At the Aspen Design Summit sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute November 11–14, 2009, participants in the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Project analyzed the contents of boxes currently shipped to vulnerable areas throughout the world. Modeled after UNICEF’s practice of dropping educational materials into troubled regions to help maintain continuity in the lives of schoolchildren — a program familiarly known as “School in a Box” — UNICEF’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) kits are intended to stimulate physical, cognitive and creative skills and provide emotional comfort for children ages 0 through 6.
The UNICEF Early Childhood Development Project team proposed new contents that would be more precisely tuned to children’s intellectual and emotional needs and that would be packaged with a greater eye to efficiency and sustainability, thereby lowering the costs of producing, shipping and replenishing the materials.
Not only did the team address UNICEF’s short-term goal of improving the existing ECD kit, but it also suggested adding, and ultimately replacing the box with, cards specifying activities that caregivers could undertake with the children. Such a practice would reduce costs by relying on locally acquired (and therefore culturally appropriate) materials for education and recreation, and lend itself to continual refinements through open-source contributions that might be furnished through UNICEF’s website.
The UNICEF team’s suggestions will also help shape the brief for the biennial AIGA|INDEX: Aspen Design Challenge, which next year will present a problem to undergraduate and graduate design and business students around the world, demonstrating the power of collaborative design thinking to the next generation.
Existing Early Childhood Development Kit
UNICEF first began distributing its Early Child Development (ECD) kits in a 2004 pilot program as a means of developing linguistic, social, cognitive and motor skills in infants and young children in places such as refugee camps where there is a dearth of educational materials or toys. The contents were also intended to help children work through traumas such as displacement or the loss of family members to violence or disease. The kits consist of crayons and other writing implements, modeling clay, plush toy puppets resembling animals, jump ropes, puzzles, beading games, stacking toys, board books, shape sorters, buckets and similar playthings.
Each kit is intended to serve a group of 30 children whose caregivers range in age from not-much-older siblings to elderly grandparents. The contents are packaged in an aluminum trunk weighing 33 kg (73 lb) that is designed for durability and ease of transport. As described by Edgard Seikaly, technical specialist in the education unit of UNICEF’s supply division in Copenhagen, the trunks must be stackable, feature handles for lifting and fit into a standard shipping container. Furthermore, said Seikaly, a box may have to be “dropped by helicopter, carried by donkey and endure a bumpy jeep ride.” The cost of producing each kit is $350; shipping adds $100 more.
Reducing the expense of materials and transport was a key issue with UNICEF. Equally important was improving the appropriateness and durability of the contents now that feedback had come in from the field. Though responses varied widely from such diverse locations as Guyana, Jamaica and the Maldives, they indicated a concern with the flimsiness of objects such as crayons and plush puppets and with the cultural relevance of certain animal shapes and colors.
Beyond the Box
As outlined by the project’s moderator, Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO, proposals for a revised ECD kit ideally had to address how to incorporate culturally appropriate materials; deal with the special needs of children with HIV/AIDS or post-traumatic stress disorder; provide useful training materials and guidelines for teachers and caregivers; create effective distribution channels; and monitor impact.
Given the opportunity to inspect the contents of an existing kit, the team members were struck by the objects’ generic qualities and the collection’s haphazardness. Hanne Bak Pedersen, deputy director of UNICEF’s supply division, urged that new objects fulfill distinct developmental functions so that they worked together in a “complementary” way to round out a child’s growth. The team members also singled out the packaging of individual toys and looked into ways of making them more useful as actual developmental products.
The team next engaged in a brainstorming session to suggest objects or pursuits that would increase a child’s curiosity, stimulate physical activity, address trauma, foster group dynamics and introduce a sense of belonging. They agreed that children from 0 to 3, who are typically cared for at home, have far different social as well as developmental needs from children ages 3 to 6, who are entering into a school system and venturing more boldly into their communities. A single collection of objects would not suffice for both age groups, they concluded.
The team also favored culturally familiar games and activities, however rudimentary they might appear, over more elaborate generic objects such as picture puzzles. There are no musical instruments in the current kit, and yet percussion instruments, such as maracas, are a constant across cultures though they are highly specific in material and form. Such instruments could be regionally sourced for inclusion in the kit, saving on shipping costs and helping to support local economies.
Cultural relevance was also considered an important factor in helping the children cope with trauma. The team considered the emotional benefits of allowing the children to draw themselves or family members in puppets rather than work through grief using unfamiliar animal forms.
A System of Cards Based on Local Materials and Customs
Considerations of flexibility, engagement, cultural appropriateness and economics led the team to suggest the inclusion of cards that would provide directions for activities based on local materials and customs. Modeling clay packed in the ECD kits quickly dries up or disappears, but it could be easily replenished if the kit contained a card with a recipe for making new clay from earth or flour. Given the 158 countries and territories UNICEF serves and the number of caregivers who are illiterate, it was proposed that the cards’ information be communicated in pictures. As new ideas for activity cards emerged in the future, the cards could be downloaded as PDFs from UNICEF field offices and distributed to caregivers.
Ultimately, the team agreed, the cards could even replace the kits. “You can present them with a key ring that you can carry around with you and color-code them so that each area like music or games would be a specific color,” offered team member Grant Cambridge, a senior researcher at the Maraka Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. “You can also put them on the open creative commons and get people all over the world to create activity cards that not only UNICEF but anyone could use.”
Ten Objects That Will Do 150 Things
“We started with the challenge of a kit that offered the value of early childhood development, and the goal is the value of early childhood development without the kit,” summed up team member Vanessa Eckstein, a principal of Bløk Design in Mexico City. Institutional realities prohibit so dramatic a shift in the next two years, however, and the team began prototyping ideas for the interim with a special focus on efficiency: “We need 10 objects that will not do 10 things but 150 things,” Eckstein said. She specified containers as objects that double as stacking cups that measure and teach volume. Even activity cards within the kit could bear slots that allow them to be turned into constructions, added Diana Velasco, an innovation officer in UNICEF’s supply division.
Next Steps and Action Plan
Insights gained from the Aspen Design Summit, combined with information recently culled from field workers in Guinea, will be documented by UNICEF’s supply division officers and shared with team colleagues. In continuing their research, they will procure examples of ECD kits from other organizations doing local development. Upon approval by their supervisors, they will create an advisory panel on innovation, define a budget and the need for design support, reconnect with interested members of the Aspen Summit team and, in the words of Edgard Seikaly, “start thinking literally outside the box.”
At the same time, UNICEF will work with AIGA|INDEX: to construct the brief and formalize procedures for a 2010–2011 AIGA|INDEX: Aspen Design Challenge that will invite design and business students around the world to propose new ideas for the ECD kits.
Moderator: Jocelyn Wyatt, Leader of Social Innovation, IDEO
Recorder: Julie Lasky, Editor, Change Observer
Grant Cambridge, Senior Researcher, The Meraka Institute
Vanessa Eckstein, Principal, Bløk Design
Heather Fleming, CEO, Catapult Design
Hanne Bak Pedersen, Deputy Director, UNICER Supply Division
Edgard Seikaly, Technical Specialist, Education Unit, UNICEF Supply Division
Diana Velasco, Innovation Officer, UNICEF Supply Division
Contributions were also made by members of the UNICEF Menstruation Challenge team:
Mariana Amatullo, Vice President, Director, Designmatters Department, Art Center College of Design
Nathalie Destandau, Partner and Strategist, Tomorrow Partners; Strategy Chair, AIGA Center for Sustainable Design
Christopher Fabian, Communications Officer, UNICEF
Pornprapha Phatanateacha, Assistant Professor, Graphic Design, School of the Arts, VCU Qatar
Elizabeth Scharpf, Founder, Chief Instigator, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)
Manuel Toscano, Principal, Zago
Significant contributions to the writing of this report were made by Julie Lasky.
A PDF of the briefing book chapter on the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Project is available here.
The original website for the Aspen Design Summit, as well as a list of all participants, is here.