Field notes: Prototyping a New Learning Experience with Caregivers

A year ago we set out to start designing Dandelion, a community-wide learning and teaching experience that improves the social emotional learning (SEL) skills and general well-being of refugee children. We’re asking questions like how can improved content delivery affect the long-term use of SEL in the classroom and at home; how can we make everyone a teacher including parents, caregivers, and technology; and how can we morph the traditional (and often cumbersome) training model into something that feels more like active learning through demonstration and practice? In September 2017, our team spent 4 weeks in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania to learn and prototype concepts around three main users: caregivers, youth leaders, and teachers.

Parents and youth role models play a crucial role in a child’s development; they open up a child’s mind to learning, they reinforce lessons in and out of school, and they help overcome the effects of trauma. And yet, education projects tend to place a great amount of focus on the classroom, overlooking some of the most important teachers in a child’s life. Project Dandelion aims to extend that learning, harnessing the time and energy of parents and role models in the community.

For many family members living in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, life consists of daily housework, long queues to receive supplies and food, and various chores to ensure children go to school with clean clothes and full stomachs. If any casual labor is available, caregivers will do their best to earn some money, in the hopes of making life a little bit more comfortable.

When we set out to encourage parents to run SEL activities with their children, we wanted to fully understand how these activities could fit into their daily environment, acknowledge the constraints in place, and identify opportunities for a new program.

We spent four weeks prototyping Graine, an initial service design for caregivers. It is a mobile-based service that sends bite-sized, personalized SEL content to caregivers, prompting them to do activities with their children.

Well, this was our original idea.

A scenario in Graine’s original design

To build this service, we conducted in-depth prototyping interviews with 50 mothers in the camp. These prototyping sessions showed us how mothers perceive SEL, what activities mothers are doing with their children, and helped us gather feedback on specific aspects of the service we designed. We learned that:

Mothers are first women, then caregivers

There is a strong appetite for services that cater to women, such as supplying news, culture, and career building content, in addition to activities for children. As one participant put it, “I like the idea of receiving games for children, but also, can you send some other materials such as news and vocational skills?” This got us thinking: how could we integrate SEL activities into a more desirable format?

Mothers feel left out: not enough programs and activities target caregivers

There are various NGO programs in the refugee camp, but we observed that mothers tend to feel left out because it appears to them that they might have fewer opportunities than men. One woman shared with us, “Our husbands can work, and have more opportunities. I want to be empowered.”

SEL is received positively, but there are no tools or confidence to do the activities with children

Caregivers are interested in learning more activities to do with their children, but they have little inspiration and guidance to do so. So much of parenting happens through proverbs, Bible study, and songs — can we build upon these practices to bring SEL into the home?

There is hesitation towards playing with children

Caregivers seem uncomfortable playing games with their children. We’re not sure as to why that is. It may be linked to the age group of primary school children (6–14 years old), cultural factors, an embarrassment to do it in front of other adults, or just because of the newness factor.

Text is not the best format for SEL instruction

Illiteracy was not an issue for mothers with phones, but instead, the difficulties we found were more related to the act of processing and acting on information through text, which many people are not necessarily used to.

Audio messages performed better than text messages (especially from youth)

We recorded messages with instructions of SEL activities and saw that caregivers understood them better than text messages. Messages recorded by young students who knew the activities did even better. We’re not sure whether this is because of the conversational tone or the informal vocabulary, but this is something we want to further explore. Interestingly, the messages that performed well were much longer than what best practices recommend for audio.

Videos performed better than any other tested media

Instructional videos recorded in the field were successful in communicating the SEL activities and objectives to caregivers. This was the most impactful channel of delivery, aside from in-person learning.

Aside from these prototyping sessions, we ran a parallel prototyping activity with 200 mothers, both Congolese and Burundian. All 200 received text messages for 10 days, and we randomized these numbers into two groups:

  • Group 1 received 10 days of messages with SEL activities only. The activities were composed of games to do with children, SEL activities directed at the caregivers themselves (activities that help manage stress, such as belly breathing), and prompts for discussion with children.
  • Group 2 received 10 days of messaging with a mix of SEL activities and entertaining content. Our idea was to provide a service that feels similar to opening up a magazine and going through instructive and entertaining content, with the underlying hypothesis that caregivers would love the service more than if it was pure parenting and SEL content.

We collected feedback from this experiment both through in-person debrief interviews and a survey and learned that:

SMS is not the best primary channel for communicating SEL activities.

Processing activity instruction by text is difficult and even more when reducing the activities to 160 characters. This limit is too constraining to maintain the quality of content.

Phones are often owned by husbands.

Although it does not necessarily mean that mothers would lack access to the content, there is a risk that they might see it at different times or only see parts of the messages. As one mother told us, “Every husband is different.” This tells us that we need to design a service that is parent-friendly, to ensure that gender does not come in the way of receiving service.

Phones can be better used as support and reminders.

Receiving a message does bring joy and pride to caregivers who feel cared for and supported. We hope to use SMS to send motivational messages and reminders.

Combining these insights with everything else we’ve learned, we’ve made a big pivot in our ideas for Graine. We are now focusing on designing a service that provides video-based learning to caregivers, supported by in-person interactions and SMS messages. This new idea is currently being prototyped in the form of caregiver clubs that will take place at home, at school, or at church. Stay tuned for more field notes from Dandelion.

Project Dandelion is an interdisciplinary design research project led by the IRC in partnership with, made possible in part through the support of the Intel Foundation. For more information, visit Dandelion.Today.