Social Innovation

The Innovative Role of Comic Books in Child Health Education

By: Annika Anderson, MPH

Do you remember what your favorite thing to read was when you were a child? Perhaps it was a picture book, like Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, or Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin. It might have even been the Peanuts comic strips by Charles Schulz from your local newspaper. The percentage of 9-13 year-olds who “read for fun every day” is the lowest it has been since 1984, according to the 2019-2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. There are a multitude of reasons contributing to this statistic, some of which are known and some that we have yet to uncover.

Some children experience the paradox of choice, a phenomenon that describes having too many options to choose from; namely, how to play or spend free time. Other youth experience burnout from school, a lack of access to learning tools, and must uphold responsibilities in and outside of their households that limit the time they have to play or learn. As childcare professionals continue to problem solve against these often dichotomous realities, they should continue to make learning fun, accessible and pro-social for children.

Kevin Borrup, DrPH, JD, MPA, and Luis Rivera, MSW, are injury prevention and health education experts in Connecticut Children’s Office for Community and Child Health (OCCH). Between 2009 and 2012, they made learning about injury prevention both fun and informative for youth in Hartford through the creation of Super Safe Comics and associated community events.

Comics & Child Development

Comics are a playful, developmentally appropriate way for children and youth to learn. Comics support the emergence of literacy skills and serve as a creative space to address unconventional learning objectives. Unconventional learning objectives differ from content areas in that they are inclusive of topics that are not regularly introduced to children at school, allowing for less prescription. In an informal interview with Luis Rivera, Connecticut Children’s Community Relations Manager, he identified one learning objective that he hoped Super Safe Comics would uniquely address: teaching children how to be good neighbors, friends, and people.

Literacy Development: We know that children rely on storytelling to understand the world around them, hence the early childhood system-wide emphasis on play. Similar to picture books, comics are a visual aid for piecing together text and meaning. Comics are also enjoyed by tweens and teens, who often use adventurous storylines to engage in pro-social activities like community gaming.

Learning Objective: In the field of health education, comics have been used to raise awareness (for example, of protective health factors or risks), to prepare patients for a treatment, and to support multilingual families. Outside of clinical settings, health education comics have been written to address social determinants of health through a prevention-based lens. For maximum engagement, comics should have a storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, relatable/representative characters of the target audience, and opportunity for follow-up.

Super Safe Comics

In 2009, Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center received an external grant to write the Super Safe Comic series, led by author Dr. Borrup and illustrators Scott DaRos and Alexis Deprey. Luis Rivera, who at the time was Connecticut Children’s Safe Kids Coordinator, introduced the comics to schools and organizations in the community, reaching children and families.

The series features superhero Captain Super Safe, who partners with children in the community to identify potential injuries and problem solve against them. The series covers key injury-prevention topics including helmet safety, water safety, poison safety, fire safety and more through creative storytelling.

As he wrote the series, Dr. Borrup partnered with content experts including professionals from the Humane Society, the Connecticut Poison Control Center, the Brain Injury Association of Connecticut and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to deliver evidence-informed tips to children and families. On the back of Super Safe Comics, children can further engage with safety tips, key definitions, local resources, and playful activities that reinforce the content!

Dr. Borrup shared that the Super Safe Comics series uniquely addresses the lack of entertaining safety information available in schools. While using comics as a vehicle for delivering health education has been implemented before, Dr. Borrup considers Super Safe Comics a “local social innovation” similar to Brother Carl Comics diffused by The Brother Hardrick Institute (BCI), a community organization focused on deterring community gun violence in Hartford. If presented with another opportunity to create injury prevention comics, Dr. Borrup shared that “it would be great to work with local creators and studios in Hartford to co-create comics on different topics that they think will have most impact on children and families in their community.”

Super Safe Comics & Community Engagement

Luis shared that the Super Safe Comics were so popular with children and families in the Hartford community that the most beloved comic, “Helmets Protect your Brain,” was featured as a safety promotion video clip during the summer at Crown Cinemas.

As the Safe Kids Coordinator at the time, Luis would visit preschools, daycares, Hartford public schools, Young Women and Young Women of Color Association (YWCA), Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts, CREC and other local sites to read the comics and build out lesson plans around the stories. With youth, Luis would facilitate an activity around the “Helmets Protect your Brain” comic where teams would create helmets secure enough to protect a fragile egg upon hitting the floor. At the end of the activity, the youth would receive bike helmets themselves.

Outside of classroom hours, Luis would set up tables at school safety fairs and promote the comics to students and their families. Luis commented that the bright colors of the comics captured students’ attention at these events, and not only would the comic prompt children to ask questions, but it was an opportune time to connect with parents. Luis shared that parents in the community found the information useful, and that their children were calm and engaged when they would pick up the books.

If presented with another opportunity to create injury prevention comics, Luis echoed his colleague Kevin’s remark that the community should be more directly involved with the storytelling process. He also cited that the comics should be written in English, Spanish, and other languages spoken by members of the community.  

For Further Reading

Learn more about the Injury Prevention Center and other innovative programs at Connecticut Children’s here!

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