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Learning on the Move

We turn waiting into learning by providing subtle nudges to help parents leverage daily routines to increase their child’s language skills.

Photo of John Nash
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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)

Our thinking evolved quite a bit throughout the Prize. The changes and refinements can be seen in our learnings mural at:

Name or Organization

University of Kentucky


Lexington, Kentucky

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

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

Child rearing is accomplished by a village rather than an individual. We seek to put informative signs all over the city to help caregivers engage with their babies/toddlers. We envision a system of signage that prompts interactivity between child, caregiver and the built environment. The solution is a game-changer because it brings early learning where caregivers and children already are--their community. Using principles of informal learning and partnering with local government, businesses, and communities, we help adults engage young children in fun learning and development activities.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Channel: A new way to deliver existing products or services to customers or end users.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

How might we make communities more learning-centered? So, picture this: You're waiting at a bus stop with your 18-month old daughter when you notice an aesthetically pleasing sign in your native language whimsically offering a fun conversation starter you can do right now with your child. Or, you're in the grocery store and a similar message is on the handle of the shopping cart. Or on the back of a bus seat, or in an elevator, or on the sidewalk while you wait to cross the street. Parents get busy with their everyday lives, their phones, or thinking about the next thing on their to-do list. They also spend a lot of time “waiting” during their everyday routines and activities - at the bus stop, the cross-walk, the laundry mat. We want to leverage these gap moments and provide subtle nudges and ideas on how they can have conversations with their child to help increase their language and vocabulary skills. There is an opportunity to make the entire community part of a broader and more impactful solution for increasing the language skills of young children. Our solution utilizes everyday routines and activities, in virtually all the places adults go within the community and gives them ideas for how to strike up a meaningful conversation with their child. We will support parents and other caregivers as their child's first teacher to ensure all young children have opportunities to develop key language skills by augmenting the built environment with innovative signage.

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

Caregivers need a better way to support their child’s language development. We aim to lessen the gap in language and vocabulary of low-income and vulnerable children. Through Learning on the Move we will leverage community spaces to improve individuals’ knowledge of the importance of children’s language development.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

How We Will Do It We will use a human centered design process, following steps akin to IDEO's Hear, Create, Deliver model. For the Hear phase, we will form a heterogeneous design team as users and co-designers. This will include individuals from diverse socioeconomic, familial structure and cultural backgrounds. This team will engage in a mission of discovery in the community to collect stories and gain inspiration. We will rely on interviews, observation, user camera studies, and studies of analogous settings (such as existing signage in our community designed to promote walkability, and signage encouraging visitors to a city nature park to pause to take in a particular feature of the landscape) to form the basis for our field research. It's possible that we may use some aspects of Create, that is some early prototypes, to learn more about the feasibility of our idea (i.e., prototype to learn). We will learn much about what families and caregivers wish for and confirm our initial need-finding which formed our empathy map for our caregiver user, Milagros. In the Create phase we will translate what we have discovered to refine our prototypes and test more broadly our signage and begin to formulate feasible approaches to evaluating the impacts of the prototypes: are parents talking more with their children? are adult caregivers who engage our solution attaining the gains they seek, etc. At this point, we will be broadening our partner base, showing our early successes to business, non-profits, religious affiliates and government (including public transportation cabinets, parks and recreation, and public education) contacts who may be gatekeepers to areas of the built environment where our signage could reside. In the Deliver phase, we assess the successful prototypes via a cost modeling process and look to implementation planning. We also begin to field test with other cities a Learning on the Move kit to determine the feasibility of porting this work to other urban areas. This includes its feasibility and cultural sensitivity associated with the identities of each city. What we will achieve is a repeatable, scalable, cross-cultural process cities can implement to improve the connections parents and caregivers have for their community and enhance the language outcomes of young children.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

There are two groups of beneficiaries associated with our project. The first includes young children, from infancy to age 5 across the community, whose language and vocabulary can be enhanced through further engagement and interaction with their parents/caregivers. The second includes parents/caregivers to whom we can provide subtle nudges and ideas on how to turn everyday activities into opportunities to build their child’s language and communication skills through meaningful conversations. Our team has had extensive experience in engaging diverse community members and groups. All members have backgrounds in education and learning processes. Our team has expertise in early childhood development, community learning and development, design thinking, and learning technology. Collectively we are members of a community innovation laboratory where we have engaged with community co-designers to tackle contemporary issues and objectives. We have extensive backgrounds in engaging diverse community members through multilingual and culturally relevant engagement methods.

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

Our idea positively impacts young children as well as adults throughout their communities. This project improves child/adult language interaction, enhances community solidarity through culturally relevant developmental signage and activities, and increases adult knowledge in child language and vocabulary development through informal, community-based environments. Furthermore, we intend to test, revise, and apply our model to cities across the United States, examining its applicability to diverse cities. Through Learning on the Move we would like to equalize the playing field so low-income parents and caregivers have the tools and support they need to embed language activities throughout their daily routines. Additionally, we intend to test, examine and refine our model nationwide, to enhance national communities.

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

While research by Hart & Risley (2003) gained national attention by exposing a 30 million-word gap between young children from low-income and affluent families, subsequent studies have magnified the importance of parent-child conversations in enhancing young children’s language development, especially for low-income children. Our idea leverages the everyday routines and activities of parents/caregivers to support meaningful, fun, and conversational interactions between the caregiver and the child, ultimately enhancing children's language, literacy skills and school success. Additionally, our idea leverages gap moments during the day (elevator rides, waiting at the bus stop) to help reduce directive talk and increase conversational talk between parents and their children.

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

There are many products on the market that have been designed to support early learning. And many new models for how to use technology to engage families in their child’s development and learning. Our innovation is unique in that it is designed in such a way to leverage routines and activities of most families, take advantage of their smartphone use in an unusual way, and is offered at no cost, doesn’t have to be managed, stored or cared for in any way. Here’s how: First, most families are out and about in their city or town, either running errands, commuting to work or play, and accessing a variety of services. Many of these activities involve wait time, standing in line, sitting in a chair, standing on the corner to cross the street. Our innovation leverages this wait time and changes it into an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with a child. Second, everyone is looking down. And on their phones. Cities and university campuses are now commonly placing signage on the ground to take advantage of this behavior. We are capitalizing on this movement in a way that also helps parents support their child’s language and vocabulary development.

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

We hope to develop a low-cost signage program that could be used in cities around the country, as well as tools that can support cities in individualizing the signs to their specific populations. This would include web-based sign templates, as well as opportunities for families and community members to propose new signs and locations. These signs would include activities that are culturally sound and relevant for the community in which they are placed. We intend to leverage the network of partners we have within the Community Innovation Lab, which include like-minded labs and groups in Davis, CA, Bozeman, MT, West Lafayette, IN, and Glasgow, Scotland.

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

There is an opportunity to change directive talk into conversational talk between parents and children. Two college student research assistants from the Community Innovation Lab conducted observations in the community in a variety of geographic settings representing a range of socio-economic statuses. This included a McDonald's, the shopping mall, a supermercado, a WalMart, and a Dollar Tree store. The observers sought caregivers with children to assess the direction and type of verbal interactions children and caregivers had in these settings. In 61 interactions across these settings, 80 adults and 93 children were observed. Of the 41 interactions which could be tagged as "caregiver to child," over half (22) were directive and only 14 were conversational. The following stood out to the research assistants. Many of the children observed have technology in their hands constantly (either phone or tablet), in order to “entertain” them. This severely limits the interaction between kids and parents. Countless times the observers noted no interaction between caregivers and children because it seemed that the children were too preoccupied with technology. Adults, too, are constantly on their phone lost in trance. Kids would talk to parents and these wouldn’t look up from their phone or only give occasional glances of affirmation to the children. Parents would take pictures of children doing daily things (eating ice cream, making silly face and would even go as far as to “force” picture perfect moments rather than spontaneous ones). Mostly directive conversations occurred when parents would be with more than one child. At McDonald’s most conversations were directive as kids would be scolded for manners while eating and for getting into trouble when playing in the kids zone. But, there would be interactive conversations between parents and children when the parents would ask them how they’re feeling, if they’re having, enjoying their food, etc. At the mall it was a much more “lonelier” experience when walking through, as kids would be distracted and entertained with technology and adults would usually talk amongst themselves and have the child on the side. Our Team and City Our team has worked with public officials on previous projects who support such initiatives. We have a faculty team of five multi-disciplinary individuals who are committed to the idea and who can mobilize both decision makers and those impacted by these decisions in a relatively quick manner. The pilot city is ripe for this opportunity as it has been identified as a “University City”, which focuses on the quality of life for all citizens. Therefore, there is high probability that such an initiative would be favorably supported by both political officials and community members alike.

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

While we are new stage innovators, we've given thought to how our initiative could succeed. More thinking is likely needed here, but by using the business model canvas (attached to our proposal), we are able to envision the key areas for success and potential barriers. We are strong on partnerships and infrastructure and have challenges in bringing this idea to a full revenue generating model. We would benefit from a deeper dialogue with advisors here.

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

Human centered design was a driver for the creation and refinement of our concept. The story of our use of human centered design process is described below and you may see this story with full images in context within the attached learnings mural - 19.5 MB PNG file. Or visit Iteration 1 Our first sketches in the original application submission represented our team's early thinking about where our signage could appear in the community. During a team meeting at a locally owned bagel shop, our minds turned firstly to learning activities on the sidewalks of our city. We thought it would be easier to observe users interacting with larger signage affixed to sidewalks in public areas. We started to sketch prototype different activities which could be turned into sidewalk decals (iteration 2). During our team meeting at the bagel shop, we noticed fathers and young children in the cafe. We added restaurants to our list of potential settings. Iteration 2 In this iteration we sketched designs based on our conversation with the team, presented them back to the team to see if they captured our conversations. Based on the feedback from the team we selected four designs to move forward with user testing. Iteration 3 In this round, four sketch prototypes were selected and enlarged to be printed on two 11x17 sheets of paper and then laminated in clear contact paper. We envisioned them being placed on sidewalks in the city where parents and children are. They were taken to a team meeting at a local restaurant where they were reviewed by the team and placed on the floor to see if they had face validity with wait staff. In general, the wait staff could follow the prompts. However, some issues arose in conversations with the team. For instance, one team member noted that the sign "Say: Some animals that jump" prompted him to say the words "Animals that jump" and not imagine a list of animals who could jump. This got us thinking we needed to A/B test our signs. This was the first time anyone outside our team had seen our signs. They were universally liked and remained so by users throughout the field testing described below. Around this time, we met with our mentor. We shared our four prototypes with him. He confirmed our notion that A/B testing was needed. Based on this discussion and his feedback, we decided to focus on language and vocabulary development by using subtle nudges to help parents have meaningful conversations with their children. In this iteration we conducted A/B testing (well, A/B/C/D testing :-) on our four prototypes with two sets of users in two separate tests: 10 single fathers from middle to lower socio-economic status and 3 mothers from middle to upper middle socio-economic status. Four big themes emerged across both groups: 1. Simpler is better 2. Precision matters. For example, we had a square in our "find the rectangles" sign. Also, the wind icon was confusing. Users also interpreted our "buildings" sign as not a set of buildings but just one building. 3. Some users had a problem with the logo or anything that smacked of branding. 4. When asked what other settings these might work, restaurants came up, with table stickers or table tents as a manner of display. Iteration 5 In this iteration we brought in a graphic designer to take the feedback from iteration 4 and create new signage to winter weather we were not able to conduct outdoor testing of our sidewalk signs. But the user feedback in iteration 4 which pointed to the idea of restaurants as a setting got us thinking. We leveraged personal connections to obtain corporate permission to place our signs in a Red Robin hamburger restaurant during the dinner hour. We printed our signs on peel and stick photo paper through Walgreens online photo service. The prints were ready overnight and we went to Red Robin with a team of three. We placed the signs on three tables as shown above and observed from a booth across the aisle. What we learned: in a restaurant like Red Robin the competition for eyeballs and attention at the table is fierce. There is a game display on the table, three TVs in sight of our position, colorful art and mirrors on the walls, loud music playing, and the kids' menu is printed on an activity sheet with enough activities on it to occupy a child for the average 37-42-minute table turn. In sum, there is virtually no gap time, and by virtue of the way this restaurant serves its food, by the end of a service a customer's table is crammed with dinnerware, plates, napkins, etc. Our signage is lost when placed on the table (see image above). Next round of placements in a restaurant? We believe it could be on the floor, near the hostess stand, when the customer is waiting for a table. We're also interested in still trying sidewalks as well as bus stops, elevators, and laundromat

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Where Our Idea Came From Our idea came from work we have done to make playgrounds more accessible to low-income families and our work in engaging communities as leaders for change. It also stems from our work in field testing empathetic need finding techniques on infants and toddlers to inform the design of early childhood classroom space and curriculum. What Excites us About the Early Childhood Space Young children are our future. That sounds trite, but we believe it's true. Research has demonstrated the impact of high-quality early care and learning on children's outcomes. However, not all families can afford high-quality care. For young children, positive and healthy relationships with their caregivers is critically important, and all parents want to see their children succeed in life. Giving children a good start in life is vital to the child and our society. Our Experience Our team brings together experience in - Design thinking (Nash) - Early childhood education (Rous) - Community development and education (Hains, Hains, Kahl)

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

Some, but not all. We have worked with several Latino communities within the city, focusing on vocational and familial needs. Additionally, we have a longitudinal partnership with the sole nanny service in the region, which has sought to hire multicultural/multicultural nannies. Furthermore, we have collaborated on projects with local commissioners and the mayor regarding community initiatives. However, to fully accomplish this idea, we will seek to strengthen current relationships as well as find new partners in our testbed communities and partners in local government and businesses.

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)

While our idea has yet to be fleshed out, we could use support from others in how to ensure we are designing a system that is low-cost and replicable in a variety of cities across the country.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

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

We may need mentoring support around issues of designing instructional kits or a website which would allow other cities implement the Learning on the Move model.

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).

John Nash - Beth Rous - Bryan Hains - Kris Hains - Dan Kahl -

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

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

We worked with a mentor and found our interactions fantastic. The conversation informed our concept in a couple of ways. He gave us ideas on how to prototype and move through the iterations of prototyping, including the A/B design and the types of users we might expose our ideas to. He also suggested we bring on a graphic designer in the process. He assuaged our fears of not prototyping at a higher resolution: "Don't spend money until we get clarity on some questions through our prototyping." This was the best advice because we took for granted how many questions we really had, and thus doing several iterations quickly and cheaply got us to a point of understanding not only what to do, but what NOT to do. He helped us get more of a laser focus and be articulate about the problem we wanted to solve. Thus, we narrowed from general child development to that of language and vocabulary as a way to help reduce the gap. He also gave us the language we now use to describe the work: "subtle nudges" and "leveraging gap times."

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

We learned a great deal in the process and our idea evolved in positive ways thanks to iterative refinements through prototyping and the advice of our mentor. Please refer to our "learnings" mural, posted in our human centered design section and also viewable here:

Name or Organization

University of Kentucky


Lexington, KY

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

We turn waiting into learning by providing subtle nudges to help parents leverage daily routines to increase their child’s language skills.

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

Literacy skills begin with language and language is a predictor of children’s overall success in school. We seek to provide subtle nudges to help caregivers engage their children in conversations to support their language development while they move about the community. We envision a system of signage in the built environment to prompt conversations between child and caregiver. The solution is a game-changer as it brings early learning where caregivers and children already are--their community.


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