What do children (want to) know about the immune system?
I wrote a 5000-word long story about Didi, an immune cell (to be precise a dendritic cell) in the lungs. I’ve written, edited and re-written the story so many times now, that I actually needed to put it down for a while and not look at it anymore. I couldn’t see a thing anymore.
Can you relate to that?
I guess that happens with every work you are totally immersed in. You need to take a step back, get some distance from it, in order to see it more clearly.
What are your strategies to deal with that?
I simply left the file untouched for a while, while I started writing blog posts for my blog and picked up more freelance work for my own business.
But then comes a time, when you do read it again.
But even then, I couldn’t see a thing anymore.
As I’m really a “people’s person”, I work best when I interact with others.
So, I knew I had to seek more feedback and advice on how to proceed.
How will I ever get this story published? And where? And is it ready as it is? Or does it need more mayor revisions?
One thing that was clear to me from the beginning, is that by writing in English – not my native language- I needed a native speaker at one point to look through it. I found a fresh pair of eyes when my friend Kasia from Canada was willing to read the whole story. She not only checked for spelling mistakes (and believe me, there were tons) and grammar, but she also provided valuable comments about the story structure and gave me tips about parts that she found to be too difficult for kids ages 7-10.
All of this feedback made the story even stronger.
I also realized that I needed to understand my target audience a bit better.
I myself don’t have kids that age and find it hard to envision what they know and what they care about.
Do you have kids that age?
Since I don’t, I could do three things: I could try to find someone with kids that age, or who professionally works with kids that age or I could ‘analyze’ (oh so scientific of me) what kids generally ask about a related science topic.
I did and will do all of this. Bare with me.
First of all, I send my story to two friends with children that age. I’m super curious what they will think about it and what kind of questions they have. I’ll keep you informed!
Second, I contacted a science communication professional from my network, Annette ter Haar. She is the director of a primary school in Leiden and has a passion for writing and reading children’s books. She has also followed multiple creative writing courses and events from known Dutch children’s book writers.
She sent me a long list with tips where I would like to pick one out which really resonated with me. It's from the Dutch children’s book author Jan Paul Schutten who has come up with three important questions you should ask yourself when writing a book for children.
They make a lot of sense.
What do you want to talk about?
What should kids know about the topic?
What do kids know about the topic?
The first two are relatively easy to answer. But only at first sight.
What do you want to talk about?
I already wrote a blog on answering this first question. I can tell you distilling the essential 1% of knowledge about the human immune system from the wealth of possible knowledge is not an easy task.
But it is very much necessary because it forces you- the writer- to really, really focus.
This took months, no kidding.
But it was worth it.
What should kids know about the topic?
Gee.. this is already a tricky question.
Because now you basically have to decide for them. It’s already hard to do this for your own kids, let alone for kids you don’t even know.
After putting much thought to it I realized what I wanted children to know.
An answer to this question:
What happens in your own body when you feel sick?
Of course, there is no such thing as an answer to this question. You can easily study years of medicine or biomedical studies and still not have an answer.
So, again, I told myself: focus! Keep it general. And most importantly, relatable.
This is a good keyword.
When I spoke to Annette, this word exemplifies my biggest ‘Aha’ moment.
Annette told me that she liked the story. It has good elements in it, but it is still very much abstract and maybe too complex for the intended young audience. Kids needed to relate to it.
How could I solve this?
Somehow, I needed to make it more relatable.
In my story I let the reader literally crawl up their own nose, creep through their own windpipe and the tubes that form your lungs. All of this, to finally meet their own immune cell Didi, who is patiently waiting for you to get to where she lives.
Deep down inside your lungs.
I guess at one point you- the reader- are pretty much detached from your own life outside, lost in the land of immune cells.
I needed to find a way back, a connection to the outside world, to remind you why you’re visiting immune cells to begin with.
For you to understand what happens down here when you’re sick.
So, what is it that your cells do that makes you feel sick?
So far, I’ve completely neglected this connection to the ‘outside world’.
I subconsciously knew all that when writing, because in my mind I had a sort of checklist: this probably makes fever, this probably increases your slime production in your nose, this might trigger coughing and now you probably feel miserable, in pain and exhausted. At the peak of an inflammation cells use up so much of your energy that you simply have non left.
All you do is sleep. You’re just too exhausted to run around and do fun stuff. You sleep.
Every one of us can relate to this. Because we all have been sick before.
Now I had to bring this feeling, this experience into my story. To link what is happening with your cells to the perception you feel from inside your body.
What does it mean to you? This is a sort of magical question I hear a lot when talking about science communication. I keep repeating it too, when I discuss science communication with others. Yes, very important. Make it personal.
But how do you achieve this? This is a completely different ballgame. Let me tell you.
Maybe I found a way though.
Every time I had this mental link to symptoms, I simply included them now.
I speak to the reader directly. You are probably feeling warm and feverish now. Weak and exhausted. You are now experiencing a runny nose and coughing or having difficulty breathing.
Then I bring it back to my main protagonists, the immune cells.
What about you? Have you had the first (or second) shot of the corona vaccine?
Maybe you, or people you know might have gotten a fever; you might have felt exhausted. All of that means that your immune cells are doing what they actually should do. This is- in a very strange way- actually a good thing. Even though it doesn’t feel that way at all. After all, you want the benefits but not the pain. But hey, no pain no gain.
At least you can be sure that the vaccine was doing what it was supposed to do. Kick start your immune cells into action. Train them for their future encounter of SARSCoV2, the 'real' corona virus.
So, what happens in your own body when you feel sick?
When you are taken along with Didi, see what she sees and experience what happens down here in your lungs and at the same time hear what kind of symptoms you might feel based on your cells actions, you might have a better understanding of how cells directly affect your wellbeing.
Last and most tricky question:
What do kids (want to) know about the topic?
In my opinion this is the one-million-dollar question. Not easy to answer. Maybe a good idea to ask kids this question?
Like I mentioned before, I already send my story to some of my friend's kids but would love to know more about what kids already know about their immune system, the lungs and what happens when they get sick.
Do you have children aged 7-10 years? What do they know about their body, their lungs in particular? What do they know about immune cells and about being sick?
Do you have kids who would be interested to read my story?
Can they read English? Drop me a line at the comments section below 👇 or contact me through email or twitter. I’d love to send you the story and hear all about your kid’s thoughts, feedback and ideas.
Another way to understand my young reader’s ideas about cells and viruses might be openly available on the internet.
As we’re going through a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus which infects your nose and lungs, multiple media channels have already asked kids about what they understood and still wanted to know.
In my next blog post I will dive deeper into the questions that have been collected from children about the corona virus- SARSCoV2.
After all the whole world has been talking about (almost) nothing else for months.
But what about the children? Did adults explain to them what this whole pandemic is about? Did they succeed? Provided that they, the adults, actually could grasp its complexity themselves?
And did adults – or in particular scientists- ask children about what they wanted to know and then explain that? Or did they simply explain things they knew and thought they wanted to hear?
Well, I know of a couple of initiatives where scientists did a questions & answer session with children. This was – of course- all about the virus, and not so much about immune cells, but it might give me a good idea about the kind of questions children have and the general understanding they have about a world that is invisible to the bare eye.
So, stay tuned for an analysis of these ‘dialogues’ between scientists and children here in my next blog.
And lastly, I’d like to add the following question:
How can you make a ‘dry’ topic appealing to children?
Is wrapping knowledge and facts in a story enough? I have the feeling it’s not really.
It’s already a great start, but I probably at one point also need to provide kids with appropriate activities.
Activities where kids can discover immune principles by themselves.
Because discovery is fun and by actually doing something- with your hands- you learn the best.
Do you work with children and teach them science? Do you have ideas about activities for kids to learn about immunology?
Here are some activities I've found:
Card games are a fun way to learn about cells (TIP: Immune Warriors)
Online games about science (TIP: *in development* VirusBreak- an ORION Open Science project from the Babraham Institute for kids aged 11-14 years; or browse through different online science games)
Watch awesome videos about immune cells such as macrophages (cells that eat lots of things) engulfing bacteria
An overall great resource on teaching about the immune system is found here including worksheets, coloring pages and some activities.