Can An App Help Teach Empathy and Mindfulness?

Anna Ly, one of the Fred Rogers Center’s Early Career Fellows, was working on her graduate degree at Stanford when a presentation from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center gave her a eureka moment.

The center presented a prototype of a videoconferencing app they created with the Nokia Research Center called Story Visit, which lets far away parents or grandparents read “Sesame Street” books with children even when they are not in the same room. It was based on research finding kids had a hard time staying on the phone for more than approximately two minutes, whereas parents struggled to keep a conversation going. Storytelling, developers believed, might do a better job of capturing kids’ attention and keep them on the phone longer.

“I knew I wanted to be in that space—a combination of research, children’s media and technology,” Ly said of her reaction to the presentation. Previously, she worked at IBM and Intel, but she was pursuing her master’s degree in Stanford University’s Learning, Design and Technology Program to figure out how she could match her skills more directly with children’s media.

“I wanted to work with an organization that has its bones in traditional children’s media but also is extending themselves to look at advanced technology and other platforms for teaching children,” she said.

Today, Ly is the senior manager of business and creative ventures for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and an Early Career Fellow with the Fred Rogers Center. The fellowship is a chance for early-career technologists, writers, artists, educators, and others interested in childhood development to create high quality media, or to conduct research on how digital media and technology tools can be used to support social-emotional development.

Using her background in technology and children’s media, Ly is in the process of leading a team of designers in creating a new app that uses breath and storytelling to teach empathy and mindfulness to young kids.

“The whole theme around this app is mutual respect and understanding,” Ly said. “That was one of the strongest things I learned growing up watching Fred Rogers and that he tied throughout his whole series. We felt this was one thing that’s a passion project for all of us—and kind of tribute to Fred Rogers for teaching us to be how we are today.”

I actually think the key to helping people in the future is empathy and teaching kids mutual respect and understanding.- Anna Ly

Today, educators are using mindfulness meditation techniques in schools to get kids to slow down, focus on their own breathing, and be present in the moment. This technique was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Buddhist and a professor of medicine emeritus who’s work found that such practices can help reduce stress.

The core idea for Ly’s app is based on a Chinese parable about empathy and mindfulness. In the parable, an ox herder becomes frustrated because his oxen aren’t cooperating with his directions. But as he calms down, so do the ox. Eventually he sees that he’s an ox, too.

In the app, which is still in development, young users will progress through scenes by breathing into the iPad’s microphone and following certain breath patterns. In the first scene, following the breath pattern might just make the ox come out of hiding. But as the scenes progress and music changes, the character comes closer and becomes friends with the user as long as he or she keeps breathing calmly. But if you breathe too hard or yell? The ox will run away.

“It’s not blatantly teaching them to be mindful. It’s not saying, ‘Oh, be mindful of this character,’” Ly said. “It’s less directed and it’s more of them feeling the experience and learning as they go. We wanted something more natural.”

The whole concept came about via research Ly conducted with parents and children. She studied what parents were using to calm their kids down and how children responded to breathing exercises like blowing up balloons or doing yoga exercises.

The app will also let parents record themselves counting or saying the child’s name, and it will integrate their voices with the app itself. Ly said hearing their parents’ voices not only contextualizes and makes the app more relevant for the child, but creates an opportunity for parents to get involved.

“I actually think the key to helping people in the future is empathy and teaching kids mutual respect and understanding,” Ly said. “That’s always been something driving my work.”

Ly and her team, developer James Borda, composer Michael McDermott, and illustrator Julie Pinzur, plan to have the app completed in March.

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