Saul Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge

The Innovation Challenge calls for new ideas that have the potential to advance innovation, enhance equity, and drive transformative change in early education

Why an innovation challenge?

Early education experiences and nurturing relationships serve as the foundation for healthy brain development, future learning, and success later in life. To make good on early education’s potential and promise requires innovation that supports the knowledge, professional learning, policymaking, practice, and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences for all young children. By 2030, the United States will be home to approximately 21 million children under age five. Yet the nation has struggled both to scale early education programs and supports, and to improve and maintain their quality.

Looking ahead, there is a strong foundation on which to advance innovation, enhance equity, and drive transformative change. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more stakeholders are recognizing how early education can support our nation’s economic recovery and societal well-being. States have passed major policy reforms and made historic investments, and advocacy groups have mobilized to keep the needs of our youngest children a priority – especially those who come from historically underserved communities.

Yet at all levels of the system, much work remains to be done, from recruiting, retaining, and supporting the workforce, to finding new ways to promote and measure children’s healthy development, to creating policy solutions that bring more and better early education opportunities to families and communities across America. Now is the time for creative, collaborative solutions that will increase early learning opportunities and drive positive outcomes for all children.


What is the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge?

In its fifth year, the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge will fund promising ideas that have the potential to transform early education. We are seeking ideas and approaches that promote positive outcomes at multiple levels of the early education system, including the home, classroom, programs, networks, and/or policy.


Why is the Zaentz Initiative hosting this Challenge?

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative seeks to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of early education. By hosting the Innovation Challenge, our goal is to seed the field of early education with new ideas, fresh thinking, and strategic approaches.


  • The Envision Track is for applicants who have an idea and are seeking to try it out in the real world.
  • The Accelerate Track is for applicants who have already tried out their idea and are seeking to evaluate it, refine it, and/or expand its reach.


2024 Zaentz Innovation Challenge Webinar
Thursday, May 16 | 4:00 p.m. (ET)

Register Here


Congratulations to our 2023 Innovation Challenge winners!
Congratulations to our 2023 Envision Track 1st-Place Winners!
Congratulations to our 2023 Envision Track 2nd-Place Winners!
Congratulations to our 2023 Accelerate Track 1st-Place Winners!
Congratulations to our 2023 Accelerate Track 2nd-Place Winners!

Past Winners Highlights



In 2019, SayKid was selected as a Zaentz Innovation Challenge finalist for their plan to drive lasting, widespread change in early childhood education through developmentally appropriate tech.


Family Engagement Lab

2019 Innovation Challenge winner Family Engagement Lab developed FASTalk — a family engagement tool that promotes equity + builds partnerships between teachers and historically underserved families by sharing engaging, at-home learning activities via text messages in each family’s home language.

Flourish in Frazer Forest

Bringing inclusive early learning experiences outdoors through a project-based forest learning curriculum. (Georgia)

Challenge Timeline + Application

  • Online Application Launch
    Date: 04/18/24
  • Informational Webinar (4 PM ET)
    Date: 05/16/24
  • Online Application Deadline (11:59 PM ET)
    Date: 07/19/24
  • Finalists Notified
    Date: 09/23/24
  • On-Campus Pitch Event
    Date: 10/29/24
Judging Criteria

As reflected in the application questions, solutions will be judged on the quality of the idea; your understanding of the problem and context (i.e., population served, etc.); alignment of the solution to the problem and context; and feasibility and intended impact.

Pitch Details

Once finalists are selected, they will be invited to present their solutions to a panel of expert judges and a live audience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Each team will have approximately three minutes to pitch its proposal to a panel of judges and an audience, followed by three minutes of questions from the judges. Up to two members of each team may make the pitch.

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative is a long-term, multifaceted project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) that promotes the knowledge, professional learning, and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences. The Zaentz Initiative, co-directed by HGSE faculty members Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones, envisions a nation where all early education leaders have the knowledge and strategies they need to create strong, supportive learning environments. The Initiative consists of four core components: (1) the Early Learning Study at Harvard, a population-based study seeking to understand what works in a diverse range of early childhood settings; (2) a Professional Learning Academy to support the development of early education leaders from across our mixed-delivery system; (3) a Fellows Program to build a new pipeline of leaders in the field, and (4) policy tools to build systems so that all children, families, and educators have what they need to thrive.

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative seeks to connect innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of early education. We want to use this Challenge to seed the field with fresh thinking and strategic approaches that drive sustainable, transformative change.

We encourage anyone or any organization with an idea, prototype, product, and/or service to apply. Applicants may be individuals or teams of up to five; teams may represent more than one organization. All applicants must be at least 18 years of age at the time of entry. The Challenge is open to international applicants, but solutions must be implemented in the United States or available to US-based users (if the solution is an app or other tech-based solution).


If your group includes people from multiple organizations, please list everyone in the application. If you are applying as part of a single entity or organization (e.g., a school district, corporation, state agency), please note that in the contact information and include only one point person.

No. Applicants from any organization or institution are welcome to apply. Zaentz affiliates are not eligible to apply.

Yes! We encourage you to enter the Envision Track, which is intended to attract applicants with new ideas that haven’t been put into action yet.

Absolutely. However, you can submit each unique proposal only once. We will not consider the same proposal submitted to both tracks.

It is fine to submit an idea or approach developed and/or submitted elsewhere. However, we require that you include citations for any research or other sources used in your submission. If you reference someone else’s thinking, be sure to give credit! Plagiarism will result in immediate disqualification.

No, we welcome submissions that are non-profit, for-profit, or even undetermined (for those just beginning with new ideas).

No, ownership of any intellectual property submitted as part of the Challenge will remain with the original owners (applicants). However, the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative may use any submitted materials for future academic research. Contestants should not disclose any information that is proprietary or confidential. Challenge organizers cannot guarantee the confidentiality of any materials submitted to the Challenge; neither the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge team nor its associated institutions will sign confidentiality agreements.

• Application Launch: April 18, 2024 • Informational Webinar: May 16, 2024, at 4 PM ET (registration information to come) • Applications Deadline: July 19, 2024 (11:59 PM ET) • Finalists Notified: No later than September 23, 2024 • On-Campus Pitch Event: October 29, 2024

Envision Track: 1st Place, $10,000; 2nd Place, $5,000; Audience Choice, $1,000 Accelerate Track: 1st Place, $15,000; 2nd Place, $10,000; Audience Choice, $5,000

Please list all team members and their organizational affiliation (for example, school district, corporation, or state agency), if any. Teams will need a designated a point person for any communications if the application is selected as a finalist.

We encourage creative thinking, and we look forward to being surprised by new ideas and concepts! The proposed solutions can take different forms and may target short-term and long-term change at multiple levels of the early education system, including the home, classroom, programs, networks, and/or policy, though all proposals should have the potential to be scaled to drive systems-level impact. Examples of solution themes include but are not limited to: • Workforce development • Professional communities of practice • Planning and instruction • Authentic assessment • Program or classroom environment and materials • Trauma-informed practice • Parent and family engagement • Community engagement and wraparound services • Outdoor learning environments • Mental health supports • Public-private partnerships • Other: Be creative!

No, we are open to all types of solutions.

Your solution must serve children from birth to age five and/or the adults who provide care and education for children in that age group.

Yes, we welcome submissions that are for profit, nonprofit, or even undetermined (for those just beginning with new ideas) endeavors.

We will host an introductory webinar to support applicants during the application period. This webinar will take place on May 16, 2024, at 4PM ET. Please keep an eye on our website and sign up for our mailing list to receive registration instructions.

We anticipate four to six finalists in each track.

Yes, once we have selected the finalists, they will be listed on our website.

Funding recipients will be announced by our panel of judges at the pitch event.

Finalists are responsible for travel expenses to attend the pitch event at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, teams located outside the greater Boston area can apply for up to $1,000 to offset travel expenses.

2021 Family Child Care Innovation Networks Awardees

2023 Winners & Finalists

Accelerate Track Winners

1st Place:
The Parent Leadership Program
Through this program, parents are empowered to bring their lived experiences raising young children in the community to advise the institutions and policies that are most important in children's lives. The program consists of a series of six 90-minute trainings after which parents can apply their skills via a six-month Community Impact Project at a local early childhood and family-focused agency.

Participant: Families First

2nd Place:
Mini Meditations for Kids
A series of audio recordings and accompanying hands-on, paper-based projects–rooted in mindfulness and arts therapy–designed for children ages 3-5 who have experienced trauma or been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

Participant: Global Tinker

Envision Track Winners

1st Place:
Early Learning Teacher Corps
An approach to addressing the critical teacher shortage that limits access to high-quality early education in New Orleans. This program leverages AmeriCorps funding and program design to introduce people to the field of early education as teacher's assistants in high-need, high-quality partner early learning centers.

Participant: For Providers By Providers

2nd Place:
Reading Race in Picture Books
A free, video-based curriculum that helps caregivers use picture books to support healthy, developmentally appropriate racial learning for children from birth to 5 years old, with the aim of ensuring that books become powerful tools in the hands of caregivers working to nurture children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race.

Participant: EmbraceRace

Accelerate Track Finalists

Creating Synergy Through Peer Mentoring
A relationship-based leadership model that aims to attract, grow, and retain early childhood educators through a peer mentoring framework. This program includes a scalable and sustainable "roadmap" that provides ongoing recognition and leadership development to participating mentors.

Participant: Fairfax Futures + McFarren Avilés and Associates

Journey to Nia
A professional development (PD) experience that teaches early childhood educators and leaders how to center Black joy and eradicate anti-Black racism in early childhood. The PD experience increases adults' knowledge of anti-Black racism and its impact on Black children birth-five years old while building their capacity to work toward creating joyful and equitable experiences for Black children in their earliest years.

Participant: Anahsa Consulting

BOND Program
A free messaging program that empowers new parents of infants to make their mental health–and that of their baby–a priority. This program leverages targeted text messages to address early relational health, parent well-being, self-care, parent/child bonding, connections to mental health resources, and ample encouragement for new parents.

Participant: Bright By Text

Hairiette's House
A systems-level, story-based intervention designed to increase literacy proficiency in children under age 8. Hairiette's House embraces and supports the most important adults in the lives of children: parents/caregivers and teachers.

Envision Track Finalists

Brightside Up Kitchen
A collaborative and interactive approach to supporting family child care providers through cooking classes and trainings that promote sensory exploration of healthy foods while respecting each child's developing taste.
A trans-media tool that integrates augmented reality (AR) to provide caregivers and teachers with tools to guide their children through self-directed, place-based learning experiences while exploring community garden and public park environments.
Building a Comprehensive Approach to Providing Behavioral Health Supports in ECE Settings
A model for centralized delivery of behavioral health supports for Early Childhood Education providers in Massachusetts.

Participant: Neighborhood Villages

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