‘Mindful’ Bear Aims to Teach Kids About Healthy Eating

Jerry the Bear, a $99 interactive toy, teaches kids about mindfulness and nutrition.  (Sproutel)

For Caylin Proffitt, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of five, healthy food choices aren't really -- well -- a matter of choice. But it's not just children with diabetes who should avoid too many sugary treats.

Several years ago, Caylin's mother Kristina learned about an interactive toy bear called "Jerry." Children can keep Jerry in "optimal health" by tracking his pretend blood sugar levels and feeding him healthy food cards, which can be swiped across the bear's mouth.

Caylin Proffitt with Jerry, her 'smart' bear and dietary consultant.
Caylin Proffitt with Jerry, her 'smart' bear and dietary consultant. (Kristina Proffitt )

This week, Sproutel, the company behind Jerry the Bear, released a version of the toy targeted to all children ages five to nine. While the original bear aimed to help kids with diabetes, the new bear is focused on general wellness, nutrition and "mindful" eating. It's also more mindful of family budgets, priced at $99, down from the original $300.

Parents of children with diabetes or food allergies can buy a special version for for $149, and access additional props, like an insulin pen or epinephrine pen. The new bear comes with animated story books, which provide further education to kids about nutrition and general health.

"Carb counting and being mindful about their eating is difficult for kids," said Kristina Proffitt, who lives near Nashville, Tenn. "But I remember my daughter giving Jerry a healthy lunch, and then deciding she would have something similar."

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It remains to be seen whether the bear will appeal to children who have not been diagnosed with diabetes. Sproutel's founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz says the company uses research from the fields of gaming and behavioral science to change children's behavior in a fun and engaging way.

Moreover, studies have shown that teddy bears can relieve anxiety for children, particularly those who are chronically sick and hospitalized. Sproutel's team plans to build on this research with a $150,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The team will use the money to conduct a small pilot study to determine whether Jerry the Bear can reduce stress in the home.

"We've seen all kinds of studies where kids with diabetes can better manage their own disease by taking care of pets or toys," said Michael Chae, executive director of the Bay Area branch of the American Diabetes Association. "Really, we see benefits in any new, digital methods that can make it less onerous for children."

So far Jerry has found a home with about 500 families. That's about four percent of children who were diagnosed with diabetes last year. Horowitz says early data shows that kids are using Jerry the Bear for an average of one hour per week, which he takes as an indication that they are engaging with the toy.

The Providence, RI-based team behind Jerry the Bear.
The Providence, RI-based team behind Jerry the Bear. (Sproutel )

Horowitz came up with the idea for Jerry the Bear with his friend and co-founder, Hannah Chung, when he was an undergraduate at Northwestern University.

As a child, Horowitz suffered from a medical condition called Growth Hormone Deficiency, which required regular injections. He saw a need for "smart" toys that could help future generations of children manage chronic illnesses, including diabetes.

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"We noticed in our early research with children with diabetes that they treated their teddy bears as if they had the disease," he said. "They were role-playing everything they couldn't quite bear to do with their own bodies. That was what kicked us off."

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