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Sparkler / Mindful Inc.

Sparkler's app and services let parents, doctors, and teachers align around children's learning and health — meeting needs better, together

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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)

Since our initial application, we have continued to learn from pilot users and potential partners. This feedback leads directly to improvements in Sparkler — our technology and functionality, our content, our delivery model, and our partnerships. We have updated our application accordingly. Sparkler continues to evolve; here are highlights from the past few months: * We launched our PlayMaker model through which low-income parents have joined the Sparkler team to host weekly playgroups using Sparkler for small groups of parents and children. This is a way of tapping into existing community networks to engage parents in the critical work of early brain and child development. For us, it's an important way to engage families more organically and sustain that engagement over time, building upon the enthusiasm of our early users. * We have developed a new dimension of the mobile platform designed to support adult learning about early brain and child development. The goal is to provide a way for families to access additional knowledge about the science underlying the activities in Sparkler. * We continue push on the boundaries of the health and education sectors and focus our work at the intersection of families, healthcare, and education — allowing these three vital collaborators to work together to benefit young children. In partnership with thought leaders and practitioners on pediatrics as a pathway to improved early learning and development outcomes, we have focused on workflow considerations and information sharing among parents, pediatricians, and teachers in a HIPPA- and FERPA-compliant way.

Name or Organization

Mindful Inc. / Sparkler


Headquartered in New York City; piloting in Newark; and in discussions with partners across the U.S.

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • For-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

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

Sparkler leverages the untapped power of parents PLUS the systems serving families to serve children better, together in the early years. Some ways we change the game: * Powering partnerships between parents, pediatricians, and teachers to benefit young children. * Tracking milestones using parent observations & ASQ® (Sparkler is the first approved mobile implementation of ASQ.) * Presenting off-screen activities translating science on child development for real-life. * Engaging parents through two-way coaching from experts; sharing child progress among parents/caregivers.

Select an Innovation Target

  • System design: Solutions that target changing larger systems.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

By operating at the intersection of parenting, health, and education, we help all stakeholders work together to make the most of the crucial early years between birth and age 8. Sparkler partners with education and healthcare providers aiming to improve learning and health outcomes for children. They help us reach families and create a common point of focus on each individual child, helping educators, pediatricians, and parents to be more responsive and aligned. Through systems partners, Sparkler engages parents, who are best positioned to eliminate learning gaps before they emerge. Our mobile content and services are designed to be playful and build the capacity of parents/caregivers to become effective first teachers. Sparkler helps families prepare young children for learning and life, and by providing valid, reliable data on each child from birth (plus a qualitative portfolio), Sparkler helps systems improve long-term outcomes for children, strengthen quality of care/delivery, and reduce costs over time. We offer: * Focus: Highlighting children's growth and progress using ASQ® and in-app feedback from families; * Content: Personalized sequence of engaging, off-screen activities, aligned with early learning standards, informed by the latest advances in brain science; * Coaching: Custom two-way exchanges of ideas with early childhood experts; and * Supplies: Bags of books/materials that complement digital content.

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

Ninety percent of a child's brain is formed by age three, long before school starts. To close K-12 learning gaps, we must start at birth, but there is currently no infrastructure, coordinated effort, or investment to enable that essential work. The net result: stubborn, persistent gaps in readiness to succeed — starting early in life and extending through elementary school, high school, and beyond.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Sparkler is on a mission to turn parents into early learning enthusiasts who work collaboratively with the educators and doctors who serve them to erase America’s early learning gaps — putting all children on a path to realize their potential. Sparkler builds bridges between families and the organizations that serve them — school systems and health systems — to support healthy early brain and child development. Sparkler partners with school districts and healthcare organizations to reach families, particularly high-needs families, and to align care and delivery around children's individual needs. *** FOR FAMILIES, Sparkler delivers a mobile service that helps parents and caregivers work together to give children what they need to thrive. This includes: * Focus: Through a unique partnership, Sparkler is the first to deliver via mobile the Ages & Stages Questionnaires®, a research-based, time-tested, parent-administered measurement of children’s development. (Ages & Stages Questionnaires® and ASQ® are registered trademarks of Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.) Through the ASQ, parents answer questions about their child at various ages between birth through five. The answers translate into a valid and reliable measure of potential developmental delay across multiple domains: cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and communication. The ASQ is the gold-standard in developmental screening and among the most widely used. Its popularity stems, in part, from its administration by parents who know their children best, and from the vast amount of data underlying its reliability and validity. * Activities: Sparkler translates the science of child development into specific, actionable, play-based activities for families that are aligned with federal early childhood standards and the latest research in child development. It also offers regular, virtual coaching from experienced educators and experts in child development. Sparkler turns children’s homes and neighborhoods into playscapes for everyday adventures — from imaginary play to scavenger hunts to word games. When a parent opens Sparkler, he or she sees a “playbook,” a series of off-screen activities presented on digital cards (see attached image). When the parent clicks on a card, he sees a short, simple recipe for play, as well as words to use for intentional vocabulary building, and variations that are slightly less and more challenging. The cards focus on four core areas of development: - Heart — How a child approaches the world: social and emotional development, outlook - Mind — How a child thinks: executive function, math, and creativity - Body — How a child grows and moves: perception, gross motor, and fine motor - Words — How a child communicates: expressive and receptive language, reading, writing * Coaching: During and after play, Sparkler encourages parents to share photos and feedback, which form a learning portfolio upon which Sparkler coaches base their messaging to parents. Coaches reflect on a child’s experience, offer insights about his growth, and provide actionable suggestions and research-informed strategies for families to put to work in their everyday interactions with their child. *** FOR SYSTEMS, Sparkler makes it easier to support healthy early brain and child development by creating a common language and measurement around which the many adults and organizations supporting a family can align their work. Key to this feature is Sparkler’s integration of the Ages & Stages Questionnaires®, as well as ongoing focus on development through the photos and feedback after each play. FOR SCHOOLS, Sparkler enables teachers and other school-based staff to better understand and tailor instruction and interventions to individual students’ needs. We offer reports rich in qualitative and quantitative data about each child so that educators are better equipped to meet the individual learning needs of each child. Sparkler also enables learning partnerships between parents and teachers through alignment of mobile content with classroom curriculum and messaging capability to reach families via mobile nudges. Sparkler hosts playgroups and other events that help education schools directly engage families in becoming effective first teachers. FOR HEALTHCARE PROVIDERS, Sparkler facilitates developmental screening and early identification of developmental challenges. Through mobile delivery of the ASQ and messaging capability, Sparkler can address critical gaps in follow up so that children can benefit from early intervention. In the long term, this leads to improved learning and life outcomes.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1. Sparkler benefits young children (age 0-8). It enables them to access more and better play-based learning opportunities and to benefit from more responsive interactions with the caring adults who are best-positioned to impact their lives. This helps them prepare for success in Kindergarten and beyond. Parents and caregivers also benefit because they can become more capable and confident first teachers. Partner organizations benefit from common, actionable, child-level information, improved long-term outcomes, and lower cost of care. Society benefits when more children are ready to succeed. 2. Sparkler has been developed, tested, and refined working with families and policy makers. Early product testing/piloting happened with families in Brownsville, Brooklyn; Washington Heights, NY; Newark, NJ; and New Haven, CT. We have received valuable insights from these early users related to the content, the interface, user experience, and more, both from human-centered design activities and observations of their use of the app. Education and social service leaders have also advised us on product and business development. While Sparkler is in its infancy, the Sparkler team has extensive experience with the population of families Sparkler serves, starting about 15 years ago when they served together on the leadership team of the NYC Department of Education.

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

We believe Sparkler will produce long-term improvements in the ways systems support families, particularly those with complex needs; the ways parents interact with their children; and the learning and life outcomes of children. Specifically, we believe implementation of Sparkler will do the following: * Contribute to a significant increase in the quantity and quality of parent/child interactions that boost cognitive and non-cognitive development. * Contribute to substantially larger numbers of children being screened for developmental delay prior to kindergarten (less than 50% are screened currently) and contribute to their receiving necessary, early interventions during the most formative years. * Contribute to greater alignment between parents and doctors, teachers, and other professionals around the specific needs of each child. * Contribute to a significant increase in the number of children who arrive ready for kindergarten and scoring on grade-level in reading and math by third grade. * Contribute to lower long-term costs of healthcare and special education services.

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

Sparkler is designed to serve ALL children because all children benefit when they spend meaningful time engaging with trusted grown-ups. However, it is low-income children who, too often, don't have access to early learning opportunities who are Sparkler's primary focus and motivation. Sparkler has designed its app, content, and delivery models with these families in mind. Sparkler was launched first on an Android platform — the device of choice in most low-income communities — and the Sparkler experience has been available in English and Spanish from day one. We believe changing the way communities educate their youngest children could erase the kindergarten readiness gap and subsequent achievement gaps as well.

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

Many organizations are working to nudge parents to be better first teachers; many educators and education organizations are also working to serve young children and their families; and increasingly, pediatric practices are focused on encouraging early brain development and identifying problems early. What Sparkler does that is innovative is create connective tissue that allows these three groups — parents, educators, and doctors — that usually work independently to collaborate, focusing on the same milestones and emphasizing the same activities and interactions. The unique collaboration that Sparkler facilitates allows communities to more effectively serve their youngest children. Our early work and the partnerships we are forging across the United States give us confidence that our approach of building bridges that connect families, doctors, and educators fills a significant gap, and could change the way communities care for and educate their youngest members. Ultimately, we believe Sparkler will change the allocation of responsibility and resources for early childhood education and improve long-term outcomes for children.

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

There are 36.8 million children under 8 years old in the U.S. Of the 4 million who start kindergarten each year, 4 in 10 have already fallen behind on core cognitive and non-cognitive measures. For poor children, the figures are much worse: one recent study found that less than half of low-income children are school ready. These children — and the education and health systems that serve them — constitute Sparkler’s target market. It is through working with education and health systems that Sparkler will reach significant numbers of families with young children. Sparkler’s enterprise model offers education and healthcare providers an opportunity to achieve improved outcomes and lower costs. The primary barrier to scalability is the lack of common focus and clear accountability for services for families with children under school age. Leaders of relevant organizations, from healthcare to education to social services, understand the early years to be critical, but many hope that other entities will make the investment necessary to support children and families. This attitude is beginning to shift. Sparkler is funded with Title I resources in New Jersey, and we are partnering with thought leaders in the use of Medicaid to promote school readiness. We believe Sparkler — which is scalable and explicitly cross-sector — can be an engine for the necessary change in how systems work together to create opportunities for substantial numbers of families.

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

We have demonstrated feasibility across multiple dimensions: ENGAGEMENT: Sparkler’s feasibility hinges on its ability to engage families, particularly low-income parents. Sparkler was designed in consultation with NYC parents and community organizations. Our early data demonstrate users' strong engagement, and the feedback we have received from focus groups with users has been consistently positive. TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY: Sparkler is currently available for both Android and iOS. We have developed custom technology, which includes content delivery, customization and personalization — both for systems and for parents, messaging and coaching platforms, and developmental screening. We continue to refine our technology, with upcoming development focused on audio and video integration and administrative and programmatic supports for customers. OPERATIONAL FEASIBILITY: Sparkler has mobilized a strong team well-positioned to make Sparkler an operational success. This includes experienced and aligned early childhood experts, strong technical capacity, and effective implementation and project management teams. FINANCIAL FEASIBILITY: Education and healthcare systems serving families are increasingly eager to invest in high-quality services that tackle the pressing challenges of school readiness. Today, an estimated $950 billion a year is spent supporting children ages 0-8, and $380 billion of that total is invested in healthcare and education. We anticipate that these numbers will grow as policy makers focus more on the power of early years. For school systems, early identification of developmental delay offers clear benefits in cost and efficacy, and high quality early learning is known as one of the highest leverage and most sustainable investments; Sparkler offers the opportunity to expand screening and deepen the quality of early experiences through partnership with families and pediatricians. For healthcare organizations, birth is an important opportunity for patient acquisition and retention. Healthy early brain and child development correspond to better long-term health outcomes and lower cost of care. Sparkler offers ways for healthcare providers to attract and retain patients as well as promote healthy early brain and child development.

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

Our work with early-stage partners across the United States gives us confidence in the viability of our business model. Our initial investment in technology and content allows us to deliver a compelling offering at a comparatively low price, providing an attractive entry point for the many communities and organizations interested in supporting families and child development. Our supplemental services, where they are desired to deepen and extend the engagement of families, are more expensive and priced on a variable basis. We work with partners, who have shared interests in preparing young children to succeed in school. These partners understand that early work at home can change the trajectory of children's lives, helping children and families but also reducing downstream costs for society. Accordingly, partners pay us to provide Sparkler — including our creative original content, our coaching, our developmental screenings, and more — to the families in their care. While we believe our model is viable, there are known risks, primarily: * Sustaining engagement of end users, particularly among the highest need families * Building and sustaining long-term business partnerships in the context of shrinking public resources We are developing new models — such as our PlayMaker model — that can help us to engage high-needs end users in a meaningful and ongoing way. We believe that blended delivery models hold great promise to encourage ongoing engagement, even with populations that are historically challenging to engage. As we scale, we are working to establish the analytic capability that will provide our partners with essential data that they require — both on use and impact — and accommodating partners' specific needs in order to sustain long-term, high-value relationships.

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

Sparkler’s initial designs and user-experience were co-designed with parents across the socio-economic spectrum, with a particular focus on low-income families. Since then, we have been testing Sparkler, analyzing usage patterns and qualitative data. We have built into our blended delivery models regular in-person feedback sessions from users. Our team uses empathy interview strategies to gather feedback, which continues to inform our development cycles. This feedback has taken multiple forms: * Conceptual and design workshops in initial development phase * Observations of early users' behavior using Sparkler * Consultation with early users * Surveys and focus groups throughout pilot engagements Based on feedback from early users, we have improved Sparkler's functionality; evolved our content; done more to emphasize the developmental science behind activities; and allowed for two-way interactions between parents and coaches.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Sparkler was born out of deep frustration with persistent learning gaps in K-12 education, decades of hard-fought attempts to made a difference with modest results relative to the need, and recent developments in brain science that provide incontrovertible evidence of the critical importance of the early years. Having come at the challenges in public education from a systems perspective, we were inspired by the challenge of creating a new infrastructure (unsystem-like) with parents and children, specifically, at the center of a concerted and aligned approach to a massive and essential challenge: focusing energy and investment on healthy early brain and child development. The Sparkler team has spent the majority of our careers in K-12 education, where we’ve worked to improve the learning and life outcomes of high-needs students. There’s been some progress in recent decades, but there are still staggering learning gaps — gaps that emerge long before students arrive at school. Without addressing the earliest years, the learning gaps will persist, and it will be impossible to make the significant strides necessary. We believe that the early childhood ecosystem is ripe for the system change akin to the kind of work we have done in K-12 education. We are familiar with a landscape of well intentioned individuals operating in a context of diffused responsibility, uncoordinated systems, and unfocused action. The prospect of unleashing the potential energy of parents and systems excites and inspires us. We also believe that unleashing the untapped power of parents and caregivers will have powerful impacts on the rest of the education and health care ecosystems, as organizations adapt their practices to focus on the holistic development of each child rather than on more isolated metrics of academic or health outcomes. The team has extensive relevant experience: * Sparkler Co-founder Kristen Kane was the founding COO of Amplify, an education technology company.Kristen served as COO of the NYC Department of Education. Kristen served in the Obama administration at the FCC, where she led the development of strategies for applying broadband technologies in the education, healthcare, and energy sectors. She has worked at JPMorgan and NewSchools Venture Fund. Kristen is a Trustee of Bank Street College of Education. She holds an MBA from Stanford and a BA from Yale. * Co-founder Garth Harries served as Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Schools in New Haven, CT. * CTO Steve Midgley has advised education organizations, districts and states, foundations, and companies on engineering challenges and accelerating missions through technology. *Julia Levy founded an arts/tech startup, served as Communications Director for the NYC DOE, advised foundations/nonprofits/companies on education, and worked a reporter and writer/illustrator.

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

We are always interested in partnering with service providers that have great outcomes and content providers that can demonstrate strong efficacy. We have designed Sparkler to allow for substantial customization and white-labeling to extend the reach of such providers and programs. We are eager to form partnerships that help exceptional programs scale and reach more families.

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)

We are looking for partners and advisors who have the following expertise: Engagement: We are eager to incorporate more best practices in engaging families on a sustained basis. The applications of behavioral economics, particularly as they relate to low income populations, are of particular interest. We also seek out organizations with experience in place-based work that engages local businesses. The next phase of our content work involves designing more immersive experiences for children and their families. Blended Funding: There is need and potential for a blend of government, private sector, and philanthropic support for our mission driven business model. We would value input on how to thoughtfully construct projects to enable blended funding models without significant attenuation of sales cycles. Universal Product Design & Delivery: Although our initial focus has been low income communities through the organizations that support them, we will soon be serving families across the socio-economic spectrum. We would value input on serving a diverse population of users and how best to tailor delivery strategies accordingly.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

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

Sparkler has an extensive network of advisors and mentors in education. We would benefit from additional support in the healthcare sector. Insights into the economic, workflow, and legal considerations of healthcare providers and insurance companies regarding adoption of a service like Sparkler would be particularly helpful.

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).

Kristen Kane: Garth Harries: Steve Midgley: Julia Levy:

[Optional] Video: You are invited to submit a 30-60 second video that introduces you and/or your team and your idea.

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

We were excited to connect with Katherine Kempe of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We spoke with her in early February about her work and what Sparkler is working to accomplish. She asked insightful questions about Sparkler, which helped us to refine how we are describing our business model, specifically emphasizing its systems approach — its work at the intersection of parents, educators, and pediatricians. We hope to continue to tap into Katherine’s experience and expertise over time — as Sparkler evolves — and hope she will be one of the wonderful network of advisors and mentors who have generously contributed to Sparkler.


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