Virtual Sprouts: A Mobile Gardening Game to Prevent and Treat Obesity

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*Donna Spruijt-Metz, PhD, Marientina Gotsis, H. Chad Lane, Giselle Ragusa, Jaimie Davis, Gillian O’Reilly, Yasaman Hashemia, Xiomara Mateo-Gaxiola
University of Southern California
Demo-Interactive Presentation – Research Track
Saturday, Sept 29, 2012: 10:28 AM – 10:48 AM – LK120

*Presenting Speaker

Background
In 2010, the First Lady formed the first-ever federal task force to address the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S. One of the key pillars was making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families and using gardening as a primary vehicle to engage the public in this initiative. The First Lady’s Organic Garden at the White House has been used to help teach children about a wide variety of topics, such as how to make healthy food choices and prevent obesity. Although gardens cannot be brought to everyone, we can teach children and families to garden, to grow healthy foods in their back yards, community gardens, balconies and even their living rooms. The use of gardening as a teaching tool has tremendous potential to influence the diets of American families, and ultimately to prevent childhood obesity. Therefore, we are developing Virtual Sprouts, a mobile, digital game to prevent and treat obesity in minority youth and their families. Using any time, anywhere technology (mobile/internet) to deliver an engaging gardening game, Virtual Sprouts seeks to decrease childhood obesity in vulnerable populations.  Virtual Sprouts is designed to improve health & nutrition related knowledge and behaviors in low income, minority populations in Los Angeles, including children ages 8 to 11, their parents, family members, teachers and community.

Methods
Virtual Sprouts has the potential to revolutionize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education on obesity, promote healthy food choices and decrease obesity rates in youth. In their web-based garden, children and families will learn to select what crops to plant, plant their own garden, watch it grow, tend the crops, harvest them, and prepare them as part of a healthy diet. Our goal is to positively influence dietary intake and prevent/treat obesity in minority youth through meaningful play. Virtual Sprouts brings a novel combination of technology and teaching to bear on pediatric obesity in urban Los Angeles, and will employ interactive, mobile game techniques, rich narrative, a pedagogical agent, and experiential learning to achieve the aims of the program. To date, we have employed extensive iterative playtesting methodologies to determine optimal game mechanics, and community participatory research techniques to ensure that content and form are optimized to fit community and research needs.

Results & Conclusions
We have conducted early phase playtesting with 10 parents, 10 children, and 2 teachers. This has influenced choice of platform, and moved us away from computer-based games towards tablet and phone. A large-scale kickoff meeting was attended by master gardeners, teachers, clinical partners where Virtual Sprouts will be disseminated after initial dissemination and testing in school settings, researchers, and experts in nutrition, and community members. They participated in focused idea building sessions to inform choice of characters for the Virtual Pedagogical Agent and important content areas. This presentation will detail the methods used for game development, the interim results from the playtesting and community sessions, and how these are used to inform game mechanics and development.

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