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How might we reimagine the early childhood system in a way that fosters wellbeing, growth and discovery among children and their families?

The work of ICS is driven by a relentless commitment to positively transforming systems to ensure the success of every child in school, their lifelong health, and contribution to a prosperous society.  We know that the existing systems are not working well for many of our children and that our youngest citizens often face significant barriers to health and success in life.  As ICS seeks to fulfill its mission, it must not only work diligently to improve the system as it exists, but to also consider the value of the entire existing system and how other systems might be better suited to positive outcomes for children.

 ‘Design thinking’ proposes a new way of seeking solutions to challenges in government, business, the social sector, and health care that can help us craft systems that are more empathetic and responsive to the needs of children and their families. Designers are now beginning to turn their attention to the functionality and accessibility of whole systems rather than just individual products, and the implications for how to improve systems that support the health and well being of children and their families are enormous.

 In the following blog post, ICS intern Ben Riddle begins introducing us to design thinking and how it can be a useful tool for our systems-level early childhood work. This is the first in an occasional blog series on design thinking and early childhood systems.

–     Joe Waters

Karuna leaves home at 5:30 AM to prepare for first shift at a fast food restaurant on the bypass. She works two jobs each day and doesn’t return home until midnight– well after her three year old, Chance, is asleep. She only sees him on Sundays, and sometimes on Saturdays if she isn’t called in. More than a hard worker, Karuna is a first-time single mother with dreams of a better future for her bright-eyed little boy. After paying bills and putting gas in the car, she hopes to have enough money saved to enroll in a certificate program that would open doors to a management position at work. Aside from better hours and an increase in pay, this position would mean more time to spend with Chance.

By age three, researchers believe that children like Chance have heard an average of 30 million fewer words than children from more affluent families. The impact that this deficit has on cognitive development, vocabulary and future reading skills before the first day of school is tremendous. How might we ensure that kids like Chance aren’t disadvantaged before they step foot into school? How might mothers like Karuna be equipped to nurture and provide for their children during these critical years of life?

The Institute for Child Success is driven to ask questions like these in order to positively transform the systems that affect children and their families. To improve early childhood success, we must view all of the factors that affect children and their families – from healthcare and education to issues that relate to housing, transportation and employment. In addition, we must take an empathetic approach towards understanding the lived experience of children like Chance and mothers like Karuna when designing the services, spaces and experiences that affect them.

As we move forward, ICS is taking a creative leap to approach the entirety of the early childhood system as design opportunity. In doing so, we are actively researching creative problem-solving strategies that have a proven record of creating measurable impact in complex systems. Such a strategy is found in the human-centered design process – which is used across sectors to turn difficult challenges into desirable solutions. At its core, human-centered design is innovation inspired by lived experience. Rather than relying solely on demographics and controlled research, designers incorporate insights from natural behaviors and dynamic conversations into the problem solving process, making it a truly empathetic approach towards systems change. From products and spaces to services and systems, human-centered design is used to balance complexity, diversity and constraints in a way that yields a host of clever, original solutions.

In the season ahead, we’ll connect with thought leaders, stakeholders and other actors that have used design to positively transform systems to inform our work. Through this blog, we’ll post updates from the field and document stories that might inspire next steps. We are excited for where we are headed and invite you to join us for the journey. To get started, we invite you to consider this question: How might we reimagine the early childhood system in a way that fosters wellbeing, growth and discovery among children and their families?

 – Ben Riddle

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