Using technology in early childhood intervention podcast header

Using technology in early childhood intervention [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to welcome Ram Puvanesasingham, Founder of Gepeto Labs. Ram is passionate about implementing a digital curriculum to assist specialists in early childhood intervention. We discuss how parents and educators can be empowered to be involved in this process and how technology can help assess the potential of developmental disabilities.

When we take part in storytelling with a digital element, we can focus on how to get children engaged. It is important to bring physical hands-on play into the digital landscape, such as computer vision and augmented reality to interface with a device. It adds a 3D experience to how children interact with devices.

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Using a digital curriculum especially resonates with children with autism and this is a current focus of Ram and his team. These children can be overly drawn to devices. By bringing in the physical reality, it allows them to actively interact and increase focus, learning, and development over time.

Families of children with developmental disabilities eventually enter into a system of care, receive assessments, and then specialized support moving forward. However, there may be months of wait-time for children to be seen by specialists, which is a large chunk of their growth and development. This causes stress for caregivers. Parents can join support groups and grow their community, but ultimately it is pretty underserved and tricky to navigate the system.

Home can become a blind spot because there is no direct clinical care there. So much time was spent there during the pandemic and most tools are not being designed for use at home. This is a gap in the system. Technology is not coming together with cognitive development researchers as much as it should be. By empowering families, we can turn the home from a blind spot into a source of intel for clinicians to better understand how to provide individualized care.

Once you can differentiate children’s needs you can move towards individualized support.”

Gepeto Labs are trying to bridge this gap through technologies in game designs. Game play is designed to be a puzzle-based adventure and these activities will move children from simple gameplay to capturing observations. Their programs are designed to integrate prompting from families without requiring additional training. Time and socioeconomic resources are limited so making this process seamless and fun is a game changer.

Ram’s recommended resource:

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Podcast episode transcript

Ram PUVANESASINGHAM:

The majority of the time that the child is spending is outside of direct clinical care. So, there’s ways, I guess, you have to try to join different support groups as a parent and get help from other families that have experienced similar things. But overall, it just seems like ultimately it’s quite underserved and tricky to navigate.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Ram, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Thank you very much for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it’s our pleasure to have you. And for our listeners, we have with us today Ram Puvanesasingham. He’s the founder and CEO of Gepeto Labs. And we’re going to chat with Ram today about early-childhood intervention and learn a little bit more about what he’s learned there and what he’s doing in that space. But before we do, Ram, let’s learn a little bit about you and your background.

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Sure. For several years now, I’ve been pretty interested in how we can use digital technology in really active ways to engage children. And this kind of started with a project I happen to be on to develop an adjunct piece to a television series, a digital component. And it was a storytelling related television series. And so I tried to have a storytelling focus with the digital piece.

And so I started exploring ways we could create interactions that led to a child actually being somewhat creative, using their digital device. And it was at the time when iPads were just kind of new on the scene. And it was surprising to see how much children were taking to it. I think people didn’t probably see that coming when the device was first being introduced. But it was kind of neat just because of the way you can interact and interface can be so intuitive that it made sense that you could you could probably do a lot with it.

And I so started working on stuff in that vein and eventually also found this interest in looking at how we can bring physical, hands-on play into the digital landscape. And so things like mixed reality became very interesting. And over time I played with some prototypes that led to some funding which allowed us to further explore and build some other prototypes, which then led to further funding again. So, it’s sort of in that cycle and eventually got to a point where we had some product that we could have different individuals try.

And it’s a mix of mixed reality and storytelling experiences. And it seemed to resonate with children and their families. And it’s at a point, it was by happenstance that some families of children with autism found it to resonate quite nicely with them. So, that got us thinking and got me quite interested in how we can bring some of these tools to this landscape that, as we explored further, was clearly underserved. And it’s kind of become a current focus now of mine and ours.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And when you say “mixed reality”, for our audience, what do you mean by that?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Using things like computer vision and augmented reality to interface with the device, rather than just the haptic kind of touch interface. So, we’ve played with things like using a physical puppet or like physical cards or things like that to show the camera. And the camera can pick up what that image is and then it can start to respond to it. And it’s kind of neat that you can add a three-dimensional experience to how you interact with the device. And especially on the iPad, I think it’s kind of a neat way to interact for children because it in mimics a lot of the natural gestures they use during play.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, so this is bringing the physical world and the digital world together in a way, I guess, right?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, exactly. I think there’s something really nice about being able to do that. And I think there’s a future in that because it is really how we most naturally interact. And I think we can also see the opposite unfolding where you end up spending perhaps an inordinate amount of time just looking and touching at a two dimensional device. So, I think it could even be an important area to further explore, to see if we can get to that kind of natural, play-based interaction that has always taken place in the past.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it seems like it can almost create that right balance of learning about digital and the digital experience and technology, but also staying true to the roots of how children learn, especially at an early age, with other senses and the physical world.

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, and the digital tool then becomes a means of facilitating those types of interactions, as opposed to maybe being the point or the main focus of the interaction.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Right, yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about it.

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, so you can take things like books and all these physical objects and toys and just kind of add layers to it. And I think that there’s probably some really cool ways to further create those types interactions that can be pretty magical.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That is cool. And you mentioned that some families who may have children with autism were particularly interested in in some of these prototypes and tools. What was their feedback? Why were they finding this to be interesting, these different tools?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, I think one side of it is the fact that often some children with developmental challenges or things like autism will actually become overly fixated to a device. So, one thing that we found was when we use these physical elements, it actually quite naturally drew the child away from the device. And then you could figure out ways to bring them back to the device and start to go back and forth.

And I think that kind of opened up a lot of activities that may be difficult to motivate, which is one probably major reason we saw something interesting there. Yeah, and generally I think this sort of interaction that is quite active became something that they saw children spending more time doing and kind of increased their focus over that period of time. So again, it’s like signals that said, “I think we’re on to something.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And if we take a step back from the tools themselves and focus on families who have children with developmental challenges or disorders, what’s that like for families trying to get that support? You’ve created some tools to help maybe identify, or support that, is maybe the better word. But what is it like if you’re looking for support in that situation?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, first, I’m not a clinician, so I don’t have the nuanced experience that they would have. But from a design perspective and being able to talk to a number of families and clinicians, you got a sense of the kind of system of care that families enter into. So, typically it can start with a family noticing that maybe the child isn’t hitting what could be deemed as a typical milestone. Something’s not quite aligned in the way that they’re either physically moving or the way they’re talking, the way they’re socializing or making eye contact or something like that.

And at that point, the family might go to a physician who would then look at the child further and do an initial assessment before helping the family move forward to an organization that could do a more thorough assessment and then lead them towards specialized support. Or the family might, maybe through an educator, let’s say, just notice some things here that we should probably look further at. And they can go directly to an organization that provides some kind of intake support and, again, goes through this assessment and leading them towards support.

And it’s interesting, there’s time as a factor in this. And families, I was talking some to some clinicians earlier this year. And currently it’s about now, for children under 18 months [of age], there would be a 3-month wait here in Ontario for care. Children over 18 months are waiting 8 to 9 months on a waitlist, which, at a pretty critical time in their early intervention potential, that’s a large chunk of a child’s life. So, it’s pretty significant, the kind of challenges that parents often face. And as a result, it’s a significant amount of stress that they’re also having to manage before getting to that individualized care that they need.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I can imagine. Given that we’re kind of, like, fighting the system on this a little bit, what alternatives do we have? Is there other methods? Or do you have any thoughts on different approaches? Or are other things being tried out there?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Like, in terms of ways to get support, do you mean?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, exactly, just in terms of making that more efficient. You mentioned some really long potential wait times there.

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, I think… I mean, if you’re so lucky as a family to have greater resources at your disposal, you can go ahead and get care on your own privately. And that’s obviously great for the families that are capable of doing that. But a lot of families are left waiting and it’s difficult. And that’s kind of one of the big things that made me interested and motivated here because of how underserved this landscape is.

I think the tools that are often available aren’t really specifically designed for families, as we’ve seen it. And even the tools the clinicians are using, because they’re also dealing with heavy caseloads and perhaps limited amounts of time to spend with an individual child, they’re kind of making up things as they go. And parents especially have to sort things out on their own while they’re waiting for that care to kick in. And then, in fact, once the care kicks in, it’s often for a pretty limited amount of time. It could be a few months of intensive care or care once a week for maybe 45 minutes or something like that.

So, the majority of the time that the child is spending is outside of direct clinical care. So, I don’t know, there’s ways, I guess, you have to try and join different support groups as a parent and get help from other families that that have experienced similar things. But overall, it just seems like, ultimately, it’s quite underserved and tricky to navigate.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so you mentioned there’s some challenges in the current system. What do you see as being the gaps in the current system of care for families? And what are you doing, more specifically in your work, to try to address some of those challenges?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, in trying to explore this, and we were coming from that kind of design direction that I mentioned earlier. So, when we looked at how parents are trying to manage things, I think what we identified is essentially that home becomes a blind spot because you’re not getting direct clinical care for long in the home setting. But this is especially – and we saw this during the pandemic – that’s where children and families are spending the majority of their time. So, it’s a blind spot in the sense that there aren’t tools being designed for use at home. But also clinicians aren’t gaining many insights from all the time being spent outside of their care. So, there’s that gap.

And then I think the other gap is just the fact that there seems to be these silos in cognitive development expertize and design thinking. And I think that’s a really interesting thing that hasn’t quite been brought together. So, these technologies that we were talking about and game design techniques and things like that that I think could be really effective aren’t coming together with those people and researchers who have cognitive development expertize. And I mean, if you can put those pieces together, I think that we’re really on to something.

So, that’s the kind of direction we’re trying to pursue and have a vision of going much further towards that so we can empower families. And by empowering families, then we can turn that home setting that is a blind spot into a resource. And the insights that we can gain and the data we can generate can then lead towards clinicians being able to better understand how to provide individualized care, even with their limited times. Like, kind of increasing the impact of that clinical care. So, we’re trying to bridge that gap through these sorts of technologies and game design approaches that we’ve been exploring.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Yeah, I mean, that concept certainly resonates with me in the context of HiMama, just in terms of getting sort of the subject matter experts, in your case. You talk about cognitive development and link that up with design expertize or technical expertize, in terms of software and/or hardware or what have you. It’s a powerful combination.

And certainly again, that’s what we’re doing at HiMama with early-childhood educators being the experts in early education. We’re the experts in software and technology. But when you put the two together, it’s really powerful. So, that certainly resonates. And let’s get really tangible. What’s it like? Describe what you’re doing at Gepeto Labs in terms of products. What’s an experience like for a child using that product? And what are the benefits to that?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, right now in particular, we’re just releasing a prototype that people can try, which is essentially an activity book. So, it kind of looks just like a typical coloring book. But in it, there are these activities that will lead you from the physical experience over to the digital side. So, that’s like the mixed reality component. You can cut things out and then use those as a bridge to kind of a portal into digital gameplay.

So, gameplay is designed to be kind of like a puzzle-based, problem-based adventure game. And these activities will move you between entering into the gameplay and then, once you’re in the gameplay, encourage you to capture things like observations that you make or identify creatures you find while you’re exploring. And the idea here is to integrate prompting. So, it’s very easy for the families to jump onboard and not require additional training or anything like that.

I think that’s one of the big insights we gained from talking to clinicians and families, I think, that your time is limited. And you can imagine that, just as a parent yourself, having to manage all your day-to-day activities. But when you have a child that has additional developmental challenges and your socio-economics might not allow you to have additional support, making that process really intuitive and engaging and fun, both for the parent and the child, is really significant.

So, that’s the nature of this product, is trying to get to that point where it’s essentially quite seamless, to start playing and having fun doing this. And from that, also ensuring that the game design elements, so when you’re going through and playing these games, we’re able to identify certain skills that you’re working on. So, it could be something like integrating your working memory and categorization skills or something like that as you’re trying to sort out or find an object in gameplay.

And that becomes something that’s useful to clinicians because they can start to differentiate between children with different abilities. And so I think the ultimate vision as we go through this process – and it’s still relatively early – as it scales, you can start to see the possibilities of gaining data about how different children do on these different tasks. And once it’s measured, then that leads to the scalability in terms of differentiating. And once you can differentiate between children, then you’re on the right track to individualizing further support. So, I don’t know if that was altogether clear.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I mean, certainly getting to the point where you can individualize the learning will resonate with our audience. Speaking of which, what do you think is the age group that would use tools like this? Do you think using these types of tools in an early-childhood preschool setting make sense? Or what’s your thoughts there?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, I mean, we’ve started by targeting in that [age] 4 to 7-or-8 range of children. I think you can pull that bit a bit younger, depending on the child’s development. But I think the idea here is that this kind of platform approach to integrating design techniques in ways that lead to measurable outcomes can be applied quite early. And there’s certain companies that are more focused at that really early age in preschool.

But I think it’s at the right point for families to decide when do they want to introduce more of the digital components. But I think it’s neat. I think you can see the potential of exploring the physical layers in such a way that parents can be able to facilitate these activities at home, which means they can do this with younger children.

I think that there’s a real world of possibility in becoming, as designers, more adept at supporting how families engage with things like more traditional activities: coloring books and books in general, and games and things like that, so that those things become tools for learning. And it’s, again, tools that create insights for developmental experts that can then use those as insights to support further care. So, I think the applications are pretty broad, as we think about it as a whole field.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And speaking of books, games and learning, we always like to share some development and learning resources with our audience. Any resources you think would be interesting for our listeners to check out?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Something I came on recently, but as an older-ish resource, is a book called Thinking In Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows. It came my way just as exploring some of these approaches to systems thinking because we’re looking at a pretty complex web of systems interacting with each other in this system of care that children are in, that families are part of, that clinicians are a part of it, researchers and educators are all a part of.

And so, how to understand what elements are in the systems and how to understand how the systems interact and how to map those things out and things along those lines. It became really fascinating to me and has made it clear that I want to further research in that direction. So, it’s, like, a really neat jumping off point, I think, for digging into this world of systems thinking, which I think has massive application within the education and health care landscapes, which I think we’re really kind of seeing that there’s a bridge between those two.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I agree, a wide scope of application for something like that. And I think I’ve heard of that book, Thinking In Systems, but I don’t think I’ve read it. So, I wrote that down. And also for our listeners, where can people go to find out more about your work, Ram, or potentially get in touch with you, as well?

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Yeah, right now, if you go to our website, www.Gepeto.ca, you can see some of our work. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s our prototype, the game is called Ruby Adventures about this little robot that you can go on adventures with. And what you can do is download this activity book for free right now. And we want to try and onboard as many people as possible, including what we might call neurotypical children and their families, to help us gain some insights. And of course, if you have a child that has a developmental challenge or work with children with developmental challenges or disorders, I think it’d be really great to have you try it and give us some of your feedback. And yeah, that’s probably a good way to reach out to me, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Love what you’re doing and thanks for doing the work that you’re doing. It sounds like you’re really passionate about it and are definitely connecting the dots, talking about systems, in terms of getting something valuable out there that’s going to help support children in their development. So, thank you for that, Ram, and thanks for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!

PUVANESASINGHAM:

Thank you for having me!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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