeared in animation and are currently being translated into four 15 minute puppet show videos for children."
Dr. Nicklas previously received $373,325 from the NIH to study an exercise intervention for Head Start kids. The "Children in Action (CIA) program" was also targeted at minority preschoolers.
The project chose video puppet shows so that they can be shown on a mass scale.
"Moreover, the audience gets exposed to the same puppet show with all the key messages; thus the intervention is more standardized," the grant said.
Through the "innovative" approach, the study envisions that children will learn from the puppet shows to eat more vegetables throughout life.
"Since children's food preferences and practices are initiated early in life (e.g. 2 to 5 y[ears of age]), early dietary intervention programs will have immediate nutritional benefit for young children, and should reduce chronic disease risk when the learned habits are carried into adult years," the grant said. "An underused health education approach involves drama or theatre performances in the school setting for educating children."
The study began recruiting participants in August. During the clinical trials four videos puppet shows will be created, and then shown to a dozen children "immediately prior to the lunch meal on [four] consecutive days."
"These children will be assessed at lunch using the digital diet estimation method," according to the NIH.
In order to participate in the study, children must be healthy African-American and Hispanic-American 3 to 5-year old "normals." The project excludes children in special education programs, and those who cannot read and write in English or Spanish.