Isabelle Hau
Investment Partner

How can innovation in early learning positively impact children in the US? Takeaways from SXSWedu

March 13, 2017

We recently refreshed Omidyar Network’s US education strategy, following a highly participatory, family, and child-centered design process that included interviews and convenings with over 300 stakeholders, focus groups, and visits to programs and schools throughout the country.

We are excited to build on our work to date. Since 2004, we have invested in 13 organizations in US education (and 49 education organizations globally), and our partners have touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people. As we look ahead, we are focusing our efforts on an area that is under-resourced even though its potential for impact is indisputable: early learning.

A third of children in the US are not ready to enter kindergarten. Kindergarten readiness is generally defined as a combination of socio-emotional skills (e.g., children being able to communicate their needs, wants, and thoughts verbally, and to be enthusiastic and curious about approaching new activities) and cognitive/physical skills (e.g., developing language and literacy skills, and basic math, social, and motor skills). Children who start behind most often stay behind. Children who enter kindergarten unprepared are 25% more likely to drop out of high school, 60% more likely to skip college, and 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Our strategy aims to increase kindergarten readiness through an inter-generational approach, investing in quality learning opportunities for both the child and the parent or primary caregiver. Our two-pronged approach will support:

  • Children:  
    o  Family/caregiver empowerment: technology-enabled tools and solutions to increase young children’s development and parental engagement at scale
    o  Quality early learning centers: scalable and innovative models, tools, and solutions to increase access to quality early learning center experiences
  • Parent (or primary caregiver) education-to-career pathways: support services and parent-friendly credentials to increase parents’ completion of quality programs linked to careers and economic security for families

Illustration by Jess Engle

As part of our commitment to advancing cross-sector discussion and action, we recently convened a panel on Bringing Innovation into Early Learning at SXSWedu. As the moderator, I was inspired by the complementary perspectives of our panelists: Brian Fitzgerald, co-founder and CEO, Tinkergarten, a company that has recruited and trained 550 adult leaders to deliver play-based, outdoor, early learning classes in local parks in 42 states across the country, serving over 40,000 families; Caroline Hu Flexer, co-founder and CEO, Duck Duck Moose, creators of an award-winning library of 21 early learning apps, who recently became a subsidiary of Khan Academy to make their apps free and more accessible to families across the US and the world; and Rick Mockler, chief quality improvement officer, National Head Start Association, who is tasked with building on the great history of innovation of the Head Start program and driving continuous quality improvement.

Equipping Parents as Early Educators
The panelists agreed that engaging parents effectively in early learning is crucial. Rick shared that low-income parents have historically tended to have less access to research and information around the importance of, and recommendations for, best practices in parental engagement. “We [Head Start] have had great success in ensuring low-income families know that reading to your kids, positive discipline, and setting routines are key difference makers.” Brian defined a key success indicator in his work at Tinkergarten as “getting parents to spend rich time with their children and connect,” but noted that what he calls “hummingbird parenting” needs to replace “helicopter parenting", as parents step into the background and let their children take the reins more. And Caroline conveyed that feedback can help parents as long as it is provided in a succinct, accessible way, like providing “top three learnings, top three areas for growth, and a recommendation for offline engagement.” She also noted that parents most love to engage when “they can see their child’s personal voice.”

Rethinking Technology as an Early Education Tool
The panelists discussed ways that technology, when used appropriately and effectively, can be a valuable tool for early education. As Caroline highlighted, “Parents misperceive the iPad as a babysitting tool versus a learning tool.” She also noted that technology can help “give children a voice, including those that are shyer.” Rick conveyed the evolution he has seen in Head Start classrooms: “Before, nobody wanted technology in classrooms, but now, as technology is getting more sophisticated, we are seeing value from tools including interactive whiteboards and other technology-based learning, feedback, health, and attendance tools.” Brian underscored the importance of balanced learning environments, including outdoor and technology-based experiences, with the outdoors providing “a nonlinear classroom that changes each season.”

Infusing the Early Learning Environment with Social and Emotional Learning
The panelists discussed the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) as a core component of the entirety of a child’s education, especially in early childhood. The panelists highlighted ways that SEL can be seamlessly integrated with academic curricula, rather than treated as a separate skill set. Brian shared that Tinkergarten is “fighting the belief that play is something you do after you do your work.” Caroline emphasized that “as children are playing, they are simultaneously developing social and emotional skills while acquiring phonemic awareness and number sense.” And Rick reminded us of a history of “the disaster of developmentally inappropriate, ill-adapted testing being pushed down into early learning” and suggested that as a sector, we instead need to work to preserve what we know about the importance of developing self-regulation, executive function, and SEL skills in early childhood and “push SEL skills up into the K-12 system.”

Empowering Families of English Language Learners
Finally, the panelists shared ideas on helping non-native English speaking families feel more comfortable using their native language with their children. Families can be fearful about teaching their children their native language, but as science has shown it can actually improve children’s understanding of all language and increase executive function more broadly. Rick noted that our classrooms need to be better at becoming safe and welcoming spaces for parents who speak different languages, and that by showing our respect for their cultures we can encourage different languages and cultures to be shared with young children.

The hour went quickly, and we only touched on a few of the many exciting areas in early learning that we are exploring and supporting. We look forward to continuing the conversation and working with many partners to amplify early learning innovation in the years to come.


Thank you to Jess Engle, local artist in Austin, for her creative illustrations of the panel’s themes, which are included here.

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