Jen is building a more socially mobile society by inspiring parents and children everywhere to learn through play
The New Idea
Jen has created a community of playful parents as a strategy to ensure children’s healthy early development, which sets trajectories that run well into adulthood. She is working to ensure that parents are recognised and supported in their role as architects of social mobility during their children’s pre-school years.
Following the maxim that ‘it takes a village’, Jen has created a digital platform called EasyPeasy that brings together parents - and those in their support network - to discover, create, play, and share learning games, generating more quality interactions for young children that stimulate their development.
The platform uses mobile and video as channels to reach parents wherever they are with engaging and simple ideas for play modelled by real families. An EasyPeasy game might send parent and child on an ‘Imaginary Safari’ as a way to support bonding and attunement, invite them to practice collaboration and concentration whilst making music from pots and pans in ‘Band Practice’, or explore emotions and how to manage them through taking ‘Selfies’. Although parents access EasyPeasy through an app, EasyPeasy games are played in the real world and they don’t contribute to screen time for children.
Parents can get EasyPeasy for free or pay to access a fuller experience. EasyPeasy subsidises access for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and at the time of writing, over 30,000 families have learned through play with EasyPeasy for free across the UK. Much of this has been supported through partnerships that Jen has brokered with education foundations, local and central government. EasyPeasy’s outreach is supported by a community of over 2,000 education and health practitioners including teachers, nursery workers, health visitors, and childminders who have set up their own EasyPeasy ‘Pods’ through which they invite parents in their community to join digitally.
Liberal societies are built on a foundation of freedom and equality. Even where societies may differ in their expectations for equality of outcomes, equality of opportunity is a value and belief shared by all. Universal education was introduced to ensure that all children had a fair and equal start out in life, no matter what background they came from.
Over the past few decades, lessons from neuroscience have shown us that around 85% of a child’s brain has developed by the time they are 5 years old and that the first few years of life represent a crucial window of opportunity for development, one which ironically begins to close when children are starting at school. Skills and behaviours including speaking and talking, listening and concentrating, and recognising and managing emotions set up children to learn and make friends at school but develop at highly different rates depending on the richness of a child’s early experiences. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often far behind their peers. Government data for the UK shows that children from low-income households are more than twice as likely to start at school without a ‘Good Level of Development’ but importantly, disadvantage can take the form of poverty of money, resources, time, or love and attention.
Recognition of the importance of early development in the UK has led to the introduction of subsidised nursery care for 3 and 4 year olds, and for disadvantaged 2 year olds, but the level of funding for early years education and care is a fraction of the proportion dedicated to older years. Despite growing evidence about the benefits of early intervention, the challenge bring investment forward in the lifecycle remains.
Furthermore, a decade of ‘austerity Britain’ has led to the breakdown of a fledgling early years public service system. A country wide network of early childhood centres has been largely dismantled, and the quality of the early years workforce has been compromised due to cuts in training and minimum requirements being eroded in a shift in focus from early education to childcare. The situation is further compromised by a persistent under-valuing of all types of care work - disproportionately carried out by women - and which contributes to the pay gap and a recognition gap, adding to the challenge of recruiting and retaining talent in the sector.
The situation in the UK is by no means unique and is mirrored through different lenses in many countries around the world. National policies - or lack thereof- in the early years including parental leave, maternity and antenatal services, and community support for parents and carers are addressed and funded in fragmented ways, with out joint up budgets and joint up outcomes frameworks, making the job of coordinating the system incredibly difficult. A clear policy strategy for social mobility in the early years is fighting for space amongst many competing agendas. Generating political will for early intervention is difficult in the face of short term voting cycles that are partial to short term wins and at odds with longer term results. Patient capital and long term strategies are needed.
Jen’s strategy operates at three levels: shifting parent mindsets and behaviour through EasyPeasy’s learn through play platform, empowering the early years sector and workforce, and shifting funding and policy agendas towards early intervention. Together, these strands of activity are allowing Jen to drive forward her mission to ensure all children have an equal opportunity, regardless of where they start out.
Jen adopted the learning through play approach after discovering the work of Professor John Shonkoff at the Harvard Center for Early Development. Jack Shonkoff’s work shows how the ways in which young children and adults respond to each other has a major influence on developing brain circuits and a large range of competencies and behaviours which is critical for healthy development. In his words, turning “that scientific concept into a strategy for how to raise children, the answer comes up in one simple word: 'play'.”
In reality, parents face a number of barriers to engaging in playful learning with their children. Most parents aren’t aware of the ways in which play contributes to healthy brain development, and - to different degrees - struggle with a scarcity of time, attention, confidence, or resources to offer the type of stimulating learning environment that provides such a crucial foundation for building skills and competencies.
EasyPeasy’s platform sends ideas and inspiration to parents, tailored to them and their child’s level of development, helping parents transform everyday moments into opportunities to learn through play. Two randomised controlled trials led by the University of Oxford found playing with EasyPeasy had statistically significant effects on both parent behaviours and children’s development. Specifically, researchers found improvements with parents’ consistency, confidence, and boundary setting, and with children’s concentration, grit, and resilience (‘cognitive self-regulation’). These effects were observed within as little as 10 to 18 weeks using the app. After a successful pilot with LEGO Group, Jen is shortly to open up EasyPeasy’s platform so that everyone in the ‘village’ - including parents, practitioners, and partners - are able to create their own learning games and share them on EasyPeasy’s platform.
To ensure EasyPeasy’s reach to children from all backgrounds, Jen developed a subscription model through which schools, nurseries, local and central government, and foundations are able to send digital invitations to families they wish to target, as well as to pay for them. Health and education practitioners who have created EasyPeasy ‘Pods’ are able to access a digital dashboards with administrative and data functions allowing them to communicate with parents directly on the platform, as well as understand levels of engagement and progress. This interaction is unique to EasyPeasy and makes it the only parent solution of its kind to incorporate feedback loops that include early years practitioners and other professionals who share in the mission to close the disadvantage gap.
Within the EasyPeasy community, Jen’s team identifies changemaker parents and practitioners who are keen to share their experience with peers, in their communities and on social media. EasyPeasy recruits these so-called ‘Early Years Heroes’ and provides them with key messages and resources about early years and learning through play, leveraging the community itself to scale their impact.
Jen’s leadership in the early years space is also strengthening collaborative networks across the wider public and third sector. For example, EasyPeasy has supported major children’s charities in the UK as a digital partner including National Literacy Trust, ICAN, and Save the Children in projects funded by funded by the UK’s Department for Education reaching over 10,000 parents. EasyPeasy also supported the Department for Education by hosting the launch of their ‘Hungry Little Minds’ campaign - a first of its kind public health campaign to support parents to engage more in their children’s early learning through ‘chatting, playing and reading’.
Another key influence on Jen’s strategy came from the Centre for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, where Professor James Heckman has created an economic model that shows how relatively small investments in children’s early years yield returns that accrue right into adulthood. The rate of that return increases even further when investments are made in disadvantaged children - around 13.7% year on year in savings accrues to education, health, and welfare budgets. For governments considering the best way to spend scarce resources, intervening early and providing quality early years support to parents through nursery care, resources in the community, early education, ante-natal and maternity services, generous parental leave and flexible working arrangements are all part of a strategy to bring about a more socially mobile society, where all children have the opportunity to flourish.
By shifting the conversation about early years and getting government to invest more resources and attention, Jen hopes to bring about a societal shift that will go far beyond EasyPeasy’s own work.
Jen grew up in the hills of California just inland from the coastline of Big Sur and went to primary school in the nearby farming community of Salinas. Some of Jen’s fondest memories are here - of the annual festivals celebrating the different seasonal crops - artichokes, strawberries, and garlic - and of summers spent in Santa Cruz on the coast in the sun and the sea.
Both of Jen’s parents share a Dutch nationality. Her father is from a Catholic family from the rural island of Texel, whilst her mother’s family is from Amsterdam and share a Jewish heritage. During the Second World War, her mother’s family were forced into hiding, and whilst some of the family returned to Amsterdam, her mother grew up in Rotterdam, Florida, Paris, and Beirut.
Jen’s parents carried on in this vein, and moved around considerably as Jen grew up. Originally settling in Florida, where Jen’s brother was born, they moved to North Carolina, where Jen was born, then on to California - a break of two years spent in the countryside in England - back to California, and then finally to the suburbs of Atlanta, where Jen started high school.
These moves were formative experiences for Jen and from an early age, she became sensitive to cultural and socio-economic difference. Particularly, whilst living in the conservative south, which was punctuated by strong racial and class divides, she became troubled by the gap between the American ideal of equal opportunity and the reality of polarising inequalities which she saw around her.
At age 17, Jen moved overseas to study Philosophy, Politics, & Economics at the University of Warwick, graduating with a first class degree. After university, she joined the think tank Demos where she led a research programme on social mobility and the predictive power of early child development in shaping children’s life chances. This research has been cited widely in government white papers and best practice directives. Jen went on to work as Head of Learning in the Public Services Lab at the foundation, Nesta, where she was responsible for creating and implementing strategies to measure the social impact of multi-million pound funding initiatives. She subsequently moved to Government Digital Services, where she led large scale service redesign projects at the Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Jen is an Education Associate at the Royal Society of the Arts.
It was during her time in policy and government where that Jen felt compelled to contribute more to the early years cause. The existing system was not addressing what was being made increasingly clear from the evidence base - that investing in the first few years of life generates the greatest returns and is the strongest strategy to increasing equality of opportunity in society. She won a ‘challenge prize’ organised by Guys & St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust and the Design Council which invited the public to apply with ideas to support the health and wellbeing of children under 5. With her £1,000 prize she explored her concept for learning through play: EasyPeasy was born.
Jen is based in Hackney, East London where she cycles back and forth between her office, her home, and the yoga studio.