Worldwide, only half of children ages 3 to 6 have access to pre-school, according to the World Bank. In India, a recent report found that 50% of 5th grade students could not read. At large, the country’s literacy rate for men is 75.3% and for women is 53.7%. When you consider that a child’s brain has reached 90% of its volume by age 5 and children’s brains are the most receptive to learning during those early years, it’s no wonder that children who are neglected are permanently behind their better-supported peers.
The World Bank estimates roughly 250 million disadvantaged children never reach their full potential because they miss out on early learning. That in turn leads to a 20% loss in adult productivity, according to the organization. The Delhi-based Meraki Foundation has developed a method of working with impoverished and often overburdened parents in India to reverse neglect, attune them to a child’s developmental needs, give them the tools to address those needs, and build support systems, so they’re less stressed. It’s the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Education category.
Seemant Dadwal and Ghazal Gulati, who grew up in rural Punjab and Kashmir respectively, co-founded Meraki to with the aim of meeting parents in India where they are, rather than foisting an array of technological tools on them. The organization has received funding from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, NSRCEL, and USAID, among others. Parents may not have had any access to information about how they should be helping their children develop appropriate skills before heading off to school. Meraki’s approach is in part based off of research from Harvard University’s Center of the Developing Child, that suggests the relationship between a child and their parents is the biggest indicator of their early development. The center recommends that parents make time to interact with their kids, helping them strengthen their developmental skills. It also says support organizations can help parents learn appropriate ways to do this and focus on reducing stressors that prevent them from taking the time.
Meraki pairs each family with margdarshaqs, a word that loosely translates to “one who shows the way.” They often come from the communities they work in and were at one point recipients of one of Meraki’s programs. For now, there are only four margdarshaqs, who work as paid volunteers. The guides work with parents to develop a specialized curriculum that parents can practice with their kids. Activities are specialized based on the age of the child, but also the parent’s literacy abilities. To start, games are as simple as playing catch with a ball or passing an object around a circle of people and changing direction when prompted.
In addition to parent-child activities, Meraki designs custom technological learning tools for parents and children on mobile devices that are voice responsive. Typically, parents will get 10-minute activities to do with their children that help them develop their cognitive and language abilities. As children grow, they get access to games and challenges they can play on a smartphone.
The organization has worked with 1,500 parents over the course of more than 130 workshops. Across the 40 Delhi state schools and pre-schools the organization says that 72% of parents interact with the technology 10 times per month. Meraki has plans to scale the intervention program to 14,000 parents this year. The goal is to implement the program to all of Delhi’s state schools by 2022 and to expand to the entire country by 2030.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the cost of the program, which is free to parents.