About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Fostering parental engagement with early child development

We developed this project with the aim of learning about how we could best drive and sustain motivation in parents to play a more active role in fostering their child’s early development. The project ran between February and August 2023, and it took a distributed design-led sprint approach where we aimed to work in sprint cycles to research, develop and test ideas. This project update reports on the completion of the first of the planned sprints. Through this project we developed ideas for how we could co-create a physical interactive/immersive experience with parents and frontline practitioners that could spark parents’ interest in their children’s early brain development.


A key part of Nesta’s strategy for our fairer start mission is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children by building parenting capabilities and specifically improving the quality of parent-child interactions to support children’s early development. Our work involves supporting the design, implementation and scale-up of effective parenting interventions.

In previous design-led research with practitioners and parents from disadvantaged areas in Stockport, York and Leeds (A Fairer Start Local Attendance Project, April-August 2022), we found a key insight. Discussions at workshops with parents and practitioners revealed that there were often challenges with parents being motivated to engage with the parenting support that was on offer. Through our design-led research, we identified an emerging group of parents we named ‘Generation Archetype’. This group of parents was characterised by low geographical mobility and intergenerational disadvantage. These parents also had low motivation to engage in local parent and child support services, such as stay and play groups, baby massage groups, etc. We also learned that due to these parents’ daily struggles and challenges, they were not always prioritising the types of interactions their children need for healthy brain development (such as conversation, playing, singing, reading, etc.).

The COM-B model is a barrier identification tool that suggests that people face many barriers or hurdles to altering their habits, driven by their capabilities, opportunities and motivations. With motivation being a key component in the COM-B behaviour change model, these observations prompted the Design Lead at a fairer start to initiate scoping this project, which would focus on ‘Generation Archetype’ parents as the key priority group, to explore how it might be possible to increase parents’ motivations to engage with the types of parenting support available locally and increase the types of interactions that can benefit their children’s development.

Impact goal

We hoped to find a way to support Generation Archetype parents (focusing on those with children aged 0-2 years) by building on the strong foundations of care, love and nurturing that are already there, so that they value more highly their own pivotal role in their child’s healthy cognitive, emotional, social and motor skills development, and translate this into positive parenting behaviours. We anticipated that, if successful, this would lead to parents being more willing to engage in activities to support them to have positive interactions with their children, such as attending parenting programmes and improving home learning interactions.

Challenge space

Through the design research we carried out prior to this project, we learned that Generation Archetype parents can experience a range of life pressures and daily challenges that can lead to them deprioritising taking an active role in their child’s development. We found that many parents lacked leisure time to spend with their children and they lived their lives within a small geographical area, which meant they had limited access to enriching activities.

Many parents we engaged with had small circles of trust which limited their support from social peer networks and learning from others which could also make them feel isolated in the parenting journey. Many parents receive a large quantity of resources from various frontline practitioners which can overload them with information, leading to a preference for bite-sized content which is highly relevant/tailored to them and their children. Parents also saw the early years settings as the place for children to learn and gain help with their speech development.

What did we do?

We adopted a distributed design-led sprint approach where we planned to work in three sprint cycles of researching, developing and testing ideas. The first sprint was undertaken from February-August 2023.

In this design sprint, we carried out design-led research with target parents and practitioners in Stockport, to better understand parenting mindsets. Stockport is one of the most polarised local authorities in the country by income. While parts of the borough experience prosperity, the area also has pockets of significant disadvantage. 

We set up and facilitated:

  • exploratory one-to-one face-to-face interviews with five parents living in Stockport, diving in more depth into some of the beliefs, behaviours, values and needs initially surfaced in the A Fairer Start Local attendance project workshops
  • in-depth remote, one-to-one interviews with five midwives and health visitors to understand more about their perceptions of parenting in one disadvantaged community
  • a focus group session with eight target parents (who had children aged between 6 months to 18 months and were eligible for Universal Credit) recruited via a parent-baby group. We showed parents video resource content about babies’ brain development to understand what types of content they found engaging. We also explored what types of media (TV, film, online content, social media) parents liked to engage with to better understand what might resonate with them.

The objectives of the design sprint were to:

  • explore target parents' peer and family support experiences so that we could learn about their attitudes and their circles of trust
  • understand their levels of knowledge about their babies’ brain development and resources they accessed (including digital parenting content) so that we could learn more about what captures their attention and what helps them stay engaged
  • learn about the activities, rituals and routines they carry out with their babies and young children so that we can learn about if, when and where parents engage in meaningful interactions with them
  • map out attitudes, perspectives and use of digital tech with their babies and young children
  • explore what types of media parents engage with, so that we could learn about what types of cultural content or activities resonated with parents.

To achieve our objectives we conducted the one-to-one interviews with target parents carefully. We engaged in open discussions and creative activities so that parents could show us rather than always tell us. The sessions were designed to be informal, prioritising the building of warm relationships over a formal research-participant dynamic, ensuring richer insights without barriers.

The latter part of this first design sprint explored potential directions of travel and creation of potential solutions that would most likely be an immersive experience with an interdisciplinary team of artists/creative technologists, immersive storytellers, neuroscientists and Nesta’s arts and discovery practices.

We carried out three workshops to explore the opportunities informed by our learning from parents and practitioners so far. The three workshops were broken down into:

  • one alignment workshop to share insights learned so far
  • two design-led creative workshops to ideate around opportunity spaces.

At these workshops we synthesised our learning so far and generated ideas for where we could take the project next.

What did we learn?

There were five key insights that stood out to us during this project.

1. Leisure time and cultural engagement

In our exploration of parents’ cultural and media engagement, we delved into how parents connect emotionally with content so that it could give us an indication of what would be important to initially capture their attention and sustain engagement. Notably, responses did not strongly emphasise emotionally impactful content outside of soap operas, referencing specific TV episodes like "Eastenders" and "Emmerdale." Parents told us that they liked consuming short, snappy and fact-based material on platforms like TikTok and YouTube as a leisure activity. It's important to highlight that many parents don’t go to museums, art galleries, cinemas, etc., due to limited local options, barriers to travelling long distances and the cost this may incur. Their often busy lives also lead them to prioritise routine tasks during their limited free time, making it challenging to explore different cultural activities.

2. Parenting support and social networks

We found that parents we engaged with typically maintain close-knit circles of trust, consisting of two to five individuals, including family members, close friends and sometimes other parents. A common theme was the strategy of "keeping their head down" to avoid gossip and unnecessary troubles. In matters of parenting, some parents preferred guidance from their own parents (if they had good ongoing relationships with them) and close friends, rather than seeking advice from third parties. They value the intuitive knowledge and wisdom of their own grandparents, finding it more valuable than insights from professional experts. This preference is rooted in the confidence and trust instilled by lived experiences in raising children, fostering a more meaningful connection compared to professional advice where they can often have concerns of feeling judged or being misunderstood.

3. Awareness of baby brain development

Parents showed different levels of awareness regarding the stages and significance of their baby’s brain development. Even among those with a stronger awareness, implementing behaviours that promote healthy brain development such as reading, singing and playing with their baby was challenging due to daily life pressures. Certain health visitors who participated in this research note that many parents they work with have experienced trauma, which can contribute to difficulties in regulating their own emotions. One-to-one interviews with health visitors we engaged with in this research provided a wealth of experience and information about why parents without support may not know why it is important to actively support their child's emotional regulation, or know how they can do this. Without knowledge of why early childhood development is important, parents may not feel that fostering their baby's healthy brain development is a priority. Parents who have endured significant trauma may feel that their emotional capacity is already stretched to its limit, making it difficult to focus on the additional developmental needs of their child.

4. Baby brain development resources given to parents

Parents we engaged with in this research told us that they often feel overwhelmed with the abundance of information they receive, making it challenging when health visitors suggest additional resources on baby brain development. This was validated by health visitors' perceptions of their experiences when providing information to parents on their visits. Parents shared with us the importance of building a strong relationship and trust between themselves and health visitors as this proves crucial in effectively conveying and encouraging positive parenting behaviours. When there is a solid connection, parents are more likely to listen and adopt recommendations for supporting their child's development.

5. Babies under two and interaction with technology

Whilst many parents we spoke to were aware that human interactions are important for their child, some found it challenging to recognise the importance of how consistent daily parent-child interactions might impact their baby’s brain development. Parents told us that they often preferred their children to be quiet (especially when they were out and about), to avoid the judgement of others. This was easily facilitated by technology (for example, by giving their child a smartphone or tablet to watch or play with), which again reduced opportunities for high-quality interactions between parents and children because children spent more time absorbed by screens. Parents frequently shared the perspective that once their child embraced technology as a means of entertainment, breaking this habit became increasingly difficult, gradually establishing it as the norm. The health visitors we spoke to were concerned that children may be spending too much time watching screens, which was detracting from developmentally beneficial interactions with their parents.

Proposal for an immersive, interactive experience for parents

The main proposal that emerged from this project was an initial prototype solution to be used as a springboard for further development and co-design with families.

The prototype designed, called Baby Magic Mirror, would use augmented reality (AR) to explore the impact of parent-baby interactions on a baby's development, including speech and language. It would take the form of a physical ‘mirror’ (as a pop-up in public spaces) where parents holding their young children can interact via gestures or touch-screen.

Baby Magic Mirror’s aim would be to amplify and make visible the invisible world of the baby and by doing so:

  • deepen the connection between the parent and the baby
  • develop a stronger embodied understanding of the baby as a separate individual with their own needs – which are different from that of the parent
  • “make the invisible visible” around babies’ brain development, including early language and communication
  • develop stronger embodied awareness in the parent of their pivotal role in their baby’s development, including early language development.

Parents using Baby Magic Mirror would have choices, like 'See through your baby’s eyes,' 'Tongue poke or smile interaction' or ‘Witness brain connections mirroring each other’.

Distribution channels for the Baby Magic Mirror prototype could include a portable installation for health centres, community spaces or self-contained experiences. There could be a mobile app or social media version and a 'Community on tour' pop-up to encourage engagement. A digital version could potentially be used to support midwives and health specialists in their interactions with parents.

Next steps

While we were really excited by the insights from this work, the a fairer start team ultimately decided not to progress with the second and third sprint of this work, which would have involved further developing and testing the Baby Magic Mirror prototype. This was due to concerns about the feasibility of being able to scale these ideas due to the infrastructure that might be needed.

Having explored this compelling question about how best to motivate parents to engage with support, our next step involves integrating the insights from this project into our work on adapting and scaling parenting interventions. We are particularly interested in how these insights might be applied to digital parenting interventions.


Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Louise works as part of a multi-disciplinary innovation team focused on narrowing the outcome gap for disadvantaged children.

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Emma McFarland

Emma McFarland

Emma McFarland

Design Lead, fairer start mission

Emma was design lead for the fairer start mission, integrating design and digital innovation practice in the mission’s work to catalyse impactful and scalable innovation.

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Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Designer, Design and Technology

Imran Nazerali is a designer who cares about people.

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