Sam Hubley can recall numerous occasions in the mid-2010s when his seminars about evidence-based treatments for adolescent anxiety and non-pharmacological approaches to depression had just a handful of attendees. Those were good turnouts for Hubley, then an assistant research professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Sometimes nobody showed up at all.

Then in June 2015, Inside Out hit theaters. The Disney/Pixar film, which uses personified emotions—joy, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust—to tell the story of a young girl coping with change, presented the perfect avenue for Hubley to make his public health presentations more, well, animated. He showed the movie as a lead-in to his lecture about mental health and wellness and nearly sold out Littleton’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema two consecutive days. “In my mind,” Hubley says, “that was confirmation that this approach of leading with art and fun, before talking about serious things, could be much more effective.”

Now an assistant research professor and licensed clinical psychologist at the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, Hubley is applying that strategy to a new social-emotional awareness tool for children—and he’s bringing those initial muses along for the ride.

The InsideU Social Emotional Learning App, a collaboration between the Crown Wellness Institute and Pixar Animation Studios, uses scenes from Inside Out to help kids better understand their feelings and recognize they have a choice in how they react to them. “The more we start to layer on these experiences that your emotions—even your big ones—are understandable and acceptable,” Hubley says, “the more we are laying down a foundation for mental health and wellness.”

At its core, InsideU takes elements of psychotherapy, applies them to real-world scenarios, and puts it all in the palm of a child’s hand. Cost? There isn’t one. Anyone can access it online.

InsideU helps kids learn and manage their emotions. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“Teaching young children to recognize and respond skillfully to big emotions can be hard for any caregiver,” says Julia Zigarelli, a clinical child psychologist who worked closely with Hubley on InsideU. “That’s why we are increasing access to developmentally appropriate tools we know to be effective and evidence-based, that are also entertaining and relevant.”

Within the app, users find four “episodes” related to self- and emotional awareness. Kids first learn how people experience a trigger that leads to an emotion that results in an action. Then, they explore the concept of emotional intensity—the way the size of a feeling can impact the size of the reaction. The third phase discusses the importance of body awareness before the final episode, which explains the power of pausing before reacting. “It unfolds like a digital, interactive, choose-your-own-adventure story,” Hubley says. “It’s intended to be played, discussed, played again, and discussed until it starts to become internalized.”

To ensure that the play, discuss, repeat process would be amenable to young users, Hubley and his team turned to the experts: kids themselves. Throughout the entire design phase—even before prototyping—the team partnered with students from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver. Kids ages six to 13 offered guidance on how to make both the app itself and the content it covers more engaging and approachable. “It helps a lot that the kids know the movie, and they know about the emotions,” says Julie Arbuckle, a mental health team member from Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver who worked on the project. “Kids gave feedback on how they like the app, if they would recommend it to friends, what they would like to see, and what other emotions they would like to incorporate.”

In one early-stage session with young users, Hubley and his team asked the kids to describe how anger feels in their body. The response: blank stares. The reason: It was the wrong question. “It was clear that the kids had important insights into how emotions feel in their body,” says Senior Project Manager of InsideU Ryan Guild, “but putting them into words was tricky. As these sessions progressed, [the kids’] wisdom about their own experience came into focus, and they informed the design of InsideU through the co-creation of more abstract ways to represent physical signals associated with emotions.”

Kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver helped inform the InsideU app. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

These co-learning insights led the team to develop the “sensation visualizer,” later renamed “Splat” by one of the students. This tool gives kids a chance to convey how they experience a feeling through art—not words—by adjusting the color, size, shape, and sound of a digital, splat-like image.

This concept of using something abstract to convey something real wasn’t a new concept for Hubley, whose grandparents were Oscar-winning animation pioneers. “They always believed that animation is a beautiful and powerful artform,” Hubley says. “If you want to represent abstract ideas, animation is one of the best mediums. You’re not limited to what you can see.”

Arbuckle has seen first-hand how an animated presentation of a difficult topic can have benefits IRL with her Boys & Girls Club members. “Now they’re reacting in a positive way,” she says, describing how her students are beginning to respond to emotions. “[They’re] asking for support, telling people their feelings, and getting validation rather than shutting down.”

Eventually, Hubley and his team would like to build out InsideU further. They hope to create four to six episodes for each of the five social-emotional learning pillars, add even more game-like scenarios, and expand the app’s reach.

“I think [InsideU] could have enormous benefits for kids and for people who have kids and work with kids,” Hubley says, “but I think it could be helpful for everybody. We could all probably use a little more grace and understanding and self-compassion when it comes to our emotional experience.”