OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

The Early Childhood Wonderland: Flint, Michigan

An enchanting, larger-than-life, interactive neighborhood-based, learning space and destination for youth ages 0-8 and their families.

Photo of Leah Martin on behalf of Isaiah Oliver
1 0

Written by

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

We haven’t needed to refine our concept as we originally presented it. We remain very excited about the Flint Early Childhood Wonderland and are thrilled for the opportunity to explore it with this group. Unfortunately, we have reached out to our assigned mentor and haven’t yet heard back. Once we connect, we will certainly welcome her feedback and include her expertise.

Name or Organization

The Early Childhood Wonderland: Flint, MI is the brainchild of a deliberate partnership between the well-established Community Foundation of Greater Flint; the Flint & Genesee Literacy Network comprised of cross-sector partners; and the brand-new, cross-sector Flint Early Childhood Collaborative focused on early childhood development.


Two specific neighborhoods in Flint, MI: The University Avenue Corridor and/or Brownell-Holmes.

What is your stage of development?

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


  • Team

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

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

This will be transformative because it will be accessible to all; engage and inspire regardless of age, social strata or home geography; and increase these opportunities during day-to-day activities and outside of a traditional school environment. Years ago, we made a commitment to create innovative, literacy-rich spaces. As a deliberate second step, we have grown the Literacy Network and the Early Childhood Collaborative to build our infrastructure. As a third step, we are doubling down on place-based learning and “built” environments, like Cummings, Educare and this "Wonderland."

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The Early Childhood Wonderland: Flint, Michigan aims to increase access to early childhood learning opportunities and spark whole-community enthusiasm for emergent skills and accessible, place-based learning. We believe learning can happen anytime, in any place, at any age, and we are working to provide new, inspiring and unexpected learning opportunities in Flint. The Literacy Network in particular is focused on 1) School readiness, 2) School success, 3) Postsecondary success and 4) Gainful employment. The Flint Early Childhood Collaborative is focused on 1) Ensuring that all early childhood education also embeds professional development for teachers and staff, 2) Stimulating intensive family engagement, 3) Collecting, managing and analyzing data to continuously improve, and 4) Demanding high-quality teaching. By creating this Early Childhood Wonderland together, we will move closer to our shared goal of accessible, interactive, community-based education. We will inform public policies and practices, open new doors for Flint's youngest children and their families, and serve as an example to other communities in Michigan and the U.S.

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

In Flint, there is a pathway for success from cradle to career, but we can’t get enough people on it. We want this path to be clear, practical and seamless – from birth to college/career, for two generations, for all Flint residents “twinkle to wrinkle.” We partner to make literacy second-nature to entire communities; to inspire a sense of wonder and adventure in unexpected places; and to open new doors for all Flint children, so that they have access to every possible opportunity.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Our imaginary examples are Alice in Wonderland – the fall down the rabbit hole, the mad tea party, croquet with the queen, and the pool of tears, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the golden tickets, the chocolate river and “invention rooms.” In reality, our examples are Frankenmuth, Michigan, 30 miles north of Flint, a year-long Christmas wonderland that feels like stepping back in time. Driving there – past farm land and big open spaces and one lone stop light – all of a sudden, you turn one corner and enter an unexpected world of twinkling lights, old world shops, candy stores, and Christmas decorations. We also have Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, which reconstructs historical events, and welcomes visitors into life-like scenes from colonial, Victorian, Edwardian and Depression-era America. Both are truly captivating, and visitors leave their worries behind because the mind is trying to absorb these new realities. We want to create this for Flint – for literacy, for immersive place-based learning, for our youngest citizens and their families. We want to offer this very same feeling of wonder from a children’s story, or transporting to a bygone era, to our citizens and visitors. We want to create something magical out of something ordinary. Also, we must mitigate the impact of lead on learning, and we know ordinary solutions alone won’t get us where we want to go. Flint youth experience particularly high rates of toxic stress, including poverty, housing insecurity, parental separation, etc. This kind of intervention and investment in their community will help change their long-term trajectories.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Young children, families, the City and all of Michigan will benefit. Our cross-sector and multi-generation approach will serve as an example to other communities facing similar challenges including changing economies, aging infrastructure, shifts in population and increasingly limited public dollars. Flint residents will benefit by being able to walk through the Literacy Wonderland at their convenience – it will be unavoidable! This will benefit the city as a whole: With 1) increased awareness and ways to engage around early childhood development and 2) a pointed focus on literacy, the benefits of this kind of immersive investment will be immediate, tangible and contagious, and ultimately shift our local behavior, culture and values. Our success will lead to other communities saying, “We need to invest in innovative early education – look what happened in Flint!” Also, Michigan is one of the only states closing the achievement gap not with our lowest performers making gains, but with an unwelcome decline in student performance in our more affluent communities. We are also one of the only states with a declining population. In many ways, we are heading in the wrong direction and must course-correct. This is our best response: To face our challenges by collaborating in new ways; by creating inspiring and accessible places; and by acting as ‘pacesetters’ – setting bold new goals and finding success in unexpected places will serve our partners, businesses and policy-makers.

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

Absolutely, the Literacy Wonderland will lead to long-lasting outcomes and spark systemic change. It will increase access to early childhood education across populations, and there is an immediate, direct correlation – the earlier children are exposed to literacy, the better. It also gives us a chance to engage with parents and guardians who maybe didn’t have the best experience in schools or have high levels of trust in public institutions, and who will be inspired to see that learning can and does happen anywhere. This cross-generational engagement will benefit all. This idea will also set an example for what whole-community early childhood investment can look like. It is part of an optimistic, high-impact effort to transform the status quo, and show individuals, partners, businesses, institutions and policy makers why this kind of innovative, multi-generation, community-wide investment is worthwhile.

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

Undoubtedly, Flint faced significant challenges before the Water Crisis and child lead exposure. The city has faced four decades of double-digit population loss, leaving 90 percent of its children economically disadvantaged. For its size, Flint is the most poverty-stricken city in the U.S. In addition, Flint children routinely score five grade levels behind students in Michigan’s most affluent communities, while managing persistent adversity and toxic stress. All of these challenges existed before the Water Crisis, and have been amplified by this new neurodevelopmental burden. Science also shows that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behavior and health. (Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University)

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

As we consider our experience with prospective users, we call on the depth of experience and impact behind the three proposing partners have with Flint youth and families: 1) The Flint and Genesee Literacy Network has 100+ community partners and is growing and thriving, and exists because of 2) the Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s vision for the community and ability to connect cross-sector institutions. The CFGF is also the reason Denise Smith is able to lead 3) Educare Flint and the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative. Together we have experience engaging communities, forging unexpected partnerships, and creating opportunities for families that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Together, for this proposal and our work more broadly, we are bringing world-class ECE practices to Flint. We also know, in part because of the Water Crisis and the changes in Flint’s economy in recent decades, we must act boldly and ensure all of our strategies are aligned, across all sectors. This is especially true with this early childhood focus, and in our work engaging a variety of Flint-based institutions on a shared vision for our community, including non-profits, for-profit businesses, state agencies, elected officials, foundations and universities. In a similar and neighboring geography, we have tested the use of anticipated resources, tools and live models for parents and educator to support their application of creative learning experiences to children ages 0-8. We know that these solutions work, and that with our Early Childhood Wonderland we can integrate them community-wide in Flint.

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

This has been a big part of our early discussions. We like the idea of rotating private partnerships and sponsorships for different aspects of the Literacy Wonderland, to keep its different components fresh for visitors and feasible for sponsors. We want to pursue advertising, as well as partnerships with government offices like the park district, or department of transportation, so we can leverage public dollars for place-making. We have also brainstormed about the possibility of ticketed events or membership dues for participating organizations and businesses.

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 deep expertise in this arena, have been laying the groundwork for this kind of project for years, and are optimistic about the feasibility of this idea. Our current planning team includes leaders from the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative, the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. All of these organizations have full-time and contracted staff with deep expertise in early childhood, literacy and philanthropic strategy. We have full-time staff at the Educare and Cummings early childhood centers, and community-based organizations are also pitching in and available, including those with expertise in adult literacy, art innovation, trauma-based care, nutrition and health. In addition to continued lead partner discussion, we are seeking support from a mentor to flesh out technical and operational feasibility. Finally, our work for the past six has focused on building a strong foundation for just this kind of project, and with your support and guidance we will be able to leverage support from partners, philanthropy, donors, public investments and other stakeholder groups.

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

The Flint Early Childhood Wonderland is more concept than business model, and within that framework we have thought a lot about sustainability. We will bring on a project manager who will identify, recruit and steward partners, sponsors, staff and community-based activities. Partners and sponsors would be responsible for the build-out of their installation, with support from the project manager, and would receive attribution for their project and draw to their particular community service or business. Because this is such a unique and high-profile project, and because of the number of partners involved, there will be many voices and efforts contributing to sustainability – all under the leadership of our 3-organization team.

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

Across Flint, and across our organizations and teams, we all maintain a human-centered approach in our work. In particular, for the Early Childhood Wonderland, we will rely on our experience recruiting youth and families for the new Educare Flint early childhood center. There are two central themes that have informed these early recruitment efforts that will be relevant with this Wonderland project: 1) The first 1,000 days of life for any child are critically important for life-long opportunities and outcomes and 2) Many families are unaware of how critical this window is, and what resources are available to support them. One example of how we are helping address this gap: We are creating Educare parent cafés for families interested in learning new ways to be more self-sufficient, and to support the development of their children. This Early Childhood Wonderland project will also highlight the collective activities of the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network and the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative – true collaboration is hard work and does take time, but generously bears fruit over time. The Flint Early Childhood Wonderland effort reinforces and capitalizes on the momentum established by the three partners co-submitting this application, and our ability to link the community foundation to literacy to early childhood.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

As part of our strategic planning process in 2013 the Community Foundation of Greater Flint formed a task force to identify our “stake in the ground” issue. In December 2013, that task force recommended to the Board to put a stake in the ground on literacy. Why literacy? We had come to understand the strong connection to literacy rates and economic self-sufficiency and overall quality of life. The task force saw literacy - particularly in early childhood - as a foundational issue that could have far-reaching impact and dramatically improve people’s lives throughout Genesee County. In June 2014, Literacy Powerline, a national organization that helps communities improve literacy rates, met with our board and encouraged them to embrace this goal by focusing our time, talent and treasure on building a literacy network. Research shows that communities that make significant progress in improving literacy rates do so because they have a literacy coalition that engages a multitude of stakeholders in the work. Fast forward three years. We have continued forward progress through the Water Crisis, which was particularly harmful for Flint's youngest citizens. We know that changing literacy rates takes decades to accomplish, but have made significant gains during this early, focused window. In 2014, we hired Ja’Nel Jamerson to serve as executive director of the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network – he has built his own team since then, and a significant portion of their work is focused on early childhood development and two-generation strategies. Also, in 2016, we hired Denise Smith to serve as executive director of the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative, where she is building a citywide early childhood education effort that is cohesive and working toward improved access and quality of providers across Flint; provides outreach to home- and center-based facilities; and participates in local, state, and national policy work.

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

The three partners driving this project are the Community Foundation for Greater Flint, the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network, and the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative. In addition, we expect to call on 50+ long-time community partners to get involved (please see attached for list). We will welcome the opportunity to hear from your team, and to work with a mentor to bring this Early Childhood Wonderland to life.

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)

Project planning for place-based, public attractions. Financing and sustainability. Part-time project coordinator. Other, TBD.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

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

Project planning for place-based, public attractions. Financing and sustainability. Staffing. Other, TBD.

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).

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


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

We haven’t needed to refine our concept as we originally presented it, at least within this particular window. We remain very excited about it and thrilled for the opportunity to explore it with this group. Unfortunately, we have reached out a couple times to our assigned mentor and haven’t yet heard back. Once we connect, we will certainly welcome and include her feedback.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Iliriana Kacaniku

Hey Leah Martin on behalf of Isaiah Oliver 

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 Literary Wonderland very interesting. Utilizing the fairy-tale like Frankenmuth, Michigan, to build an environment very conducive of early learning is very inspiring. While reading your idea, I became curious to learn more about it, especially, what would the Literary Wonderland be composed of? How do you plan to determine its components and the way the children 0-3 will interact with them in a way that will foster their literacy and education. I would encourage you to take a look at the toolkits we have designed for innovators like yourself. I'd highly recommend the User Experience and Feedback Toolkit (
and the Prototyping Toolkit (

Both of these tools will provide you with a closer insight of how could the Literary Wonderland look like and what components should it contain. In addition, they would also inform you what could be the stages and timeline of its development.

Hope these help and I look forward to reading more about it in the platform.

Best regards,