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Working Brain Science Into Parents' Daily Routine

A new initiative from the Bezos Family Foundation seeks to make early learning part of everyday life for parents. The idea is not a new one, but the approach to it might be.

The main idea behind the initiative, which is called Vroom, is to get information to parents about specific things they can do with their young children to prepare them for school. But this isn't about drilling math facts or teaching them the ABCs before they start kindergarten. The foundation worked with developmental scientists to develop 750 activities parents can do with their children from infancy to age 5 and loaded them into a smartphone app. When parents download the app, they get access to tips that come with a "brainy background," which is basically an explanation of how the seemingly silly games will help children develop school skills.

Here are two examples (words in all caps added by me):

Colors of the Rainbow Ages 2-5

TIP: Go on a scavenger hunt with your child to find all the colors of the rainbow around you. Look for red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Seek and find them as a team.

BACKGROUND: As your child figures out which objects are the same or different colors, he/she is putting information into categories. Sorting information by categories helps him/her organize his/her understanding of the world and is a pre-math skill.

One, Two, Three, Jump! Ages 2-3

TIP: When you're out and about, invite your child to jump around with you. Hold his/her hand and take turns counting "One, two, three ... jump!" Talk about how high and how far you go. See how long you can travel by jumping.

BACKGROUND: Playing "One, Two, Three, Jump," gives your child the chance to practice setting and reaching a goal—waiting until you say "three," then jumping. This is developing self-control, which is a thinking skill he/she will use the rest of his/her life.

The app allows parents to enter their child's birthday, which will then set them up to get one age-appropriate tip a day. Parents will also be able to access the entire database of tips from their phone.

"We spent a lot of time creating an evidence base to really understand the types of interactions that we should be honing in on," said Megan Wyatt, the managing director of programs and strategy at Bezos.

But the Bezos team isn't satisfied to just wait until parents download the app. It's working with several partners, including the state of Oregon and the Johnson & Johnson social media team, to distribute the information it's developed. The team has also created paper tip cards and other hard materials in addition to the app. And it's working with Spanish-language television station Univision to distribute tips that way, too. 

Bezos also would like to convince some big baby brands—Bezos officials won't say who, but so far they've worked with Johnson & Johnson and Pampers on other forms of outreach—to add the tips to their packaging materials.

"During bath time, laundry time there's no one else around, but there are things like diapers and baby shampoo, and we can leverage those moments on the package itself," said Nicole DeCario, a director of special projects at Bezos. "We hope that those products become the billboard for the tips."

The Bezos Family Foundation is a private foundation run by Mike and Jackie Bezos, the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Inside Philanthropy described their education contributions as "centrist" in a 2014 article that also stated the foundation gave away $15 million in 2012. Officials I spoke with would not tell me how much money was going to the Vroom initiative, only that they saw it as a "significant priority."

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