Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

When Jacquelyn Davis’s young son struggled to learn to read, she did everything within her power to get to the bottom of his difficulty and ensure he had the skills to survive. This involved repeatedly requesting meetings with teachers and administrators, calling educational experts, paying for outside reading assessments, and ultimately creating a board game to strengthen his reading.

Now, she’s taking the board game she created to the masses, starting an educational game company called Clever Noodle to produce and distribute it. 

Her story is an inspiring example of a mother doing what it takes for her child. It’s also a glaring indictment of a system that all too often requires special time, knowledge, money, and social capital to secure basic skills for kids. 

In this candid discussion, Davis shares her story about taking ownership of teaching her son vital foundational reading skills and finding fun ways to do it. I love her commitment and ingenuity, as well as the strong example of parent advocacy that she sets. Her story is a vivid reminder to respect our parental intuition and be vigilant about ensuring our kids get the attention, testing, support, and resources they need to thrive. 

This conversation touches on really critical issues for parents to understand about reading instruction in schools:

  • Why you shouldn’t take a wait-and-see approach with your child’s reading development
  • Why early intervention is so crucial for fostering long-term reading success
  • Why some parents look outside the system and spend money to have their children independently assessed
  • How special resources and social capital contribute to reading success for many children
  • Why play is a valuable tool in a parent’s toolkit to encourage reading practice
  • How COVID widened existing disparities in education
  • How evidence-based reading games can support learning

Maya Smart: Hello, I'm so excited to be here today with Jacquelyn Davis, the founder and Mom-in-chief of Clever Noodle, an educational game company. Jacquelyn, could you start by telling us a bit about your journey to becoming an educational game maker?

Jacquelyn Davis: Yes. It was not a journey I planned. I’ve actually been in the education sector for 30 years. I started off as a classroom teacher in high school and then I co-founded a charter high school to serve low-income students, to prove really that low-income students could achieve at an extremely high level if we as the adults did what we needed to do to provide them the opportunity and the strong support and instruction, and created an environment that was joyful and made them have a sense of belonging and really treated them wonderfully with the respect that they deserved. So that’s where I started. And then I’ve spent 30 years overall working in education with nonprofits, with foundations, and never did I think this was going to be the pivot that I would have in my career, but it came from a really personal place.

I knew that our son was struggling with reading and I was really wondering why, because he’s a very bright young boy and was really thoughtful in his insights about the world, even in his vocabulary. And yet he was really struggling to read and it was perplexing. But I went to the school when he was in kindergarten and said, I’m worried. He’s not learning his alphabet. He’s not remembering the letters. He can’t remember them in order. Is something wrong? And the school said, “Oh no, he’s just a late bloomer and he’s a boy. It’ll all be okay.” So being that they were the elementary school teacher and I taught high school and knew nothing about teaching children to read, I just trusted that they were right. 

And then first grade came and he continued to struggle and he continued to struggle with really basic things. And I started to get increasingly worried. So again, I went up to the school and I asked for a meeting with the teacher and the principal and the head of supports in special ed, and they all came together and my husband was there and I said, “I’m really worried. I don’t think this is okay. I think something is off. I don’t know what it is, but I’m really worried.” 

And they said, “Well, you shouldn’t be. He’s a boy. He’s a late developer, probably, it will all be okay. You can’t test a kid anyway until third grade. So there’s no reason to start testing him.” And I left and I said, “I think they’re wrong. And my husband said, “You have to trust them. They’re the educators.” And I said, “No, I’m the mom and I’m also an educator and I don’t think they’re right.” And so I started Googling and researching and reading that you could actually test children for dyslexia as early as kindergarten. You didn’t wait till third grade and early intervention was essential. 

So our kid, like every other child in America, gets sent home for Covid. And I take a pause from work, extremely fortunate that I was in a position to be able to do that, but he couldn’t do the online learning. He struggled. He closed down the laptop screen. He also has ADHD, so it was a modem that really didn’t work for him as a child, and he just wouldn’t do it. And I was getting increasingly worried and increasingly stressed. 

And so I said to the teacher, “Look, just tell me what the learning objectives are and I will try to figure out how to help him learn them.” And I realized after a short period of time that he was so resistant to reading — loved math and great in math — but so resistant to reading that I couldn’t get him to do anything. He literally would get under the kitchen table and cry, curl up into a ball. It was awful. 

And I started thinking, this kid is a kid that really loves games. He likes board games. He likes card games. I’m going to start making games and I’m going to see if that’s a way in. And so that’s how it happened. I made my first game on the box back of a box that arrived from all the shipments we all got during Covid and he really liked it and it engaged him and it hooked him and he started progressing. 

And so then I made another game and then I made another game and his teacher said, “What are you doing? He’s making huge progress. What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m making games.” And she said, “Well, can I have some too for the other kids who struggle?” Sure. So I gave her a set and she said, “You have to publish these. They work for all kids.” And so that’s where this happened.

Maya Smart: Wow. There are a couple of things that jump out as you relate your story. One is just this sense as the mom that something is wrong and that it needs to be addressed at a pace that people within the school, as well-intentioned and well-meaning as they are and as committed to your son's academic success as they are, they didn't have that same sense of urgency that you as the mom had. What was it that nudged you to just dig into research to figure things out after so many no's? Many people would've quit after the second round of no's from not just the teacher, but the teacher and the principal and the interventionist.

Jacquelyn Davis: Well, I think as probably most moms listening to this know in their heart, when it’s your kid, you’re going to do what it takes. You’re going to do whatever is in your power to make the difference and help your child. 

And because I had been in education, I knew how critical it was for children to read by third grade on grade level, and that the children that don’t have four times the rate of dropout from high school and 75% of the children who don’t read at grade level by fourth grade never will because we as a system don’t do what’s needed. And so I knew all too well the dire data and the dire consequences. So I was probably more nervous than most moms because I knew too much. 

And I went to my best friend in tears and I said, “I don’t know what to do. No one thinks I’m right. All the teachers are telling me I’m wrong.” And she said, “You are the mom. You have mom instinct. Follow your instinct.” And that was a great turning point. And I went home that night and I said to my husband, “We’re testing him, we’re getting him tested so we figure out what’s wrong, if there’s something wrong, and we’re going to know more.” 

And I started getting online and reading everything I could. I ordered books. I read how to teach phonics. I read how to teach your child reading. I read all about the reading science. I found the Yale Center for Dyslexia. I read everything they had online and I just started learning. But I recently heard a survey that 94% of parents don’t know that reading is not a natural skill, that reading is a learned, needed to be taught skill.

And so there’s just an enormous misconception in the world, which frankly I had too. I was one of those kids that read at four years old, and I don’t know how, I just did. And so I thought every kid was like that. And so when my own son wasn’t reading, I thought, Oh my God, what’s wrong here and what can I do and what’s happening? And then I came to understand that most children, most children need structured explicit work to learn to read, and they need that kind of support. 

And I think your book is incredibly important, particularly since so many parents still believe reading is a natural skill, and so they don’t know what to do. And your book helps them understand it’s not a natural skill, it’s a learned skill that must be taught in a very structured, explicit way. And it also empowers them to start to understand their role in this. 

Because I think that’s the other problem as parents defer to educators because we trust them. We think they’re the expert. And we’re not. And not to say that the educators are not tremendously well intentioned, but 60% of our American elementaries still use curriculums that have been discredited and we know don’t work. And so parents actually have to become advocates. We have to know that just like math, where your kid has to be taught addition and subtraction and multiplication and division, because they’re not going to naturally just absorb it, it’s the same thing as reading.

Maya Smart: Absolutely. Can you talk a bit about how you sought testing for him? Were you able to get it in the school or did you have to seek outside resources for that?

Jacquelyn Davis: I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s one of the things that has me on fire. People say to me, “You’re on fire.” And I say, “Yeah, I’m on fire.” Because we are in a position so thankfully, so gratefully that I could go outside the system and pay a lot of money that the insurance doesn’t reimburse to get our son tested, to get data. 

When I went to the school system and said, “I want to get him an IEP,” an individual education plan, under the special ed law, they said, “No, he doesn’t need it. And there’s not an educational problem that teachers are identifying. So he doesn’t warrant the process. He doesn’t warrant getting tested.” Well, now I know that’s actually incorrect, that you as a parent can force a review, an assessment of your child, but I didn’t know that at the time.

And after a five-month battle back and forth, when I couldn’t get him tested, I finally said, I’ll just go outside the system and I’ll pay. But again, incredible privilege frankly, that I could pay, that I could go get this for my child. And I’m angry because every child deserves that opportunity. Every child deserves the right to be understood, and we as adults in their lives, parents and educators must know so that we can get them the right support. So no, I didn’t get it through the system. Our whole story, frankly, and the success we’ve had with our son is a set of special resources, social capital, and financial ability that led us to be able to help our son. And had we not had those assets, our son would be like too many of the other children in this country and in the same position, not reading on grade level at fourth grade, which is the critical milestone.

Maya Smart: Thank you for sharing that story and being frank about the resources that you were able to deploy. That was one of the things that I highlighted in Reading for Our Lives, this idea that money is one of the ways that some people are able to get better academic outcomes for their child. Paying for tutoring was the example that I used in the book, but paying for assessments, even to figure out what the issue is, is also an advantage. And then you're also alluding to the luxury of time, to be able to research all of these things and find the resources, even those that are entitled to everyone within schools, but are often denied to people. So thank you for sharing.

Jacquelyn Davis: It’s interesting. I love the line in your book where you talked about tutoring because that resonated because yes, we paid for an assessment, but we also paid out of pocket for tutoring and intensive tutoring. Our son began the second grade 1.8 grade levels behind. And what the public system said to me is, “Until he’s a full two years behind, we’re not going to give him help. He has to be two years behind.” 

And I said, “Well, what do you expect? He just stays permanently behind 1.8 years, because it’s just shy of two years? That makes no sense. That’s absurd.” And I said, “And there’s, clearly what’s going to happen is the kids that can read are going to read more and more and more, and the kids that can’t read are going to read less and less and less because it’s frustrating and it’s overwhelming and it makes them feel ashamed and it makes their self-esteem go into the tank. So they’re not going to read. And so the gap is going to widen and widen and widen, and if you don’t help him now it’s just going to get worse.” 

And they said, “Yeah, until it’s two years, we’re not going to address it.” And so ultimately we moved him to an independent school that agreed to address it and has addressed it beautifully and done in-school tutoring three times a week for him that’s part of the tuition. Before we moved him there, we started getting tutoring outside of the system and paid for it ourselves. And it’s insanely expensive. I mean, we could barely afford it. 

The other thing that’s really about education and privilege and social capital: One, I knew lots of people around the country to call because I had spent 30 years in the education community. And so I could get to experts and I could ask experts, “What do I read? Who do I talk to? How do I figure this out? Can my child be tested right now or do I have to wait till third grade?” So that was a huge advantage. 

And then the other huge advantage we had is, as I said already, financial resources to put him in an independent school, to pay for the tutoring. But I also have a law degree. Now, I didn’t practice law. I started right out of law school in education because that was my passion, but I have a law degree. 

And so when they would send me—the public system—a 27-page document to read two hours before the IEP meeting, one, I had the luxury of sitting at a computer working so I could read it opposed to sitting at a retail where I wouldn’t even have access. And they were not easy for me to read these documents, but I could sift through them with a law degree understanding enough, but then I had to sign a document. And it’s really hard to sign a document that you can’t get through that requires such expert understanding that most parents don’t have.

Maya Smart: Absolutely. Can you talk also about the role that the playfulness and the game, how that all fits into the ecosystem of reading support? So there's testing happening out of school, there's tutoring happening out of school and later in school. Why was it important to also layer in fun and games and family participation in this process?

Jacquelyn Davis: Yeah, the former superintendent, chancellor of the DC Public Schools, we call our title here, chancellor, Chancellor Henderson. Kaya Henderson speaks a lot about this, and she’s in our video on our Clever Noodle website, and you can see her talk about it, but she talks about play being a very powerful tool for children because it’s fun, because it lowers their anxiety. And so their entry point is much easier because they don’t feel a lot of anxiety. They stay engaged longer, and so they actually end up practicing longer. 

And that’s exactly what we saw with our son. He did not want to have anything to do with reading. He completely rejected it and he was so resistant. But playing a game? Oh, sure. Playing some really cool Go Fish, that’s all about reading, playing a version of a blend of Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders into one game? Oh, sure. And we played all the time and his skills were getting better and better and better because we played so many hours and he practiced so much. 

And at one point he says to me, “Mom, I know what you’re doing.” And I said, “Oh, what am I doing?” And he said, “You’re teaching me to read, but it’s okay because it’s fun.” So it was a way just to really hook him and engage him and build his hours of practice, build his time on task in a way that I wasn’t able to do with any other tools. 

The way games sit though more in a larger context than just my own home, my own child is one, any family can play them with their children. And I think as parents, were often looking for ways to play games and engage with our children in a social interactive way to get them offline because they’re all spending too much time online.

But also how can we be part of it? How can we play with our child and feel good that we’re helping them learn some skill while they’re playing with us? And it might be a strategy skill or it might be a reading skill. 

And so how do we have those games that we can purchase that we don’t have to be the expert, we don’t have to figure out the science of reading, but we can trust a brand to know they’ve figured out the science of reading. They’re committed to the science of reading and a hundred percent committed to it and won’t produce a game if it’s not aligned. And they’re a hundred percent committed to children’s play and fun. And so how can I as a parent then just go trust that and buy it and bring it home? 

In a classroom setting, there’s a different opportunity. We need the science of reading in classrooms with the right curriculum and the right teacher instruction. But beyond that, teachers need kids to practice and it’s a lot easier to send them into a station rotation where three of the stations are, go play a game. 

And when I tested this with hundreds of kids in schools, the kids loved it and the teachers said, “Oh my God, wait, can I have it now? Because I need this. My kids are engaged, they love the artwork, they love the gameplay, and they don’t want to leave, and I’m sending them back to class and they’re asking to stay. So how quickly can I get this?” So there’s a really important role both in the home and in the classroom to make learning fun and to really increase the practice that our children are getting.

Maya Smart: What you mentioned about the importance of aligned curriculum and also games that allow kids to practice skills independently. It's so important. And that's something where my views have evolved a bit. Early on, I was of the opinion that a really good teacher can use almost anything and teach these really critical, important lessons. And I think that's true if a teacher is well trained and understands the science of reading, really understands what goes into teaching kids and nuts and bolts of decoding and also building oral language and all of these things. But I've realized that if we're trying to get this to scale, if we're trying to make sure that every child really has a shot at becoming a reader, then we need to be able to support teachers with the right and curriculum. So that's definitely an area where I've evolved.

Jacquelyn Davis: Well, I think it’s also about teacher capacity and teacher time. We expect so much of our teachers, particularly during Covid and where we still are with Covid and all the challenges that that’s created for our children and our schools and how much disruption so many children across our country experienced. 

Teachers have so much on their plate. Having to work with a curriculum that isn’t a hundred percent aligned to the science of reading, with the phonemic awareness, the alphabet principles, and phonics built in and background knowledge puts teachers at a disadvantage and puts a burden on them, not just to do the social emotional stuff in the classroom, not just to build the relationships, not just to make sure they’re looking at every single student and knowing where that student is coming from and how to meet that student’s needs. Those are all really hard things to do as a teacher, how to manage your full classroom, how to set up the dynamics of a classroom, how to build the culture. Those are hard things to do. 

And so you need curriculum that’s reliable and validated that you can just use. And then yes, you’re going to modify some, and yes, you’re going to use your great teaching skill and your knowledge of your children to amend slightly or to adjust, but that’s where you should be spending your time and energy and building the relationships and talking to the parents outside of the classroom. And your time and energy should go there. And it should go to looking at student work and giving feedback, not to writing and designing curriculum. 

And so we really should be adopting validated strong curriculum in this country, and then teachers would have the freedom to do more of what they can do best. And we still need our teachers to be trained as well in how to deliver the science of reading.

Maya Smart: So I gave the example on a speaking engagement recently of some kindergartners entering not knowing any letters, some knowing many letters, some knowing not even the first letter of their first name. And, since using that example, there have been second-grade teachers in audiences who've said, "My second graders were virtual for kindergarten and much of first grade. And they're entering now not knowing any letters, not knowing how to hold a pencil, not knowing how to write their names." So it's an even heavier burden placed on teachers to meet the needs of all of their students when some students were fortunate to have parents or tutors or others who could help keep them on track. And then others are even farther behind.

Jacquelyn Davis: And I’ve seen this firsthand. So I tested our first game, which is called Kangaroo Cravings. I tested it across schools, in schools across the whole city of Washington, DC and I went to an independent school that had actually been in session almost all of Covid. They only had the spring of 2020 off, and then they went back in person in session September of 2020. So they were one of the first in the city to go back. 

And I tested the game, which is a high-frequency sight word game, with their second graders. And all of their second graders had out-developed the game. They had already developed all those skills and they didn’t need them. So then we went back and tested it at the same school with first graders, and about half of the first graders had developed out of that level of support and about half of them still needed it.

I then went to a public charter school that had been closed for a year and a half, and the kids had only been back in for a couple of months, and I sat down and tested it with the second graders. None of the second graders could play the game and knew developmentally with their reading on their reading journey, these skills. And so then we tested it with the third graders. 

So here you have us at the independent school that was almost in session the entire time, dropping down grades. And then with the public school that was closed for almost a year and a half, and the kids had just returned, we were testing it with the second graders and had to go up the grades. And so even at the third-grade level, only about half the kids had that reading skill developed and the other half still didn’t.

And I said to the teacher, “This is devastating.” And he said to me, “It is. And you don’t even know how bad it actually is. It’s so bad.” And so you just see the haves and the have-nots being further and further and further divided through this experience. It’s why we care so much about equity. It’s why we have two national partners that are our equity partners. 

So we have New Leaders, which is a national program that works with school leaders across the country, and that is enabling us to get games into 15 cities across the country that our backers on Kickstarter are donating the games. So we already have 350 games that will be donated for elementary schools in these 15 cities, all in low-income schools. And then we have another partner, which is the Black Alliance of Dyslexic Children, and we are partnering with them and they work directly with families.

And that way we’ll be able to get the games directly into households. So it’s an elementary school classroom strategy and a family strategy. 

And we wanted to make sure that we could begin to reach families that are often more marginalized and don’t have the same opportunity that I’ve discussed that we had as a family, that they too will have access to the game because the game should be played by everyone. It’s fun for all children, and we’ve tested it with all children. 

We’ve also tested it extensively with dyslexic children and children with other learning differences like ADHD to ensure that it works for all of them. And we’ve built special aspects and elements into the game to ensure it works for all children. And so that’s something I’m really proud of. My own son is dyslexic, and I wanted to make sure it worked for every dyslexic kid as well as it would work for a kid that was going to learn to read with effort, but still needing the same structured explicit literacy.

Maya Smart: So tell us a bit about the game, how it works and what kids can gain by playing it.

Jacquelyn Davis: So while the company is called Clever Noodle, our first game is called Kangaroo Cravings. And I’ll just show you really quickly. So this was our first version on the cardboard box from all of our Covid home deliveries that so many of us across the country were getting. And I created sort of a blend of Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, with a little path that the characters would go on all the way to the pizza to win the pizza at the end, because my son loves pizza. And during Covid every Friday night, we started pizza night. And so it felt like, okay, let’s race to the pizza. We’re all eating pizza all the time. 

And so that’s where the game started, and it’s now evolved into this board and I’m really excited. We worked with an amazing children’s book illustrator out of Bogota, Columbia to create the board, and we’ve tested it with, as I said, over a hundred children.

So we’ve also amended the board multiple times to get feedback from the children and ways in which it really works for them and it draws them in and ways in which it doesn’t. So one way we got feedback is we used to have, right toward the end, you would land on a bad spot and you’d have to go back four spaces. And the kids said, it’s just not fair. We’re so close to the end and you’re going to make us go back four spaces? Two. Two is maximum. So now it’s two because the kids really didn’t like it and they really didn’t think it was fair. And so we care so much about this being child-centered design and working for children that we made those adjustments. 

So the game itself is a high-frequency sight word game, and it’s critically important for children to become very familiar and recognize high-frequency words that appear very often in children’s early literature. And the more familiar the children get with those words, the higher fluency they build, the faster they can read. And so that’s really important because when you read more fluidly and with more fluency, your comprehension also picks up because you’re able to read the full sentence opposed to having it be all chopped up and you’re struggling with the words, and by the time you get to the period or the exclamation point, you have no idea what the words said anymore. You have to go back and reread it. 

So I’m going to show you some of the cards. There’s two kinds of words. There’s the high-frequency words that we want kids just to become so familiar with that they can spot them and they know them because they’ve practiced over and over and they can keep reading because they know the word. And then they’re what I call just the sight words, which means you literally have to memorize those words by sight, unfortunately, because those words break the rules, because it’s English and we have all these silly rules in English, and those words don’t follow the phonics patterns.

And so they break the rules and therefore you unfortunately just have to memorize them. Whereas the other rules, the other words, excuse me, words, you can learn by sounding them out and then eventually you still want them to become so familiar that they’re mapped to your brain. 

One example I always give because it helps everyone understand what I’m talking about, is the word done. The word done is spelled d-o-n-e. And if you understand phonics, you should pronounce it doh-n, because that is how that word is structured, but it’s not doh-n, it’s done. And so that’s a word that a child just has to memorize and map to their brain so that when they see it, they know it’s done and it’s not doh-n. 

And so what we’ve done in the card games, sorry, the cards that are part of the game is we’ve created cards that are in black with the sight or high-frequency word here.

And that signals to a child and the adults that you can actually decode this word. You can sound it out and learn it, and then you can map it to your brain by lots of practice. But if it’s a red word at the top, it’s a flag. This is one of those words that breaks the rules and you’re just going to have to memorize it over time. And so we differentiate between the words you can learn by sounding them out, and then lots of practice to read more fluently, and the words that you can’t sound out and you just have to learn them. And so we help children understand the difference. 

And then the other thing we do is in each one of the cards, we break down the sounds of the letters and we help the children know, are those sounds that are the regular sound patterns, or are those sounds that are not. So this letter, this W letter is the right sound, it sounds like it’s supposed to, but then the next two letters don’t, so that’s the only awkward part of that word, but that W does sound like what you’re used to it sounding like. And it does sound the way you expect. So you’re also helping children know when to use what they know and when to recognize, oh, this is not the regular rule that I know, this is going to be different. 

And then every one of our cards has one of our seven multi-sensory actions, and we have a little cheat sheet card to help the adults teach the children the actions so they don’t have to read anything more than the one word. And then the action tells them what they’re going to do in a multi-sensory way to help this word come into their body, to kinesthetically experience this word. And so this one is the little kangaroo tapping out the letters on his or her arm. This one is the kangaroo stomping her big foot. And so she’s stomping the letters of the word. Then she’s stomping the letters of the word again, and then she’s stomping the whole word.

This one is she’s doing them on her fingers, she’s doing the first letter, the second letter, the third letter on her fingers, saying the full word, doing it again. So working on learning those letters and then saying the full word. So they start to connect for a child and they get much more practice, but with ways that are multi-sensory and movement. It also helps an, it helps an ADHD child also stay more engaged. 

The arrow is the number of spaces they move. So it’s randomized In the cards, there’s also three decks of cards. So there’s the first level, the second level, and the third level. And it increases in difficulty as children master one set and they move to the next set and then they move to the final set.

Maya Smart: And how would you describe the main benefits of the game and over what period of time to see if it's having an impact?

Jacquelyn Davis: Most children within three months of playing it, they’ll master a small subset of the words as they go. And so, in the instructions it says to the educators and the parents, you might want to just start with 20 of the cards in the first deck, and you might want to go over the words with the children at least one or two times just helping them recognize them. 

But unlike flashcards where you just drill and kill and drill and kill, instead you review, you help children get some understanding and some learning, but it’s so basic they probably won’t remember it. And then you start playing and we suggest you play with a small batch until the kid gets more comfortable and learns more. And then you can move on to a bigger batch. And eventually you’ll go to level two and level three. 

And so many kids do then learn all these words, all these high-frequency sight words, there’s 300 of them included in the game, they learn them in three to four months. Some learn them a bit faster and some much longer. So every child develops a little bit differently. But I would say three to four months is where most kids, if they’re playing the game regularly, if they’re not, it will take longer. You also can reinforce it in school obviously, and a teacher can pull apart batches of cards and make sure the cards match her scope and sequence of what she’s teaching children when. So it can really reinforce and help children. 

And then the characters are really cute. There are these different kangaroos that are, I don’t know if you can see these, but these different little kangaroos and this kangaroo is actually being amended because a lot of the children don’t like it. They think it’s boring. So there’s some writing on that to fix it.

And then there are two ways to play the game. You can play it competitively against your other kangaroos to the race, to the pizza and win, or you can play it cooperatively. And so all the children become a team and they play against the raccoon. And this is another really important aspect of the game because for some children who are just starting out competing feels really intimidating. And the last thing we want to be is intimidating to children. 

We want Kangaroo Cravings to be fun for every child, and we want them to lower their anxiety and want to be engaged in it. And so if a child’s going to do better or a group of children are going to do better with collaborative play, then you start there. If children want to compete, then you start there, but you have the flexibility. 

It also gives a parent the flexibility for a mom to put her kid in the game and say, you’re going to play cooperatively against this kangaroo, I’m sorry, with your kangaroo against this raccoon, and I’m going to go stand here and cook dinner and I’m going to watch you play, but I’ll be right here and I’m going to cook dinner and you’re going to play.

And so as a mom who’s a working mom with a husband who also works a lot, I’m always trying to find ways that I can make sure my child is doing something wonderful and engaging and useful and educational and not on the screen while I do 12 other things. So I really thought about that in the development to see how could we make sure a working mom or a working dad who’s doing other things and is busy could also enable their child to play.

Maya Smart: Thank you so much for sharing your story and your game with us. In Reading for Our Lives, I talk about six big ways that parents can have an impact on their child's reading trajectory. And I talk about the importance of back-and-forth conversations, talking, and shared reading, and teaching, but also budgeting, connecting and advocating. And I think your story is one really of a parent taking ownership of teaching and finding a fun way to do it, because when we teach our kids one-on-one or in small groups at home, it doesn't have to look the way that things typically look in classrooms. So I love what you've created and I love the example of advocacy that you've shared with parents. This idea that trust your gut. If you feel there is something going on with your child that needs greater attention, scrutiny within schools, push to get that attention, testing, support however you can. So any final words for our listeners?

Jacquelyn Davis: Because so many of us are trying to get our children offline, playing a game, playing Kangaroo Cravings and the suite that we will build out for parents over near term, playing these games that we will produce through Clever Noodle will give you a chance to not only have your child learn, but will give you a chance to engage with your child and do something. 

Games are a democratizing play thing because you’re all equal, you’re all in the same context, you’re all playing together, you’re all laughing and enjoying. And so it really does bring teachers and kids together, teachers in a classroom together, children in a classroom together, children with their families at home. It’s really a social engagement so that the learning becomes really active, but it also becomes really fun. 

And so we say Clever Noodle is a seriously fun, surprisingly educational, learn-to-read game company. And we’re tabletop because we want kids offline and actively learning and engaging with other people so they build their social skills too. Thank you so much, Maya. I love your book. I recommend it highly to other families and to teachers and to pediatricians, and it’s helped me and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. And thank you so much for your time today.

Maya Smart: Thank you so much.

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