Voices From the Field: Interview with Grace Wardhana

Developing Executive Functioning Skills through Games

Grace Wardhana

Grace is co-founder of Kiko Labs, an educational company creating learning games based on principles of neuroscience. She has been the principal investigator on two small business innovation research (SBIR) grants funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education and another grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Prior to founding Kiko Labs, Grace spent 15 years in product roles in the technology industry, including a stint at Microsoft. Grace holds an AB in Economics and MS in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. Her research interests include game-based learning and assessment as well as technology-infused learning applied to all facets of school readiness. 

ED: How did you begin your work in early childhood?

I spent 15 years of my career in management consulting, big tech as well as smaller companies spanning gaming, social networking and consumer technology. In 2013, I became very interested in the intersection of education, gaming and personalized learning technology. I was thinking through ways I could apply what I’d learned in game design to engage students in learning activities. For example, how we could use feedback loops to personalize each student’s journey. At the time, I was the parent of a three-year old and was fascinated by the research in learning science and early child development. In particular, I was excited about the research around executive function (EF) and its potential impact to change learning trajectories. Research showed EF skills could be enhanced in children as young as three. My question was, “Could we design a game-based intervention for early learners that helps measure and promote the primary EF skills?”

To answer that question, I started putting together a concept and a multi-disciplinary team of technologists, artists, designers and most importantly, scientific advisors. We participated in an educational games accelerator program run by NewSchools Venture Fund and Zynga.org. Soon after, we obtained our seed funding via our first small business innovation research grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education as well as angels and seed funds. Looking back, that was how our journey at Kiko Labs started. We currently have a fully-fledged product of 25 game-based activities available on iOS, Android and web browsers, and it is used in schools in the U.S. and in seven other countries.

ED: What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

My philosophy is that if you can empower early learning educators, whether through effective tools, engaging content or some other way, you can unlock their potential to do so much more of what they do best, which is to help early learners through positive and nurturing relationships. This is what our app aspires to be — a tool that guides educators by educating them about EF skills, and identifies where there may be relative strengths and weaknesses in their instruction, such that they can focus on strategies to help strengthen teaching EF skills.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

The number one challenge that faces most educational technology companies is adoption. Given that much of the research around EF is still new, the added challenge for us is to first educate decision-makers on the importance of EF in a child’s learning trajectory. We’ve tried to overcome this through joining forces with other companies with the same mission and message. We did this most recently by partnering with Reflection Sciences, a company that focuses on scientifically valid assessments of EF, to reach the same audience that can benefit from both of our products.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?

I believe that by being laser-focused on early learning educators and the environment they operate in, you will have a higher likelihood of success because this will help set up the problem space in a very tangible way. The barriers to adoption for early childhood programs can be particularly formidable, both from a willingness-to-pay and a provider-capacity perspective. Most educators are already burdened with so many extra tasks in addition to their main teaching job. This makes it challenging to justify a new intervention, however compelling the case may be. Partnering with educators early on to get feedback on concepts and implementation strategies will go a long way to helping your ideas succeed.

Despite the challenges, it is an exciting time to be working in the early childhood area. The notion of the critical importance of the first 5 years of a child’s life is getting more public attention and becoming mainstream. My sincere hope is that we will see more talent driving innovations in the field to meet the demand for high quality, evidence-based solutions.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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