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Playfully - Building Parenting Habits that Help You and Your Child Grow

We deliver actionable content to parents daily to help them effectively engage with their children and build positive parenting habits

Photo of Manisha Shah
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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

Around the time we made this submission, we launched a paid version of our app. We have conducted additional user interviews with paying customers and have received extremely insightful feedback on why they felt Playfully was worth paying for. We’ve refined and updated the answer to “What problem are you aiming to solve” in this submission as a result. We also have early data to inform our business viability, so we now have more actionable next steps on the tests we want to run to find our best acquisition channels. We have also started some explorations with small partners who may be able to spread word about Playfully to their families.

Name or Organization

Playfully LLC


San Francisco, CA - but our app can be downloaded anywhere in the world

What is your stage of development?

  • New Innovator, with less than one year of experience in ECD


  • For-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

By reaching our users on their smartphones, Playfully aims to become the parenting coach that delivers crucial information, skills, and techniques when and where parents need it, during developmentally significant moments for the child. Playfully changes parenting behavior to lead to better outcomes for kids. We help parents understand their child’s development and give them actionable ways to have fun together. We help them understand and change their own thought and behavior patterns, so that they can model better behaviors as well as improve future parent-child interactions.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Technology-enabled: Existing approach is more effective or scalable with the addition of technology

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The Playfully app consists of a collection of curated games and developmental milestones for children aged 0-3, all verified by our child development experts, and created to help parents connect with their children and support child development at the same time. Our longer term vision is to incorporate parenting techniques and tips from experts, and help parents develop these habits through daily activities and actions in the app - that may be targeted at them instead of the child. We also aim to cultivate a healthy emotional headspace for parents by providing them with stress management and emotional regulation techniques. All of this will be delivered in engaging, bite-size pieces that the parent can practice, do, or read daily. Each activity/action will take 2-10 minutes, to fit into parents’ busy schedules and to help them retain information long-term and form new habits. Playfully can be used by any parent, anywhere with access to internet. Right now we’re available in the App Store and via email, but we aim to expand to Android and improve our web presence.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

There are three key insights we've learned from our users: they want to know “is this normal”, “am I doing enough”, and "can I say I'm an involved parent"? There is plenty of information out there on how to parent, but it’s overwhelming, contradictory, and not actionable. We want to be the trusted resource for research-backed parenting techniques that promote your and your child’s growth, while also helping parents feel validated, reassured, and that they are, in fact, involved and proactive.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Playfully aims to be the most trusted resource for personalized and practical guidance on how to best engage with your child, ages 0-3. We’ve built a personalized mobile app that gives parents daily, real-world game ideas to play with their children, backed by advice from experts. As millennials become parents, although we have increasingly demanding jobs and less free time, we still prioritize family time. We place increasing value on wellness, and are hearing from more and more experts about the benefits of healthy emotional connections with our children. We turn to technology for parenting advice, but want it distilled into bite-sized, personalized chunks. Just as Headspace helps you learn to meditate and Duolingo helps you learn a language, Playfully helps you build parenting habits that strengthen your bond with your child and encourage their growth and development. We do so in 3 ways: 1) Allowing parents to link their spouse or caregiver, and providing the caregiving team with daily activity ideas, tailored to the child’s current stage. We have mapped out over 500 developmental milestones from ages 0-3, organized into parallel streams that each have their own progression. We then built a curriculum of activities and tips to encourage and reinforce the development of these milestones. Based on where the child is in age, combined with the milestones the parents has checked off in our app, we can serve the best content for your child at the time. 2) Educating that same caregiving team about their child’s development and emerging skills via weekly tips, shown in app and sent via email. Nothing is more magical than reading information about how your child may be developing, and then witnessing it happen later that day or week. We’ve heard numerous times from our users how “creepy” it was that Playfully’s tip of the week was so spot-on about the things their child is starting to take an interest in or starting to attempt. When we create moments like this, it creates a positive feedback loop that makes the parent even more eager to learn more about their child, to put into practice the tips we are suggesting, and to share with a spouse or other family members. 3) Distilling all the expert advice from parenting books, wellness experts, and more, into parent-focused exercises that help us practice techniques that we can employ in the heat of the moment. We’ve all experienced the meltdown from our child where we were at a loss for how to respond, responded in some less-than-ideal way, and wished later that we could have remembered what we were SUPPOSED to do. We heard from one mom after a moment like this who left the child’s room, quickly googled an article she remembered reading, then went back a little later and tried to employ the tactics she had just read. The fact is that many of the tactics experts recommend for handling our children’s big emotions and setting them up for success are really unnatural and hard to remember in the heat of the moment. Plus, we are all conditioned by our own experiences, baggage, and expectations. The more we can understand ourselves and practice our reactions in calm moments, the more we will be able to employ these tactics and build these habits in heated moments. Playfully’s infrastructure allows us to create and deliver a curriculum of ideas that help parents understand their own style and build these practices bit by bit, over time.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1) Everyone benefits when children thrive! Parents reap the benefits of feeling like better parents, children reap the benefits of their parents actually being better parents, everyone in the family benefits from better interactions. This idea can reach anyone who has access to the internet once we have built out full functionality. 2) We consider any parent a potential “beneficiary”. We’ve interviewed over 50 parents in the US, and we also have small children and feel the emotional needs underlying Playfully every day! From our research, we’ve found these common factors and pain points: - Many users identify themselves as “Involved Parents” - Many users said they have no time, feel overwhelmed and that parenting can be stressful - Many users said they wondered if they are doing “enough”, and that their child seems to be capable of so much more than they realized. - Many users feel the information out there is contradictory and easily forgotten OR that it’s too time-consuming to read an entire parenting book - In heated moments, parent’s often forget the advice they’ve read because it was too long ago or not relevant when they did read it We’ve also closely followed multiple online mom’s groups to see which concerns and stressors consistently surface. Feeling like a good parent, being armed with the most up-to-date and scientifically verified parenting theories, and using this knowledge in the right way at the right times are all common concerns we've seen.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Fostering the growth of the parent alongside the child, helping parents develop better parenting habits, and creating moments of fun between parent and child will have a lifelong effect on the children and their parents. Playfully teaches parents about their child’s development, sharing tips and developmentally appropriate activities that help keep their children on track for success. Our emphasis is on connection and fun, and on providing information that is actionable, intriguing, and reassuring for the parent. Our goal is to make the parent feel so good about the fact that they’re using Playfully, that they get hooked. From our own experience using the app, we can see that having a little more understanding of child development, and having a cheat sheet of ways we can better engage helps us feel like we have parenting superpowers. This helps alleviate our stress and helps us form stronger bonds with our children. Ultimately, we create a virtuous cycle. If parents are in a good headspace, it’s easier for us to respond more positively to our children, which creates even more positive interactions. These interactions serve as a buffer for toxic stress, which is a killer to a growing brain, and lay the groundwork for improved relationships and academic success. If all children started life with strong relationships and just a little bit of extra support boosting their language, cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills, imagine what they will be able to do as adults.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

One of the things that excites us most about Playfully is how much potential there is to impact low-income children. As parents, there are such simple changes we ALL can make in our behaviors, regardless of our income, that have such an outsized, long-lasting impact on the quality of life of our children. The challenge is making parents aware of what they can do, and making it easy, fun and addicting for them to do it. Although we charge a small amount for Playfully, our hope was to employ a model similar to TOMS where for every subscription purchased, we donate one to a family in need. Ideally there would be a way to see the impact you’re having, the way Children International lets you see updates on a child you’ve sponsored. We’d also like to work with non-profits, early intervention programs, and other institutions who could sponsor and distribute Playfully to the families they work with. So far, we’ve explored a couple partnerships, but are in early stages with both.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

With Playfully, we are taking the model employed by Duolingo and Headspace to teach you complex concepts and build daily habits by breaking them down into fun, bite-sized, actionable chunks. We are also taking the proven model for parent education employed by in-home visiting programs and scaling it with technology. We aim to fit in seamlessly with our user’s existing routines, help highlight all the things they are ALREADY doing that they can celebrate, and we look at the whole family as a unit - knowing it’s important for us to present information and activity ideas to help both the child AND the parent grow on their new journey together. We have structured our curriculum such that the main highlights about how your child is growing are pushed to you weekly via email. This push makes it extremely easy for parents to get a baseline amount of information and many parents say they love these quick sound bites and that they stick in the back of their minds throughout the week. On top of that, a parent can pull more information by going into the app and checking out the daily activities that have been selected by our algorithms. Combining push and pull has been an innovation that we didn’t initially realize would be so powerful. With our flexible milestone database on the backend, we allow each child to chart their own course through their development. We’ve broken down the 4 major areas of development into subcategories that develop in parallel and therefore allow one child to be further ahead in an area while another is catching up, and vice-versa. Children can move fluidly through the milestones at their own pace (just as we experienced with my daughter when her expressive language was behind her comprehension of language), and parents can know that they’re always working on and presenting whatever is ‘next’ for the child. Overall, our unique belief is that by helping both the parent AND the child grow, by celebrating quick wins, and by combining push and pull, we have a better shot at setting up healthy early learning environments for all children.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Playfully is easily scalable since we can reach anyone who has internet access. We also plan to expand our curriculum and content throughout the teenage years to reach parents at all stages. Because we are a subscription based app - the more users we reach the more revenue we generate. Our current biggest barriers to scaling are content generation and spreading awareness. Content generation requires expertise and additional hiring/contract work. This can be accomplished through either additional funding or incoming revenue. Awareness requires further funding/revenue for paid marketing (we have mostly stuck to grass-roots/word of mouth marketing, a little bit of content-marketing, and ASO at the moment). Translating the Playfully curriculum into other languages and making the content available through other platforms will also allow us to reach a wider audience of parents, perhaps even beyond the smartphone market.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

I am currently doing all the product and engineering work myself. We have 4 advisors who provide all of the development expertise we need at the moment. And there are a couple others who help part-time with design, content and marketing. We know we can execute fast, we have the technical skills to expand our offering, and can continue to bootstrap our idea for the next year. We have spent about $15K in the last year to get to where we are today. We just launched our paid version to start to test our business model. We are still very early in understanding the overall feasibility but we hope that there will be ways to organically grow or grow via mutually beneficial partnerships to a point where we can sustain ourselves and grow a small team. Technically, building out remaining features and expanding to other platforms is not challenging, but does require engineering effort (and ideally more technical employees) to do so. The greatest challenge is developing the curriculum, expanding the content and getting it out there in front of more parents (for which we could use additional team members). We also have the challenge of ensuring we deliver the content in an engaging way that A) keeps the parent coming back to the app B) delivers on the promise to help build better parenting habits and C) does not take too much time out of the parent’s day so they can focus on spending quality time with their children without the phone being a distraction.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

We are just starting to learn about the viability of our business model. There are other examples in the market of apps that charge similar amounts with similar pricing structures that have done very well and have been able to scale. The biggest challenge will be acquiring users in a cost-effective way. We will need to have a healthy stream of organic downloads and reasons why parents love our product and are willing to tell others about it. We will need good unit economics such that the amount we pay to acquire users via marketing channels is less than the average lifetime revenue per user. We are currently testing and learning whether we can find the right channels for this to be true, but also need to keep in mind that over time, acquisition costs generally rise. We will also continue to talk to our users and improve the app so that conversion rates to the paid version continue to improve. With a lean team and very low expenses for now, we have the luxury of having time to test and experiment.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

We have tried to do everything we can from the lens of our users. The initial idea for Playfully started off informed by our team’s personal experience in our families - the needs we felt every day. Our next step was to learn whether anyone else had similar experiences or feelings. We started off by setting up 35 in-person interviews in the homes of new parents in the Bay Area, mostly in the demographic of people who have completed college and already were inclined to focus on their children’s education. We wanted to make sure that we focused on a particular segment of parents first to understand them well before branching out into other demographics. In the interview, we spent the first half asking about their overall parenting experience - what have they enjoyed, what have they struggled with, what resources do they currently turn to. The second half was a play session where we gave them a set of printed activity ideas, tailored to their child’s age and watched how they reacted to it and how their child responded. We took all the feedback and did an affinity mapping exercise to try to find common themes that emerged. (See attached image of our diagram) From that, we determined that a mobile app would be the best way to package up our solution, and derived a series of product hypotheses that we used to build a prototype/set of features that would test each one of the hypotheses. This is an example of the first set of hypotheses we distilled: The App Should Teach Me: a) When Should We Introduce X /When Is Baby Capable of X… b) How do we push/encourage X... c) Are we on track d) Am I doing enough e) How do I play and how do I encourage constructive emotional development Because: a) I want to play an active role b) I want to do the scientifically-proven thing (sort through all the opinions out there for me) c) I want to be the best parent I can be The App Needs To Be: a) Fun - I want variety, I want to combat boredom, give me ideas b) Convenient - It has to fit into my daily life c) Fast - I have no time (and this stuff takes a lot of time and planning to look up) d) Informative - I have no background in child development, but now I’m responsible for raising a child! Other smaller insights we gleaned from these sessions are: a) The app will have to be entertaining for the parent. b) Parents really love it when we use their child’s name and gender in all our text c) Anytime the child initiates an activity, the parent gets more excited to interact and be involved; we need to teach parents enough so that they know what to do outside of our app as well. d) Once the child is older than 1 year, they may not do exactly what we prescribed in our activity idea; we need to make the parent feel like the time spent was still a ‘success’. Once we had a basic prototype built, we tested it via TestFlight with 10 users for a week. We had similar learnings and feedback from those tests, along with other smaller details about the way our UI functioned. Once we launched our app, we set up a cadence of talking to 2-3 users per week to learn how they describe the app’s value and to learn what features they’re finding most useful. We used this feedback to generate new product hypotheses and had a spreadsheet and framework for determining what features to build next based on how quickly they would help validate or disprove our ‘riskiest’ hypotheses. We’ve been trying to continue with that framework ever since. We hope to start talking to a wider variety of parent demographics next. Since submission, we’ve been able to talk with more users that are spread geographically around the US and have also talked with parents in India and the UK. Each time we talk to someone new, we better understand the problem we’re solving for and how it varies (or not) between demographics. This helps with product development as well as marketing messaging.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1) The idea for Playfully came from my experience with my daughter, Anya. I had heard things like “the first three years of life are critical to development”, but I didn’t know what that meant or how to create the best environment. When I found little bits of time to learn more about what I should be doing, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of parenting information available and the lack of personalization. I had two main outside sources of inspiration for Playfully: Anya’s Developmental Follow-up Clinic, and child brain development books. Since Anya is a preemie, I took her to follow-up visits with specialists. Every time I went, they gave me tidbits of information about her growth. That banging on the table she was doing at 5 months? That was real growth, not random! I saw they were playing games with her that my husband and I could play at home. Every time I left, I had a deeper appreciation for Anya and had more fun at home because of the ideas I’d learned. I wanted these specialists always by my side. I started reading child development books, like The Whole Brain Child and Brain Rules for Baby. Those books resonated so deeply with me. I was learning the practical tools that I was craving, but I was struck by how hard it was to remember and implement the tools when it came time to put them into practice. My experiences with the clinic and these books helped me become a more confident, more aware parent. This helped me form a stronger bond with my daughter. I just had to build a solution that could make this knowledge more accessible for all parents. With Playfully, we give you personalized and actionable tips and activity ideas that boost your child’s development and help you put into practice the parenting habits you want to cultivate. 2) The impact. The early childhood years are the most formative, so the most impactful in a person’s life. By creating positive experiences for children and parents, we can improve their well being and can also initiate network effects by creating more emotionally healthy communities and interactions between peers. Kids will grow up to be better parents and pass on these positive habits to their own children - so our work can have a multi-generational impact. 3) My background is in software. I’ve built consumer-focused mobile apps for the last 12 years and have learned best practices within the industry. It’s an exciting time as companies are leveraging tech to change behaviors and provide information seamlessly into their user’s existing lives. I believe that being integrated into parents’ daily life is the best opportunity at helping them become their best selves - and in turn, helping them raise kids who have the best start in life. I am working with advisors who are experts in early childhood development - a speech language pathologist, an occupational therapist, and two psychologists. Two of them have young children of their own, which brings a unique user perspective to their work.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

We have a small core team that can execute well, but would need to expand functions across the board in order to scale. The roles we need the most help with at the moment are a marketing and growth expert who can help grow our app, as well as a passionate curriculum developer and writer who can help continue to build our curriculum. In terms of partners, we would love introductions to organizations looking to bring Playfully to their audience of parents.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

The biggest help we could use is in getting the word out about our solution, and having a dedicated team member that can focus on curriculum development. For distribution, we could use introductions to partners who have broad reach who would like to distribute Playfully to their families, partners that could expose us to new demographics and new regions, and institutions - hospitals, clinics, daycares - that believe in providing resources to new parents. Our wish is for every new parent to leave the hospital knowing that they have a resource like Playfully to guide them through the next 3 years. We could also use help from child development experts in the OpenIdeo community with evaluating our approach so far and understanding if there are other user needs we should be solving for to maximize the impact we can have on early learning, on helping parents transition into their new roles, and on helping foster the parent-child bond.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We would love mentorship in need-finding and design thinking - specifically around refining our user interviews to be able to drill into the underlying emotional needs parents want solved. We would love to learn from people who have been in ECE much longer than we have to ensure that we’re tackling the right problems. We’d love introductions and exposure to organizations that would like to spread word about Playfully.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

I am an engineering leader with 12 years of software experience, both client-side and server-side, focused on consumer app development. Playfully is my first foray into entrepreneurship. I have experience in product management, growth, and company leadership. I am also a mom which gives me the empathy and instincts to solve the most critical needs for my users.

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

We prototyped first with activity packets that we took to in-person interviews in people's homes. We then used TestFlight to test a beta version of our app.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

I had a great experience with my mentor. She was able to help me see what parts of my company pitch stand out and which parts need to be refined, from an investor’s angle. She was able to provide insight on how to approach defining my target market, talking to users, and thinking about the composition of my team. The major action item I’ve taken away is to talk to a wider variety of parents - from different demographics, and to compare and contrast the feedback I’m getting from different groups to better understand the needs I’m solving for in each group. I look forward to keeping her updated on my progress and to building a lasting relationship.


Join the conversation:

Photo of allie

Hi Manisha! Great idea! Sounds like we're both interested in app development as a way of supporting parents and families. Could be exciting to connect and collaborate!

Photo of Manisha Shah

Hi Allie! I'd love to connect - your submission FORME looks really interesting. I'd love to learn more and see how I can help! Please email me at

Photo of Yaser Alhindi

I liked the idea, very impressive!

Photo of Manisha Shah

Yaser Alhindi Thank you so much!

Photo of Iliriana Kacaniku

Hey Manisha Shah 
Welcome to the Early Childhood Innovation Prize. We're thrilled to host your idea and help it grow through our human-centered design approach and toolkits. I found your idea about Playfully very interesting and became curious to learn more about it. Since you are in the full-scale roll-out, did you have a chance to collect any feedback from the current users, and if yes, how has it helped you to pivot/upgrade the Playfully's value proposition? In case you're like to collect user feedback in the near future, I'd highly recommend our User Experience and Feedback toolkit ( You may find this useful to start with, and as you progress with your solution feel free to check out our other toolkits.

Best regards,

Photo of Manisha Shah

Hi Iliriana Kacaniku - it's nice to meet you! Thanks for creating this platform for all of us to share our ideas. Yes, we've done a few rounds of user interviews and testing, but we know that as we move forward, we still need to iterate and learn (especially from our most active users). So thank you for sharing the toolkit. When we started off, we did in-home interviews with parents to ask them about their parenting challenges and we printed activity ideas for them and did a play session together to watch how they reacted to our curriculum. Lately, since our app has been live, we've been doing in person or phone interviews with people to hear their feedback on the app and to understand what parts of it they find useful. From all of this, we learned a few things:
1) It's easy for parents with kids in the 0-9 month age range to follow along with the activity as written because the kids don't usually have their own agendas. Once we interviewed parents with older kids in the 9-24 month age range, we saw that often times kids wanted to do their own thing, rather than playing the exact activity we described. What we learned is that we needed to offer a few different suggestions so that hopefully at least 1 or 2 of them would be interesting for the kids, they needed to be worded in a way that made the parent feel like they were still successful even if the kid didn't do exactly what we said, and parents needed to feel 'accomplished' for even just attempting to play - whether or not their child did the thing we suggested.
2) People are using the app in planning mode - like at night time after their child is in bed, planning for the next day, or while the child is napping, planning for afternoon play time. This is different from what we originally thought - that parents would be pulling out their phone in the moment when they want an idea of what to play. That changed our minds about the original flow we had implemented for marking activities complete and providing feedback about the activities. And it continues to make us think about ways to improve the app to help with planning mode.
3) People love the idea of taking photos of their kids and having the timeline available in our moments tab, but the current placement of the photo prompt in our activity details page doesn’t seem to be the place that fits with people’s normal usage pattern. They don’t tend to have their phone open while they play so we need a different/better way to solve for this and we need to understand the need around documenting their child’s growth a little better. Perhaps the main things people want within Playfully is to document the major milestones their children are hitting, or to be able to see what their nanny is doing with their children while they are at work.
4) Parents want to be involved and the promise of Playfully when they first choose to install is that it will be an easy way for them to feel informed, involved, and proactive. So we need to positively reinforce those feelings - encouraging the parent for making small steps to stay on top of their child’s development. This isn't too different from what we originally had guessed would motivate our users, but hearing people say things like this has helped us realize how important it is to focus on this - and there is more we can be doing along these lines.

These are some of the main learnings that stand out so far, but we are eager to hear and learn more from our users!