Invention Opportunity In Early Learning And Development

While COVID has meaningfully impacted our K-12 and higher education systems in the U.S., the early years have arguably been even more challenged. Child care supply has been decimated and parents of young children are struggling the most.

Isabelle Hau believes that providing each and every child with a strong learning foundation from birth is one of our greatest opportunities to rebuild our nation.  She spent the last several years working on the problem, leading the US education initiative at Omidyar Network and its spinout, Imaginable Futures. In 2019, she authored a report Big Ideas, Little Learners on trends in early childhood.

She notes ten invention opportunities in early learning and development that could reignite an equitable start in life and long-term economic mobility across the whole child, the whole family, and the whole community.


1. Doubling down on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care solutions. Social-emotional development has been shown to be a key pillar of learning readiness for our littlest learners. Under COVID, supporting emotional regulation is more critical than ever. Some innovators to watch include:

  • Think Equal not only believes in socio-emotional learning, but it also asserts that it should be taught as a core subject on par with early literacy or numeracy. In response to COVID, Think Equal developed free home kits. Its program is evaluated by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
  • BetterKids has developed online games and offline hands-on activities for young children to learn social-emotional skills at home or in school.
  • Inner Explorer offers 5 minutes a day of mindfulness, proven to reduce teacher stress and burnout while improving classroom climate and young learners’ executive functioning.

In addition to social-emotional learning, innovations are emerging to scale trauma-informed care, critical to address the isolation effects and multi-faceted trauma triggered by the pandemic.

  • ParentPowered offers a trauma-informed care curriculum for parents through text-based messages, where families learn about coping strategies to stress and access local resources.
  • The Lourie Center has been a leading trauma-informed care provider with its therapeutic nursery model for years and is now working on scaling the approach through project Echo.

2. Reinventing play in the midst of the pandemic. Play is key to child development. Yet, play is challenged in the pandemic, with more limited interactions with other children and lesser opportunities to wander outdoors.

  • Tinkergarten offers online classes where leaders are coaching parents and young children in small groups on activities to be practiced offline. Tinkergarten also offers a wide collection of free DIY activities for families. Other interesting innovators include Circle Time and BeanStalk.
  • WideOpenSchool takes a different approach, by offering a wide range of free activities structured around a daily schedule, sourced from more than 75 collaborators such as National Geographic, Khan Academy Kids, PBS Kids and GoNoodle.

There are also exciting innovations in play through new types of quality toys geared for learning. Lovevery and MontiKids send beautiful play kits home designed to develop young children’s brains. Osmo (acquired by Byjus) merges tactile exploration with innovative technology for active learning.

Robotics, voice-recognition, and artificial intelligence (AI) are also converging to serve early development. ROYBI Robot is an AI-powered robot companion for kids seeking to develop language and STEM skills. SayKids has developed a plush friend that leverages voice recognition technology to teach children about literacy or empathy.

3. Elevating new and improved early literacy tools. Language is one of the most important predictors of child development, as demonstrated in research compiled by the Overdeck Foundation. Promising innovations in early literacy include:

  • Khan Academy Kids is a free adaptive technology platform for children ages two to seven, nearing 200 million books read and 100 million socio-emotional activities.  A recent study shows it closes the achievement gap on pre-literacy skills for preschool-aged children from low-income families.
  • UPSTART provides four-year-olds personalized lessons at no cost and engages with parents in daily 15 minute routines. UPSTART supports families with devices, broadband, and sometimes power. UPSTART delivers exceptional literacy results in persisting longitudinally.
  • LENA has developed a ‘talk pedometer’ technology that builds school readiness and strengthens families with parent group classes over 10-week sessions delivered virtually or in person.
  • Springboard also leverages a group model, where it engages teachers and parents to work toward reading goals including book walks, with exceptional attendance levels and increased reading.
  • Promising innovations are detecting early risk for reading deficits and supporting young readers. For example, EarlyBird is a 20-minute, tablet-based game that assesses the child while they play.

4. Revisiting the importance of early numeracy and early computing skills. Early numeracy and early coding skills innovations are emerging:

  • MathTalk brings math into the everyday lives of parents/caregivers and children and includes an augmented reality app for young children to playfully explore math concepts.
  • CodeSpark for example allows pre-readers to learn foundational coding skills.

5. Reinventing media into delightful, diverse, and quality experiences. Young children are growing up with the media. Recent data pre-COVID by Common Sense Media have shown that children birth-to-eight spend 2.5 hours per day in front of a screen. The overall average time has remained constant over the past decade. However, the use of media for young children in lower-income households continues to spike. YouTube Kids added some filtering and a few tools for parents, but there is a lot of addictive and developmentally inappropriate content on the platform, as reported by Common Sense Media’s Young Kids And YouTube: How Ads, Toys and Games Dominate Viewing.

Some emerging innovators that solicit attention in media include:

  • Encantos brings authentic and diverse stories to life via subscriptions, fusing physical and digital experiences through animated series, books, songs, apps, games, puzzles.
  • BEGiN supports “Love to Read” and “Learn to Read” through multiple apps, including Speakaboos and Homer (backed by demonstrated literacy gains).
  • ABC Mouse celebrated its 10th anniversary and is one of the most downloaded early learning programs for kids 2-8. They continue to invest in quality and evidence.
  • Playhellosaurus is a recently launched subscription mobile app that transforms kids shows into interactive lessons.

6. Calling for more/better dual language learning solutions. One out of four young children in the U.S. is raised in a family that speaks a language other than English at home, and this number continues to grow. Despite the strong evidence on the benefits of bilingualism, there is a paucity of dual language learning solutions (especially evidence-based solutions) in the early years. Two innovators include:

  • Genius Plaza is a multicultural platform that engages learners as agents of their own learning. Genius PreK offers a multilingual preschool curriculum that provides culturally relevant, age-appropriate resources and activities that adapt to every child.
  • Ellevation helps school districts starting in pre-K meet the needs of English language learners with administrative and classroom collaboration tools.


Quality adult-child interactions are more critical than ever in the current environment, as many parents are keeping their children home.

7. Encouraging family engagement through digital tools. New innovations advance family bonding – especially important with social distancing. 

  • Caribu is an app that lets families read and draw while spending time together in a real-time video call, ideal to foster relationships with socially distant loved ones such as grandparents.
  • Digital tools are engaging parents through text messages. Ready4K is an evidence-based family engagement curriculum driving increased parental engagement and improved child literacy outcomes. Chat2Learn, Vroom and BrightByText offer similar solutions.

In parallel, solutions are emerging to allow modern parents to socialize with other parents.

  • Peanut connects women across fertility and motherhood. Similar to a dating app, women can meet like-minded moms and share tips, and support each other in parenting.
  • Centering Parenting brings 6-8 parents and their infants together with their healthcare providers, to foster a safe and supportive environment and lifelong bonds between families.
  • Guardians Collective builds communities of parents to communicate about their learnings and share with others.


At the whole community level, three areas of innovation merit highlight: family child care, new models of culturally responsive pre-schools, and two-generation community models.

8. Reimagining (family) child care. Multiple levels of innovations in child care are currently underway. All Our Kin provides coaching for in family child care providers, while Brightwheel equips those providers with tech solutions to be more efficient and increase communications with parents. Wonderschool connects parents to quality care providers on its platform. Winnie supports parents in finding child care.

9. Supporting new learning models that are culturally responsive. Some exciting new models are unapologetically centered around children of color.

  • Founded by former DC Superintendent Kaya Henderson and Harvard’s Roland Fryer, Reconstruction provides small group classes and K-12 curriculum with content anchored in Black identity.
  • At the Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op in South Dakota, members of three tribes are experimenting with deep linguistic and cultural immersion in learning pods.
  • St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature’s The Believe Project is galvanizing schools, museums, libraries, radio stations, and hip-hop artists to mobilize the community around culturally relevant literacy instruction with a focus on young Black children.
  • Wildflower Montessori is a network of microschools bringing quality Montessori education to all children through one-room schools.

10. Accelerating community-led 2-gen models. Inspiring community-led two generations models across the country that all have an early childhood focus and are driving meaningful impact.

  • Harlem Children Zone in New York City, New York, has long been an example of cradle to career community change, including its Baby College program. Under COVID and new CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse, it is focused on five comprehensive pillars: infusing emergency cash in families; protecting the most vulnerable; bridging the digital divide; aiming for zero learning loss, and; mitigating the mental health crisis.
  • The Village Institute in Aurora, Colorado, is a live/learn/work center for single-mother refugee families, bringing housing, language learning, child care, job readiness workshops, and mental health services under one roof.
  • Cajon Valley USD in San Diego County begins the two-generation process of imagining possible futures in kindergarten.
  • At I Dream Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., the youngest learners have “Dream Time” in their day to plan their learning through inquiry, and adult partnership with educators and elders around areas of interest and passion.
  • For Oak Cliff serves the south Dallas community with two-generation supports in early childhood for young learners and GED training for parents.

These whole-child, whole-family, and whole-community innovations represent opportunities for high impact where new tools and new agreements create a strong start for young learners.

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To help inform and deliver new agreements, new practices, and new tools Getting Smart and eduInnovation are exploring the Invention Opportunity thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the foundations.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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