Health & Medical

Sibo’s story helps children understand COVID-19

The cover of Sibo stays healthy by author Ginny Stone.

Over the past decade, Sibo, a lovable science-minded book character, has introduced South African children to difficult topics such as malaria, water, space, nanotechnology and road safety through books like Sibo and the Sea and Sibo sizes things up. Another, yet slightly different title was recently assigned to her – that of “Sibo, the research project”. That’s because the most recent book in which Johannesburg-based author and experienced science communicator Ginny Stone raises awareness about COVID-19 among children, is now part of a research project.

Sibo stays healthy, which Stone wrote when South Africa went into lockdown, is already the 15th book she has written in the Sibo series since 2008.

According to a press release by the University of Pretoria, it is part of a project to determine if children between eight and 12 years old can learn about COVID-19 through a storybook and/or by playing an online game. The project is done in collaboration with the University of Leeds.

The research behind it is being spearheaded by Dr Nico Claassen, a senior lecturer at UP’s School of Health Systems and Public Health. It’s official title is “Managing the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’: Development of a booklet and mobile game to be used as teaching tools to convey OHS [occupational health and safety] message”.

Quite a mouthful, but in essence it comes down to the fact that children who participate in the research project (with parental consent, of course) are asked to complete an online survey with simple health and safety questions about the virus. Thereafter they are sent a copy of Sibo Stays Healthy.

“They get the book to read for three days,” explains Dr Claassen. “Some children get the book and the game – the game is sent to 50% of the participating children to determine if playing a game in combination with reading the booklet adds value in terms of knowledge. Thereafter, they complete the same questionnaire again. The results are compared to see if they have learnt anything from having read the book only, or from having read the book and playing the game.”

Dr Claassen hopes to see children’s knowledge about COVID-19 improve after they have read Sibo Stays Healthy and that misconceptions are addressed. He says the social behaviour of the public shows that there is still a lack of understanding about COVID-19, despite continuous messaging in the media about the virus and its implications.

The booklet and digital application address current challenges in information management by simplifying digital verification and social media messages. It shows children how to connect with the correct sources of authoritative health information. In the process, the issue of misinformation on social media is addressed in a non-threatening way, while children are empowered to question sources of information and ask the right questions.

Claassen invited prospective participants (and their parents) to visit to learn more about the project.

Sibo Stays Healthy is an addition to Sibo Fights Malaria and Sibo Goes Bananas, which focuses on malaria prevention and the importance of a healthy lifestyle respectively.

Stone, who calls herself a “hybrid author”, is a seasoned science communicator. Her first story in the Sibo series was on climate change, and she started writing it after moving from Cape Town, where she was in charge of science and technology outreach programmes at iThemba Labs, to Gauteng.

Sibo on the Move, which teaches younger readers about road safety, won an international Golden Quill Award in 2018, and earlier this year Sibo and the Veggie Bed won a 2020 AfriCAN Authors Award for Agricultural Empowerment. 

“It is all about how to make, plant and look after a vegetable bed the size of a door,” says Stone.

Since the first book, Sibo’s adventures have included discovering how precious water is and going on holiday to the sea, to tackling trash, finding out about outer space, HIV AIDS, nanotechnology, chemistry, biodiversity and more. The stories are all written in rhyme form.

“Many of the books have been sponsored by various entities,” says Stone, who is known in South African science centre circles as regular conference organiser for the South African Association of Science and Technology Centres (SAASTEC).

Author Ginny Stone with some of the other titles in the Sibo series.

She also has a range of self-published books to her name, including anthologies of short stories for children by various authors on values such as kindness and trust. In 2017 she also wrote Out Damned Spot, which reflects on a time when she was diagnosed with skin cancer.

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