Menstruation: Game On

Developed in 2022 by a group of Brazilian grad students, educators and researchers — Brenda Letícia Sena, Josilãna Silva Nogueira, Eduardo Luiz Dias Cavalcanti and Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha from the Graduate Education in Sciences program at the University of Brasília — The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail tabletop game aims to teach Brazilian young people about menstrual⁠ cycles in a unique way.

Professor Ana Gabriella Sardinha is an elementary education teacher, higher learning professor and academic researcher from the University Center of Brasília who is currently testing the game among undergrad and grad students before bringing it to the wider educational system.

Brazil is known as one of the most socially unequal countries in the world, plagued with a fragile educational system, problems with misinformation and false information in the media, and violence caused by cultural machismo and homophobia. All of this and more makes it difficult to talk about menstruation⁠ at the classroom or at home.

Sardinha is a specialist in tabletop games as educational tools. With scholars Maria Terezinha Jesus Gaspar and Mônica Molina, she previously researched the Brazilian Indigenous game Adugo, and used the game to teach Math in the Brasília educational system, on which I interviewed her about a few months ago.

Now in an interview with Scarleteen, Professor Sardinha, or Ana Gabriella, as she is known by her acquaintances, talks about how her own life experience affects the way she perceives and teaches menstruation, the harsh reality of talking about intimacy and science in Brazil, and the development of The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail as a tabletop game instead of using a newer technology and the possibilities of it landing outside of the Brazilian nation.

Scarleteen (ST): Can we start by finding out⁠ about you, Gabriella? Where are you from? What was growing up for you like, especially around menstruation?

Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha (AG): I'm 34 years old, and I am a mother and teacher here in Brazil. As a child, I always liked playing, running, and climbing trees.

When I was 9, during the school holidays, we were at my grandparents' farm. There I was jollily climbing up and down trees in the backyard. When I needed to go to the bathroom, I got scared at what I saw: I thought I had hurt myself playing. I screamed for help and that day I discovered what menstruation was.

ST: How do you think your own background influences how you approach menstruation?

AG: I have a degree in Natural Sciences and Pedagogy, but being a mother helps me to consider how to approach the topic in basic education. I don't want my students or children to suffer from a lack of scientific information on the subject. Therefore, I seek to expand this subject in the teacher training program.

ST: In many households in Brazil, television plays a bigger role as an educator than the standard educational system. How do you think this impacts sex⁠ education for Brazilian young people?

AG: Television can be a source of information and guidance that complements what needs to happen within schools. In 2005, TV Escola (a public broadcasting television network) showed two series about sexual orientation⁠ . I believe that one of the barriers at the time was channel tuning, which is not always available automatically, and the other conflict would be the broadcast time, which competes with Brazilian soap operas. Even though young people have access to television and are available to watch, we have cultural, religious, and family barriers that treat sexual⁠ education as taboo: with prejudice. To overcome this conflict, I believe we need to strengthen the partnership between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, in an attempt to openly talk about sexuality and expand the discussion in the Brazilian school curriculum.

ST: What is your sense of what menstruation education and information is like for young people in Brazil? Do Brazilian children and teens have access to conversations about menstruation inside and outside their households?

AG: Menstrual education still faces challenges in Brazil. One obstacle is the lack of initial and continuing training of our teachers. This is also a reality in Brazilian homes that suffer from lack of discussion on the matter in basic education. In short, neither teachers nor families are [often] prepared to discuss scientifically about menstruation with children and teenagers.

ST: Would you say those talks happen for people of every gender⁠ and sex, or only for young people who will or do menstruate?

AG: Unfortunately, in Brazilian schools or homes, this dialogue is [usually] restricted to people who menstruate. I believe we need to expand access to information about menstrual education for people of all genders and sexes. We need to train menstrual educators to address the issue and also invest in the production of material aimed at children who will menstruate.

ST: Can you describe The Conscious Menstrual Trail game for our readers? How did you get the idea for it?

AG: In 2022, I took some subjects in the Postgraduate Program in Science Education at the University of Brasília. At the time, I had created a teaching sequence on Menstrual Education in the Science subject for Elementary School. For Topics in Science Teaching - Theoretical and Methodological Aspects of the Game – our group of students (the whole classroom) needed to create a game and the same theme was adopted by the research group composed of Brenda Letícia Sena, Josilãna Silva Nogueira and Eduardo Luiz Dias Cavalcanti. Our proposal was to develop a game based on a trail. We chose the term “CONSCIENCE,” because within that word we have the word “science.” The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail game was designed for the 8th year of Elementary School (at this stage Brazilian students are around 13 years-old), following the National Common Curricular Base (Base Nacional Comum Curricular, BNCC), the curriculum adopted in Brazil. The board represents the phases of a 28-day menstrual cycle⁠ , identified by different colors in each phase (ovulatory, follicular, and luteal). 80 adaptable cards were created: wild cards that move the player to specific points on the board in clockwise motion, question cards that advance with the correct answer, information cards that advance scientific knowledge and protection cards that allow you to advance and pick up one more card. In the game, the choice of who will start the game is made and the players choose their markers, allowing from 2 to 5 players, and, as they move, a card is removed. The winner's goal is to reach the end of the trail.

ST: Why did you pick a tabletop game, rather than a video game or an app?

AG: The first version was designed to be applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes were held remotely in 2022. In this context, we chose to use the Jamboard (a digital interactive whiteboard designed by Google to operate with Google Workspace) to create the board and Word Wall (a platform for interactive digital games) to create the cards, allowing the game to be played online.

Subsequently, we adapted this material to be applied in face-to-face teaching in 2023, resulting in the board game version. One of the advantages of the board game is its accessibility in Brazilian schools. It doesn't require electricity, internet connection or specific electronic devices, which makes it more accessible to different school realities. If we want to turn it into an app or a video game, it would be necessary to carry out more in-depth research regarding the gamification and gameplay aspects.

ST: You’ve presented the game in grad and undergrad programs, but you haven't yet for younger learners. What was the response from the older students? What do you expect from younger ones?

AG: The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail is a game in development. The game was first available online during the pandemic, so professors from the postgraduation programs could give their feedback. After that, a tabletop version was created and tested with undergrad students. Each time that the game is tested we aim to improve it. It is a continuous research process to ensure that the game is both educative and entertaining.

Older students reacted positively to the game. They discovered and learned interesting facts about menstrual cycles and realized that, even though they were menstruating people, they did not have enough scientific knowledge on the subject. We hope that younger people will also get involved and interested in the game, as we understand that it can be a fun and educational way to understand how menstrual cycles occur.

It is important to highlight that, as this is a scientific game, we are looking for ways to improve the gameplay and the motivation of basic education students so that they get involved in the dialogue on the topic. We believe that The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail can be a valuable tool to promote menstrual education in an inclusive and comprehensive way.

ST: What are your favorite parts of the game? What do you love to teach most about menstruation?

AG: I like to observe the discussions and realize that the game allows players to actively participate. As a teacher, I appreciate the opportunity to expand discussion and argumentation in teacher training about how to approach menstrual education in the early years of elementary school, particularly for children who have yet to menstruate.

ST: Besides knowledge about menstruation, what other skills does the game offer those who play it?

AG: The Menstrual ConSCIENCE Trail is a scientific game, but it also encourages reflection on social issues such as menstrual dignity and menstrual poverty. One of the main skills is argumentation, and the game also promotes socialization among participants. The duration of the game can vary depending on the discussions that arise and can last up to an hour. The trail offers a fun and playful way to learn, promoting awareness.

ST: What do you expect when it comes to bringing the game outside of Brazil?

AG: I hope that our initiative broadens the discussion on menstrual education. Menstrual poverty is a reality that affects the daily lives of many menstruating people, such as the lack of access to sanitary pads or necessary hygiene products, being one of the reasons for school failure. The objective is to expand the discussion about the menstrual cycle, adequate hygiene, and reproductive health in Brazil and around the world.

ST: Is there anything else you want to tell our readers about?

AG: I hope the game can help address menstruation openly and without taboos, both in schools and at home. We need to promote inclusive menstrual education, considering people's different realities and needs. We also need to discuss social and cultural issues related to menstruation, this includes addressing menstrual health issues such as cramps and premenstrual symptoms. Unfortunately, there are still many barriers and stigmas surrounding menstruation, and it is important to work to overcome these and to ensure menstrual dignity for everyone.

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For all the body positivity of our modern era, we still don’t hear many public conversations about periods. In many parts of the world, people are and have long been cut off from resources and education about periods: and the more marginalized the person, the more cut off they’ve usually been. Let’s have an honest discussion about what periods are, some of the unique challenges that transmasculine people who menstruate can grapple with, and how to address them.