Listen up, game developers and marketers. Catherine Mayer and Dr. Dimitri Christakis have a challenge for you. If you want to pitch an app for kids with the claim that it’s meditative, educational or bestows some other benefit … prove it.
That’s what they’ve tried to do.
Mayer, an accomplished Seattle-based artist, has released her free LAUGH app, which encourages mindfulness and relaxation in children ages 4-12. The app — whose acronym stands for Let Art Unleash Great Happiness — uses drawing, music and breathing techniques to entertain as well as soothe.
“The screen is there for good, bad or indifferent [uses],” Mayer said. “You might has well have something that is positive and calming rather than having them psyched up.”
So Mayer developed a prototype of her app and enlisted the help of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Christakis, director of the center, has written numerous articles and lectured internationally on some of the troubling effects of TV viewing, tablets and technology on young children.
“At last count, there were over 800,000 apps for children that claim some kind of health benefit,” Christakis said. “The vast majority, virtually all of them, have no scientific basis to make that claim at all.”
To determine if Mayer’s app could actually promote mindfulness in children, Christakis took kids ages 7-13 and divided them into two groups: one that used the LAUGH app and a second group that selected a different age-appropriate app.
During and immediately after using the apps, the researchers measured the kids’ heart rate and breathing. Also after using the apps, the kids performed a “stress test” in which they had to solve puzzles in a limited amount of time.
The heart-rate results showed an increase in focus and concentration in the children using the LAUGH app compared to the kids in the control group, Christakis said. The puzzle test also suggested that these children were more relaxed, but the difference between the groups in this part of the study was not statistically significant.
The experiments were admittedly limited and the sample size was small — 41 children were tested. Even more importantly, the study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which is the gold standard of research.
But Christakis said the results do provide a proof of concept showing that “it is possible to develop apps that can promote mindfulness and relaxation, at least in the short term.”
It also demonstrated that app developers can and should seek out scientific corroboration of their beneficial claims, Christakis said.
Mayer provided a gift to Christakis’ lab to fund the research, but she played no role in designing or performing the experiments, he said. For developers interested in testing their apps, the cost —which varies depending on the size and scope of the research — is around $50,000-100,000, Christakis said.
The Seattle company UpTop did the UX design, illustration, animation and development of the LAUGH app. The game is only available for the iPad.
Mayer said the designers had to throw out conventional strategies used for building video games. The bright colors, loud noises and fast pace that are often employed to captivate users wouldn’t work for her app. Even the narration needed to be mellow, without being sleep inducing.
In the LAUGH app, a cartoon ant gently tosses a ball into the sky, encouraging the viewer to slowly breath as the ball rises and falls. In another activity, children do contour drawing, outlining the shapes of an apple, butterfly or fish.
When it comes to contour drawing, “the whole goal is teaching you to slow down and look at something, which is the whole focus of what you’re trying to do with the kids,” Mayer said.
The final exercise is to choose from a variety of photos, such as a ball, boat, fish, flipflops, etc., and draw that image using a digital crayon, pencil, paintbrush or other tool.
Mayer, whose work includes large installations in corporate settings, hospitals and hotels, has also taught art classes where she observed the relaxing effect of drawing. In more recent years, she has been creating what she calls Ambient Art, which incorporates multi-sensory stimulation, such as music with an underlying heartbeat rhythm, to create positive feelings in people experiencing the artwork.
Mayer funded the app through the Catherine Mayer Foundation. She may eventually begin charging for it to pay for new versions. An adult LAUGH app is under development and should be available in the next couple of months.