Thinking Small: 5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Health Content for Kids

Echo Savage, Medical Writer

We recently started talking to a new audience—kids. As a health content writer, moving from the adult table to sit at the kids’ table for a little while has reminded me of something grownups might sometimes forget: kids are way more fun to talk to.


But sitting at the kids’ table as an adult can also be a challenge. You need to use kid-friendly language, anticipate objections, and be sure your bodily humor game is strong. And if you want to be invited back, you have to try really, really hard to remember how it feels to be small. You have to empathize.

Do you remember when you were told exactly when and how to put on your shoes? Can you still access the big, prickly fear from when your 4-year-old self was convinced that deer only looked nice but were really hunting people? How about the ache of dread in the pit of your stomach that wouldn’t let go until after the booster shot was finished?


Walking in Children’s Shoes

A key part of writing health content for kids is trying to see an experience from their height. Things we wouldn’t think twice about as adults might startle, confuse, or frighten a child. For example, adults know that people in medical offices wear masks. We also know why they do it. The context of our past experiences means not only is it unsurprising when we see it, but that it would be surprising if we didn’t see it. What if you’re a 3-year-old going to the dentist for the first time? One minute, the dentist is smiling at you. The next minute, half her face is missing and there’s a fabric blob where her mouth should be. That’s bizarre at minimum, terrifying at max.

In writing this new content for kids, we’ve had to strike a special sort of balance to:

  • Accurately cover all medically necessary details.
  • Specifically address parts of the experience that might surprise, worry, or frighten a child.
  • Deliver the information through a story that engages, via a character who’s relatable.

To make it even more of a challenge, all of this must happen in around 500 words or less at a second-grade reading level or below.

Luckily, there are lots of helping hands in the process of creating each piece. I’ve also learned a few things along the way that have shaped the work we’ve done already and that will guide our approach moving forward.


5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing for Kids

  1. Be careful about giving kids a choice where there isn’t one.

    In early drafts, each story introduced the character, set the scene for the character’s experience, and then said, “Do you want to hear about it?” If a parent reads this line aloud, and their child responds with “No, I don’t,” well…then what? If the story continues anyway, it’s being foisted upon an unwilling listener. And an unwilling listener isn’t likely to learn much.
  2. Avoid subjective descriptions of people and things.

    Saying “the nice nurse” sounds reassuring. But it may be overpromising. Telling a child that a shot will feel like a “little” pinch might make them feel misled or betrayed if the shot feels like a big jab to them. It’s hard—maybe impossible—to remove all subjectivity from descriptions. But writing these pieces from the first-person perspective of the character makes it possible to present one child’s experience without promising our child audience that theirs will be exactly the same.
  3. Be on alert for the dual meanings of words.

    Words with dual meanings can sometimes confuse children. Kids might associate the word “sticky” with “sharp” or “pokey,” so choosing a different term may be best. Other times, the dual meaning of a term can be the best reason to keep it. In one story, I initially used the plain wording of “plastic tool” to describe an echocardiogram wand. But our Child Life Specialist reviewer pointed out that, in this case, using the term “wand” was the better option. Many children will associate the term with positive things, like wizards and fairies. Plus, this type of wand takes pictures of the inside of your body, which is pretty magical indeed.
  4. Where you can, give kids a job.

    Kids like to be helpers. Most have a natural inclination to be good citizens. If you frame washing your hands and coughing into your elbow as ways to help take care of the people around you—as part of being a “germ buster”—these things start to look less like rules and restrictions and more like ways to do a good job.
  5. Highlight the places where kids can have control.

    Kids are, by and large, at the mercy of adults. Looking for places to give them some agency is crucial. There’s not much about having a surgery that a child can control. But they can choose an item to bring to the hospital, or they might get to pick the “flavor” of the air the anesthesiologist uses. Calling out these small things a child can control may help kids feel less powerless. That can help them be less afraid.

To date, Healthwise has released six children’s stories. We’ve covered topics like visiting the dentist, staying in the hospital overnight, and learning about coronavirus. We have three new stories currently in development and seven more coming down the pipeline. The feedback we’ve gotten has been excellent—we even won a Gold Award from the HIRC for our story “Charlie Learns About Coronavirus.”

But there’s more to learn for sure, and space for us to grow (smaller) and focus our vision (lower). I look forward to writing more stories for young patients, designed to help them feel prepared and reassured in new health care experiences.