DMZ’s Peekapak glimpses a kinder future

As a group of preschoolers in New York acquainted themselves with the bright, attentive cartoon faces of the characters on Peekapak, the Toronto-based freemium application that teaches empathy through storytelling and activities, Ami Shah, the company’s co-founder, decided to play observer.  Right away, Shah said, kids tend to “choose what they think is intuitive and gravitate.” In one video the kids watched, titled “Teamwork,” two characters float outside a space station in a bid to mend it. One is a suited-up salamander. “Whoa,” the other character, a kid, says, taking in the cosmic spectacle. The sounds are hypnotic, and the video lasts five seconds. The children’s reactions are “more insightful than us asking questions,” Shah said. “They asked us to play it like 25 times.”

In the world of Peakaville, where the characters stay, animals talk and friends support each other through personal troubles. Peekapak, which is intended for children aged four to nine, has 10 lessons in the form of online storybooks, with names such as “Courage,” “Optimism,” “Empathy,” “Self-Regulation” and “Perseverance.” Each comes with a digital children’s book containing glossy characters and scenes.

Each main character has dreams unique to them: Menka wants to be an architect and Ines likes to learn computer programming languages. Apollo spends one story attempting to conquer his fear of swimming pools, then ultimately splashes in. In another story, a “gratitude” tree in the middle of Peakaville unites the children when they tag notes thankful for friends, the joy of music, the ability to create, a game called “berryball,” and so on. The challenges the characters face in the story reveal vulnerabilities children can identify. The story dealing with teamwork, for one, is about fixing a robot in space. The characters prepare by asking for help, coming up with ideas and negotiating egos, until, of course, they’re able to blast off.

In 2011, a joint Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) and World Health Organization study in among Canadian youth found that 35 per cent of girls and 27 per cent of boys in sixth grade reported high levels of emotional problems. A study in Journal of School Psychology found Children who can regulate their emotions tend to be more motivated and have more academic success in reading and math. Physical Health and Education Canada states, “70 per cent of mental health cases that appear in youth can be addressed through early intervention.”

Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a psychiatry professor at Dalhousie University who specializes in adolescent mental health, believes schools can start teaching the basics early. According to him, it is “integral to [build] a foundation for mental health awareness,” Global News reported. For children in primary school, from Kindergarten to sixth grade, it is as simple as identifying “feelings and emotions, such as happy, sad, or mad,” it said.

Most school lesson plans pass over good behaviour for children, but Peekapak has helped 12,000 educators in 89 countries work life skills into reading and writing requirements. Shah says she got the idea for creating the web program while working with her best friend since childhood, Angie Chang. Chang has a background in children’s literature and came up with story ideas, which the team refined in consultation with an early childhood educator and an illustrator. Since its launch in late 2015, Peekapak has raised $900,000 and is part of the Digital Media Zone’s mentorship program.

With each story, teachers are given definitions, activities questions and multiple lessons, with stepwise instructions for teaching and participation. In “Empathy,” for example, an activity has children recognize worry in a character’s expression; another has them consider the concurrently blue and gold dress that made famously went viral in 2015. Parents are also given questions to spark dialogue at home and draw attention to the topics. “It could be over dinner. It could be while walking to school, but they’re meant to be easy to incorporate,” Shah says.

Shah credits Peekpak’s success for addressing key barriers facing similar programs. “I think there’s a ton of programs that have been around for years,”  but Peekapak is unique in its thoughtful design for teachers, Shah says. “It’s aligned to required subjects, so it’s integrated into reading activities and writing activities, so there’s no excuse not to teach the topic.” The lessons come in Spanish and offer audio and visual support for accessibility.

“There’s a ton of research that says teaching these skills at a young age [will] help students be more successful in their careers, graduation rates and their life in general,” she says. In Denmark, where empathy training is already on every school’s agenda, 98 per cent of teachers say they would recommend it for other schools. In 2013, a survey among 605 educators found that teaching social and emotional skills were important for 93 per cent of them, while 95 per cent believed it was teachable to students.

Shah says over 300 educators helped refine Peekapak’s lessons. Shah is on Skype and Google Hangouts with teachers for feedback. “They tell me their frustrations, what works, what doesn’t work,” Shah said. The lessons were originally 45 minutes long until teachers reported it was too long to integrate into class time. “So we moved to, like, ten-to-twenty minute lessons. Shorter, more concise lessons that could fit into their schedule,” Shah said. During our interview, a local teacher emailed to thank her.

Peekapak will be “graduating” from DMZ at the end of May. Shah said she plans set up an office in Toronto next month and subsequently open up another round of investment.

Feature image by Avnish Patel