Engaging parents and other caregivers as innovators and designers for young children

by Joe Waters and Sheetal Singh

Last week at SXSWEdu in Austin, Texas, Capita hosted the fourth in a series of Living Labs focused on sourcing solutions to the principal design challenges facing young children and their families. Last week’s Living Lab was hosted with our friends and collaborators at the Early Learning Lab and throughout 2018 we will continue to collaborate with them in hosting additional Labs across the United States. Together we are using these Labs to reset our approach to engaging parents and other caregivers in co-designing the innovative solutions that will drive better outcomes for children and families.

Early childhood stakeholders collaborated to design better systems for better outcomes for America’s youngest children at SXSWEdu.

Living Labs are small-group (up to 25 people), two to three-hour long design sessions in which parents, children, teachers, and other early childhood stakeholders are guided through a series of exercises and conversations using human-centered design principles. The goal of the Living Lab is to unlock the imagination and creativity of people on the inside of systems and to brainstorm status quo-busting solutions to the challenges facing young children and their families.

Additionally, each Living Lab surfaces and elevates the end-user’s perspective on key design challenges facing the early childhood and related fields. We believe that the information gathered during these sessions about the lived experience and the dreams of parents, children, and teachers, is a goldmine and should inform any top-down attempt to improve the lives of children and families. Yet, so often, these perspectives are rarely acknowledged when solutions are designed. Unlike focus groups or surveys, Living Labs provide the opportunity for end-users to do more than answer other people’s questions: they allow the beneficiaries of early childhood systems and services to be the ones asking the questions that will move us all forward.

Three things we have learned thus far:

Parents and other caregivers are best positioned to help us redesign the systems families use. This may seem like an obvious point, but too often our ways of engaging parents and other caregivers are both limited and limiting. Our approach seeks to engage them not merely as sources of information as in a focus group or a survey, but as co-designers and co-innovators with tremendous perspectives about what works and what doesn’t work for caregivers in the post-industrial, digital age in which they live, work, and are raising children.

Parents are not necessarily motivated by what motivates systems. For example, we’ve found that the concept of “kindergarten readiness” doesn’t often come up in our Labs, but the motivation to raise ethical children, ensure children’s safety, or provide generously for their children is often highlighted. We take this to mean that the redesign of existing systems and the work of catalyzing early childhood innovation must find ways to address these aspirations and motivations as much as it currently addresses kindergarten readiness.

Parents have lots of good ideas, but we must still find ways to support them with resources and infrastructure to bring those ideas to fruition in addition to supporting social entrepreneurs, product developers, service providers, and other formal innovators. Through the Living Labs, we have been inspired by the great ideas of parents and caregivers, and we would love to see them develop beyond the initial idea stage. The parents’ insights are informing our work and we are sharing them within relevant systems and with parent-serving programs, but we believe the impact could be exponential if parents and the organizations closest to them were given more tools and resources to contribute to the early childhood innovation ecosystem we are all working to build.

Joe Waters is the Co-Founder and CEO of Capita. Sheetal Singh is the Director, Design and Innovation at the Early Learning Lab.