Case Study

Lively Minds

Lively Minds
Nongovernmental Organization
Ghana, Uganda
Improve learning and development


Lively Minds helps marginalized mothers in subsistence farming communities in rural Ghana and Uganda to support their child’s early development. It focuses on capacity and mindsets, empowering mothers with the skills and confidence needed to provide learning opportunities and nurturing support for their preschool-age children. When founder Alison Naftalin began the nonprofit in 2008, she had intended for the children’s older siblings to lead the early childhood development program. Many mothers, however, expressed interest in being trained to support their children and articulated their frustration in being overlooked as capable resources because of a lack of literacy or formal education. (A. Naftalin, personal communication, April 19, 2021). Subsequently, the goal of Lively Minds expanded to improving school readiness by improving the well-being and skill sets of mothers. The program is now delivered through government. Lively Minds trains local government teams, who in turn train teachers to provide monthly workshops where parents learn simple, locally tailored methods to support their children’s learning and development at home. The trained parents in return run no-cost play schemes for the community’s preschoolers.

Lively Minds works in partnership with local governments, which own and implement the program. Governments receive two years of initial technical support from Lively Minds, as well as a full curriculum, training workshops, and methods for ongoing quality control after the two-year funding period ends (Lively Minds, n.d.).

Prior to participating in the program, most parents did not know the name of their child’s teachers, one-fifth of the children had not received any form of play or stimulation in the last three days, and the vast majority of children could not identify any numbers, according to the results of a baseline randomized control trial (A. Naftalin, personal communication, April 19, 2021). The Lively Minds early childhood development program significantly improved each of these metrics, in addition to children’s cognition and socio-emotional development, particularly for the most marginalized students. In fact, a recent randomized control study showed that the effect of the program on the cognitive skills of children from the poorest 20 percent of households was twice as great as on children from better-off households. Additionally, the program reduced acute malnutrition among participating children (Institute for Fiscal Studies and Innovations for Poverty Action, 2020). By building parents’ confidence and skills around child care, the Lively Minds program can shift the false perception that mothers are unable to make a crucial difference in their child’s education due to a lack of training or education.

Empowering mothers through holistic development strategies at home and in their children’s school ultimately benefits their children, their community, and the mothers themselves. A 2019 randomized control trial by Institute for Fiscal Studies and Innovations for Poverty Action showed the Lively Minds program positively affected all development domains of participating children: cognitive, socio-emotional, and health. Mothers also showed improved parenting practices and knowledge of early childhood development. Additionally, the report showed teacher job satisfaction improved as teachers appreciated having more support from parents, especially given the average teacher-to-student ratio of 1 to 55. The program reaches around 49,800 children and 11,000 mothers annually (Lively Minds, 2019).


Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Early Childhood
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Building Skills, Providing Information, Providing Resources
Place: School
Family role: Not Engaged
Teacher training on mother engagement: Kindergarten teachers from every school attend a start-up course lasting 5.5 days covering play scheme management, mother training, and learning through play. The program helps teachers to better support mothers who go on to lead the play-based learning groups for preschool-aged children. The head teacher and Parent Teacher Association chair also attend a portion of the training, which is supported by district teams from the Ministry of Education’s Ghana Education Service (GES). Teachers then attend two half day “top up” trainings each school term.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Early Childhood
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Providing Information, Shifting Mindsets, Building Skills, Providing Resources
Place: School
Family role: Supporting, Creating
Play-based learning groups led by mothers: The two trained Kindergarten teachers train 30-40 marginalized mothers per community to run free play schemes for their community’s preschoolers, giving children a vital opportunity to learn through play. Mothers also receive basic health and sanitation training. The course is specifically designed for illiterate mothers and takes place over two 2-hour community meetings and eight 2-hour participatory workshops. In Ghana, the trainings are supervised by GES district teams. Content includes how to make and play games, child-friendly teaching, and health practices. The syllabus uses behavior change and play-based approaches to transform mindsets and gain buy-in and volunteers. The trained mothers go on to facilitate play schemes at their local Kindergarten, with each mother teaching in groups for 1.5 hours a week . The children are divided into groups, and each group participates in the play scheme once a week for one hour. The remaining children play outdoor games facilitated by some of the trained mothers. Each mother runs a play station and teaches using discovery-based methods. Children rotate through five stations: senses and sizes, matching, numbers and counting, building, and storytelling. Additionally, children must wash their hands before participating to help develop sanitary habits. These crosscutting skills develop executive functions, providing the foundation for learning. Mothers teach using discovery and play-based methods rather than the rote method, which is the norm in schools.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Early Childhood
Lever: Providing Information, Shifting Mindsets, Building Skills, Providing Resources
Tech level: No Tech
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Group parenting workshops: Kindergarten teachers conduct regular group parenting workshops for mothers where they deliver simple scripted methods to improve parenting using local materials. Workshop topics include nutrition, hygiene, children’s rights, play, communication, malaria prevention, financial awareness, self-esteem, and inclusive education (Institute for Fiscal Studies and Innovations for Poverty Action, 2020). This increases awareness of a variety of child care and public health issues, reinforces new behaviors, and acts as a powerful incentive to keep mothers committed to volunteering.



  • District staff members participate in early childhood development sensitization activities facilitated by Lively Minds and receive an ongoing package of capacity-building support.
  • District staff members facilitate monthly top-up trainings for two kindergarten teachers from every school.
  • District staff members supervise play scheme training for mothers over two 2-hour community meetings and eight 2-hour participatory workshops.
  • District staff members conduct regular unannounced visits to play schemes to ensure quality control and ongoing training.
  • District staff and kindergarten teachers broadcast weekly radio programs for parents, using scripts provided by Lively Minds
  • Lively Minds engages district staff regularly through engagement and sensitization activities.
  • Lively Minds, district staff members, and high performing teachers from existing Play Scheme school train two kindergarten teachers from each school in play scheme management, mother training, and learning through play.
  • Kindergarten teachers train 30-40 marginalized mothers per community in conducting play schemes and in basic health and sanitation.
  • Lively Minds supplies kindergarten teachers with scripts to conduct monthly parent workshops and weekly radio episodes on improving parenting skills.
  • Lively Minds coach district staff to monitor play schemes to ensure quality control and ongoing training.


  • Mothers facilitate play schemes, teaching in groups once a week for 1.5 hours, four times a week at their local kindergarten.
  • Mothers implement new parenting methods in their home and share these methods with their communities.
  • Mothers participate in monthly group parenting workshops hosted by kindergarten teachers trained by the district staff.
  • Parents tune in to radio program to learn parenting practices to adopt at home

Resources required


  • Lively Minds employs staff to train and support local agencies.
  • In Ghana, district staff members from the Ministry of Education’s Ghana Education Services facilitate program implementation.
  • In Uganda, a network of Village Health Team volunteers from the national community health worker program facilitate program implementation.
  • 30-40 local mothers participate per community.
  • Two kindergarten teachers per participating school conduct monthly parent workshops and manage play schemes alongside mothers.


  • Play schemes and training workshops are held at local kindergarten schools or, if access to a local school is not possible, at any community building.


  • Average total costs for Lively Minds during the initial evaluation period were $150 per mother and $37 per child.
  • The cost per child for Lively Minds over a three-year implementation period across 257 schools averaged $19.
  • Each school purchases its own games.

How do they do it?

One important tactic in implementing the Lively Minds program was using a grassroots approach to design for the user. Program leaders invested significant time and resources in the design process in order to understand the contextual barriers and mindset challenges that affect parent involvement in early childhood development. The organization spent four years trialing dozens of goals and messages to find what would most resonate with mothers. While initial conversations drew mothers to focus on issues such as microfinance, deeper discussion revealed that creating enabling family environments for child development would most benefit the community. Further discussions underscored that to overcome the belief that parents have no role to play in their child’s learning, any intervention must focus holistically on mothers’ well-being and mindset.

A challenge to creating this attitudinal shift was disproving long-held preconceived notions around both early childhood development and the capabilities of parents (A. Naftalin, personal communication, April 19, 2021). Both parents themselves and the broader education system had to overcome the systematic bias of viewing mothers as incapable teachers due to lack of formal education. Community members expressed a desire to have mothers see themselves as an asset to their child’s education. This involved a broader mindset shift around early childhood development by focusing on its fundamental importance for a child’s lifetime.

Although the government of Ghana added two years of preprimary education as part of the country’s requirements in 2007, many rural schools and parents lacked resources for early childhood education and did not understand its effects on long-term education. Many opted to let children play among themselves instead of attending school. Using story-based participatory vignettes, Lively Minds representatives worked with communities to demonstrate the problem of leaving children’s developmental potential untapped and explained that a mother-empowerment program like Lively Minds could provide a solution. This was especially important given the range of competing nongovernmental organizations in northern Ghana. Lively Minds had to convince individuals to participate even though they would not receive the financial incentives or material support that many nongovernmental organizations provided in exchange for participation. Therefore, Lively Minds had to sensitize families to the problem of child development in order to get local communities to see value in the program.

Lively Minds also focused on organized and systematic program implementation, as clear quality standards and ground rules were essential in maintaining the low cost of the intervention. In the early days of the organization, funding was scarce, so all nonessential activities were removed. For example, the parenting course is considered a formal course, not an optional or voluntary one. As such, if a mother is consistently tardy or absent, she may be removed from the course and prevented from receiving certification. Keeping the program simple is key to the program’s sustainability and effectiveness. Understanding the need for accountability and sustainability, in addition to the unique contexts of communities, has allowed the program to be maintained and scaled in a competitive environment.

Resources and testimonials

  • “Before the LM program, I could shy away myself not speaking to people. I now stopped fearing people and I can speak to hundreds of them” – Mother from Nalwesambula A, Uganda (Lively Minds, 2019)
  • “At the beginning, the children didn’t know anything, especially in the local language. They didn’t know the colours. . . . But now they understand most of the terms easily, and they even know it more than us. . . . Those in the past did not learn enough. Those we are currently teaching are smart and far different. They are able to think faster than those who have not had the chance to play in the Play Scheme.” – Dorcas, a play scheme mother from Bongo District, Upper East Region, Ghana (Lively Minds, 2019)
  • Impact stories video
  • Examples of play-based learning


Institute for Fiscal Studies and Innovations for Poverty Action. (2019, July). Improving early childhood development in rural Ghana through scalable community-run play schemes: Programme impact evaluation report.

Institute for Fiscal Studies and Innovations for Poverty Action. (2020). Improving early childhood development and health with a community-run program in Ghana.

Lively Minds. (n.d.). Our model.

Lively Minds. (2019). Trustees report and accounts for the year ended 31 December 2019.