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The Kaleidoscope Project: Changing the places kids go into the places kids grow

A community initiative generating action around the important role places and people play in the social emotional development of children.

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The Kaleidoscope Project


The implementation of The Kaleidoscope Project is in Wake County, NC. It can be replicated anywhere.

What is your stage of development?

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


  • Team

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)

Young children’s social emotional development takes place within the caregiving environment around them, including both the social and physical environment. How can we as a community design children’s spaces in ways that nurture social emotional health? How can we train adults to relate to and communicate with young children in ways that build their resilience in adversity? Our project aims to transform the way we think about young child mental health. We will engage many sectors and inspire people to create unique places where children’s well-being is fostered.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Network: Connecting people with each other to enhance the reach or effectiveness of new or existing resources.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The Kaleidoscope Project is a community initiative that generates attention to and action around the critically important role healthy places and relationships play in the social emotional development of children and families. Kaleidoscope works collaboratively to enhance the impact of places and spaces so that all children grow up nurtured by a positive, supportive environment, and become adults who benefit from and contribute to healthy communities. Positive mental health influences children’s ability to learn, make sound decisions, and behave in positive and healthy ways. Children with high levels of social emotional well-being are able to form connections with other people, better regulate their emotions, and develop resilience in the face of adversity. In our community, many young children 0 – 5 face tough realities: for example, 28% live in poverty. As they get older, we see underlying behavioral issues: for example, 500 youth attempted self-harm last year. Our early learning systems lack the resources to adequately address the social emotional needs of young children. We are sharing best practices that create places where children thrive and where adults develop relationships that can build strong kids. We are innovating to ensure that as a community, we ● Recognize our roles and commit to take action ● Build awareness about the importance of mental health ● Create intentional spaces everywhere children spend time ● Encourage decision makers to invest

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

Young children’s social emotional development takes place within the caregiving environment around them, including both the social and physical environment. How can we as a community design children’s spaces in ways that nurture social emotional health, especially for vulnerable children? How can we train adults to relate to and communicate with young children in ways that build their resilience in adversity?

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The Kaleidoscope Project’s work is based on research by Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy that resulted in a blueprint for service providers, policymakers, funders, and others who are interested in leveraging the positive aspects of places for the purposes of promoting mental health in children. The plan includes detailed best practices in the areas of: ● Building Positive Relationships ● Using Nature to Nurture ● Creating Diverse Spaces and Activities ● Fostering Safety and Support ● Enhancing Accessibility and Inclusion. Stakeholders interested in implementing the work or supporting it through policy changes or financial and other investments will find guidance about how to approach, implement, and evaluate their work. The plan is also written for broad consumption by the public for those interested in learning about how the physical and social elements of space can promote mental health in children. Additionally, the plan includes several tools that provide a process for undertaking the work and a way of organizing implementation in order to track readiness, progress and impact. The Kaleidoscope Project’s approaches include • Creating community engagement • Leadership and a network of champions • Providing professional development, training and technical assistance • Physically enhancing children’s spaces to showcase real world examples of the best practices. While the best practices apply for all children, our investments are limited to locations in which vulnerable children are being served: • Child care centers serving low-income families • Transitional housing programs • Homeless shelters, • Affordable housing communities, etc. Our work requires the development of strong cross sector partnerships. We are engaging almost 400 cross-sector stakeholders. During the two years remaining of this grant, here is generally what we want to accomplish. (We have an independent evaluator for this project and there is a comprehensive evaluation plan in place.) 1. Create more effective project partnerships 2. Engage more community stakeholders and influential leaders 3. Enhance and support additional showcase sites and projects Here are some examples of the current and future work of The Kaleidoscope Project. Beginning and Beyond Child Development Center is a downtown child care center that serves children in low income families. Some of these children are homeless, and others live in very chaotic and stressful homes. For many children, the hours at the center are the most structured and calmest time of the day. The only access to the one bathroom was via the 4 year old classroom. All day long, every child and teacher would walk through that classroom, adding to the noise, interrupting story times, disturbing naptimes and “participating” in anything else that was happening. The Kaleidoscope Project helped design and installed a new access door to the bathroom from the hallway which made a huge difference for children and staff. Equally importantly, The Kaleidoscope Project provided 4 teacher workshops (offering continuing education credit) on building relationships through play and managing challenging behaviors. One-on-one mentoring was provided to the staff. The Project hosted 2 family nights – dinner was provided and there were opportunities for the children to play while the parents learned new skills in building their children’s social emotional health. Another example is the City of Raleigh Arts Commission’s project to recruit local artists to create “wraps” for about a dozen bus stops. The Kaleidoscope Project is becoming a partner in this project by adding fun and engaging text that relates to the artwork to spark conversations with children and adults while they are waiting for the bus. The last example is a multi-services center for those that are homeless is being developed by the County and Catholic Charities. The Kaleidoscope Project is working with these leaders to integrate best practices as the space is being designed so that areas where children gather can address the stress and trauma children experience as they face homelessness with their families.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Question 1: There are at least 4 levels of beneficiaries of our idea. 1. Our county as a whole benefits from collaborative action that leverages broad cross sector resources. 2. The local early childhood system benefits from a set of best practices, developed by stakeholders, that defines what really works. Supported by a series of opportunities to network and share with each other and showcase sites that demonstrate what it looks like in the real world, we are building a community consciousness about what it takes to build strong children. 3. The showcase sites benefit from improved physical spaces and training and technical assistance for staff, volunteers and parents. 4. Most importantly, our children, especially our most vulnerable children, benefit from intentionally designed spaces, trained adults who care about them, and the opportunity to build the skills they need to thrive as kids – and later as adults. Question 2: Our Project has deep experience in working with high level community leaders, education systems (K-12 and university), the nonprofit sector, the early childhood system both locally and nationally, ACEs and trauma informed care providers, and government. Every partner organization, steering committee member and staff member has years of experience providing services to children and families.

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

High-quality 0 to 5 programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment—a rate substantially higher than the 7-10% return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds. Significant gains are realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and employment. James Heckman, University of Chicago, “Research Summary: The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” Social emotional skills that are developed before the age of 6 include self-awareness, self-regulation, perspective taking and cooperation. Most of what children learn occurs in the context of a relationship, beginning with the earliest physical contact, soothing words, and warm smiles. Excessive or prolonged stress in early childhood sets the stage for a brain that is wired more for stress and survival than for learning and empathy. We believe that when our community joins forces around this issue we will see: ● Greater recognition of our roles and commitment to take action ● Deeper awareness about the importance of mental health ● Broad adoption of the best practices to create intentional spaces where children spend time ● More young children and their families building the skills they need to succeed ● Fewer behavioral challenges later in life for kids whose mental health issues were addressed earlier ● More decision-makers investing strategically and collaboratively ● Policy that leads to systemic change

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

All showcase sites will be implemented in children’s places that serve predominantly children living in low-income families.

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

There are 66,000 children 0 – 5 in Wake County, and it is a number that is growing due to the rapid growth of our community. There are many spaces where these children spend their time. Our sustainability plan does not necessarily include raising additional funds for The Kaleidoscope Project to continue as a formal initiative after the John Rex Endowment grant comes to an end in November 2019. Between now and then, our focus will be on building a network of champions, an array of showcase sites, trained staff, parents and volunteers. We will help connect partners in the community to leverage resources, and we will inform community leaders and investors about the important role of mental health in creating a strong community. We will urge policymakers to consider child social emotional behavior as a foundational aspect of healthy communities. The biggest barrier to sustainability will be the challenge of creating community ownership of this issue.

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

There are currently 2 staff members, an independent evaluator, and a contracted communications firm. We have implemented 2 showcase sites, so we know that it is feasible to invest limited funds in a way that improves the physical environment and provides training and technical assistance. We have begun to share the best practices county-wide, and we are seeing already that decision makers are re-thinking new and existing children’s spaces. One example is that the planners for a multi services center being created for the homeless population in Wake County have changed their thinking about the design and function of the spaces that will be used for families and children as a result of new ideas gained through The Kaleidoscope Project. There are no limits on this vision and how we make it a reality. Every single decision maker, every place, every child care provider, every person can make even small changes that make a difference. It isn’t about needing new money. It is about changing the way people use the resources they have in a different, more intentional way.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

As a foundation focused on supporting an environment where children and families live healthy lives, the John Rex Endowment recognizes that early childhood is the most important developmental phase across the lifespan – and the quality of relationships and their environment literally shapes how the young child grows and develops. Substantial evidence tells us that children are better off now and in the future when they live, play and learn in settings where they feel secure and supported. Research shows that children who grow up in nurtured environments are higher performers in school and have greater opportunities in their lives. In response to this understanding, the John Rex Endowment set out in 2013 to impact the way children’s places in Wake County more intentionally and effectively contribute to children’s mental, social emotional well-being. The Kaleidoscope Project was developed through engagement with community stakeholders via a John Rex Endowment-funded project led initially by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, in partnership with Duke Center for Child and Family Health. Working in partnership with a diverse range of community stakeholders, the collective explored the best ways to create positive environments that nurture healthy development. The culmination of that effort was a set of best practices - shaped by what research tells us, as well as what experience has shown us locally, and a core partnership of organizations working together to put these practices into action and bring people together to learn how to use the best practices, adopt them and improve our children’s future. The partnership and this effort is supported by a four-year $1.9 million grant from John Rex Endowment. The vision is that one day all of the places in Wake County where children spend time – no matter where they live, no matter where they play, no matter where they learn – will be whole and healthy environments. We are excited that The Kaleidoscope Project represents a unique approach to building young child mental health that has the potential to impact many young children, leverage public and private dollars and provide more awareness of young child mental health and social emotional development. Please see the attachment 'The Kaleidoscope Project Partners' for more information regarding our relevant experience in the early childhood field.

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

Current lead partners include: 1. Marbles Kids Museum 2. Lucy Daniels Center (Serves young children with mental health needs) 3. Wake County SmartStart (Local affiliate of our statewide organization for early childhood.) 4. Project CATCH of The Salvation Army (Works with homeless families.) 5. Natural Learning Initiative of NCSU College of Design We would like to add partners in the arts to facilitate strong social and emotional development in young children and support children’s creative expression. Additionally, partners that are skilled at building networks for impact.

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)

To really solve complex challenges, we need the best people working together. We encourage participants in this Prize to collaborate, add partners, and share expertise. Consider this section a call to the rest of the innovator ecosystem participating in this Prize. • Additional expertise in addressing the needs of children with physical disabilities (e.g. physical and occupational therapists). • Expertise in reaching out to housing authorities and grass root organizations that the current steering committee does not currently have connections with. • Experts that work with whole families to address the social emotional wellbeing of children and the needs of parents in order to strengthen the parent child relationship. • Community experts that are strong positive advocates for their communities and role models within their communities that can assist with understanding the community, communicating the efforts within the community, and ensure that the community is always kept top of mind. Every community and neighborhood is different.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

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

We need mentoring on gaining perspective beyond our local viewpoint and help to see this work through a different and unique lens.

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)

The mentorship program provided wonderful feedback on ways to strengthen the idea and help more clearly share the work being done.


Join the conversation:

Photo of David Flanigan

Hi The Kaleidoscope Project, I enjoyed reading your idea of bringing play to young children! The organization that I work for, KaBOOM!, recently awarded grants to organizations across the country that are implementing projects that are focused on bringing play everywhere. Here is a link to the grant program and a toolkit you can use related to planning a play everywhere project: KaBOOM! has also done several playground projects in the Raleigh Durham area and would love to connect with the work that you are doing.

Best of luck to you and your team. Feel free to e-mail me directly at dflanigan@kaboom if you would like to discuss your idea further and to talk more about our respective work.

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