Unlocking the Power of Parenting: Opportunities from the LEGO Idea Conference


“All parents want what’s best for their children. How do we close the gap for low-income parents to ensure they have the same opportunity and resources as other families in achieving those goals?”

Ariel Kalil, Ascend Fellow and Speaker, 2019 LEGO Idea Conference

Earlier this month I flew to Billund, Denmark (population: just over 6,000) for the 2019 LEGO Idea Conference, an annual gathering of nearly 400 leaders from around the globe working at the intersection of early childhood and family engagement. I participated given the conference’s theme – “Unlocking the Power of Parenting” – is bull’s-eye applicable to Ascend’s efforts in the U.S. to spur, deepen, and scale two-generation strategies for families with low incomes. And as the mother of a toddler, the topic hit especially close to home: how do we leverage the powerful window of opportunity that early childhood represents, not just to children, but to the people who care for and raise them?

Anyone who has been a kid or spent time around one is familiar with those small brightly-colored bricks, and LEGO cleverly leveraged their brand: we used the bricks to break the ice and build connections around issues like access to play in refugee camps and tracking data on families to influence systems (fun fact: six LEGO bricks, which we used often to spark group conversation, can be configured more than 900 million ways).

Given the diversity of countries represented and programs highlighted, there are far too many take-aways and themes to capture here. But through both conversation and learning more about the backgrounds of many participants, it became clear that technology is a powerful mechanism through which to leverage parents’ potential, not just as parents but as breadwinners and community leaders. Three key questions I left with in this area are:

“We have to support and see parents as drivers of communities and economies, not just as drivers of their children’s well-being.”

Anne Mosle, 2019 Aspen Forum on Children and Families

How can our rapidly-shifting and increasing access to technology be harnessed for meaningful parent engagement? As one speaker from Ashoka shared, at no point in history has technology evolved as rapidly as it does now. This presents huge opportunities for using apps and digital tools to enhance literacy, promote access to resources and experts, and connect people across vast distances. In the US, Vroom, a platform rooted in brain science and created by our partner the Bezos Family Foundation, has proven to be an important example of a digital approach effective at boosting children’s learning using parent prompts and supports. I met nearly a dozen participants building technology companies on a similar premise; how will these innovators follow Vroom’s lead and measure and harness the proliferation of these tools for meaningful impact?

How do we ensure equitable access to technology and build these resources with an equity lens? In the US, two-generation solutions are highly contextual; factors like geography, family demographics, and the labor market must be considered when designing a program or policy. As more children and adults use smart phones and tablets, and access to these devices becomes more affordable, an equity lens is increasingly important; how do we ensure parents in developing countries, sovereign nations, and with disabilities can access – and see themselves – in these tools?

How can we embrace technology while understanding its limitations? Our son can tell Alexa to “please play Sesame Street.” With a voice-activated future ahead of him, he is already grasping a once-impossible concept of interaction. In Billund, many conversations centered around the need to balance research on screen time with the benefits of these new tools, including their impact on how we study families (for example: Behavioral scientist Dr. Ariel Kalil at the University of Chicago has studied the promotion of book reading among parents with low incomes using digital tools designed to help manage better decision-making and mitigate against procrastination). While there are challenges to raising children in the 21stcentury, the conference was a reminder of the joy and possibility presented by living in an age of such rapid technological advancement. This includes the potential presented by listening to and capturing lessons from families themselves using these tools.

Sarah Haight is the assistant director for the Ascend Network and outreach at Ascend at the Aspen Institute.