Playtime Gets 'Sick'

"Mommy, what's a SARS?"

A child-friendly explanation to this question may seem overwhelming, but now there are new toys and interactive movies available that help children understand everything from the common cold to anthrax (search) poisoning.

GIANTmicrobes take the critters that make a body sick and turn them into plush playthings. Stomach Ache, Kissing Disease (Mono) and The Flu are among some of the ailments represented in the line.

“It’s hard to get a grip on the fact that there’s a little tiny thing inside you making you sick,” said Drew Oliver, founder of the line. “Because these are soft and cuddly, they introduce that concept in a non-threatening way.”

Oliver said his own child's bouts with illness inspired him to create the creatures, which come in bright colors and many shapes.

And apparently, Oliver was onto something big — teachers, pediatricians and parents have been buying up the organisms. Launched in July 2002, GIANTmicrobe sales have soared recently — Oliver reports tens of thousands have been purchased in the past 9 months.

“[People] think they’re great, and a fun way to talk about these things," he said. "It’s not like looking through a microscope. Each microbe comes with an image of the actual microbe it represents and an information card."

One spot that sells them is the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. Annamarie Daane, assistant buyer there, said the plush toys compliment the hands-on nature of the museum.

“Right now we have a 'Traits of Life' exhibit, teaching about the cellular level of things, so [microbes] are perfect for us,” she said. “They are priced really well, and a lot of small children come into the store, so these are a good hand-sized little thing they can take with them.”

Daane said the museum store is selling about 200 of the $5.95 microbes each month. “For our little store, that’s an impressive number.”

Web sites that help youngsters learn about health are also increasingly popular for the next wired generation. BrainPOP produces educational animated movies for kids from kindergarten through high school on subjects ranging from asthma to hormones.

“The more kids are aware of disease, the more they can deal with it and the better their health can evolve,” said Yves Saada, the company's COO. “For them, it’s like watching a cartoon or reading a comic book, but at same time it gives them information.”

The site keeps kids up-to-date on health with movies on anthrax and SARS (search), terms kids hear in the news but may not fully comprehend.

Linda Merolle, a teaching assistant at Halbane Elementary in Cold Spring, N.Y., said students recently watched BrainPOP’s SARS movie after learning about the respiratory condition in social studies class.

The online movies “reinforce what the teacher has told them and they’ve studied in class,” she said. “They take the quiz at the end, and there are games corresponding with the topics they like to play.”

Most of BrainPOP's subscribers are schools — 15 percent of U.S. school districts are signed up, said Saada, and 25,000 families subscribe for home use.

And children aren’t just watching, they interact: After Sept. 11, Saada said they were inundated with e-mails from kids asking questions like, “Am I going to die from anthrax?”

BrainPOP produces pertinent movies within days. “When you provide information as soon as you can, you can remove some of the stress,” he said.

Whether explaining smallpox or a sore throat, kids and adults are relishing the fun tools available. And microbes' creator, Oliver, said humor contributes to a toy's educational value, as is evidenced by the response he's gotten from customers.

“They’re the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time,” said microbe fan Margaret Michaels from Bangor, Maine. “I have friends who are pediatricians, and I thought these were adorable little presents. I’ve ordered 5 sets so far, and one for myself.”

Saada said he too has been surprised at the adult reaction to BrainPOP's movies. He gets numerous requests to license the movies to nurse training programs and medical schools.

"It’s for kids, but any adult can learn something too.”