Wonder Words

Case study:

Behaviour change

How can Save the Children support parents to talk, sing and play more with their children from birth?

Children born into low-income families hear up to 30m fewer words than those born into middle class families. This ‘word gap’ – i.e. lack of exposure to vocabulary in the first three years of their life, affects their language skills and social development and, by the time they start school, it’s too late to catch up.
Parents can reduce this word gap by:
  • Increasing the quantity of words spoken
  • Increasing their responsiveness to baby - use eye contact when changing, play peekaboo, make noises back at the baby
  • Increasing use of 'contingent talk' when interacting with their children
  • Doing more 'expansive talk' - repeating back what the child says and expanding on their use of words

We took three approaches to overcome this:


We tested a range of everyday ‘nudges’ to make it easier and more attractive for parents to talk, sing & play with their children.

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Open Innovation

We challenged the design sector to explore what changes to the home environment could help a child’s language development.

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We put a group of East Belfast mums in the driving seat of campaign development.

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Life Moments

Timely awareness:
Will putting messages on pregnancy scan photo frames drive people to find out more about talking with their child?


Consumer products:
Will motivational messages on baby products such as bibs, changing mats and babygrows encourage parents to talk, sing and play more with their baby?


Using technology:
Can a friendly chatbot get parents talking and interacting more with children as they carry out their household chores?

Our process:


Gathered insights from audience research, an evidence review and consultation with experts then designed a range of prototypes.


Rapidly developed the prototypes, tested with small numbers of families across UK and gathered feedback.


Improved the prototypes, carried out observed testing in the field and scaled up number of products and families.

Open Innovation Design challenge

Our question

If our environments influence the way we feel and behave, how can the home environment affect a child’s language development?

Our invitation

We invited designers, innovators, social housing reps and architects to a one-day innovation event to explore what design changes could improve the cramped, chaotic & complex environments thousands of children in poverty grow up in. How might small tweaks to a room stimulate more child-parent interactions? What innovative products could encourage better use of space?

‘Time to talk’

With the likes of David Halpern (Behavioural insights team), Oliver Marlow (Tilt Studios), Design Council and LGA in the room, ideas from the event included a sofa that transformed into a play space, having a ‘time to talk’ chair and designing in play space to all new builds.

Campaign Co-Design

With thanks to Jason Swain Photography who has given permission for this photograph to be used for promoting and developing the campaign. Image © Jason Swain Photography

Make it a priority

Save the children wanted to discover ‘What happens if you put families in the driving seat of the campaign development?’

Make it collaborative

Over the course of ten weeks, we worked with a group of mums at a Sure Start centre in East Belfast to examine the different aspects of the singing/talking/playing challenge and how it relates to their own lives.

Make it relevant

What’s relevant? What’s not? What makes them sit up and pay attention? What inspires them or irritates them? What’s going to reach them and how’s it going to really change behaviours in the real world?

Make it resonate

Putting these mums at the heart of the campaign’s design and development helped us create something richer, more salient, and much more likely to resonate with other parents.


  • Two out of four interventions showed positive signs of increasing the amount that parents talk, sing and play with their children.
  • Demonstrated the power of motivational messaging applied to baby paraphernalia was (a) behaviourally impactful, and (b) popular with parents and the items had the potential to be viable consumer products.
  • Proved chatbots are effective at engaging this audience, content deployed through chatbots can be behaviourally impactful, and worked out how to convert Facebook users into chatbot users.
  • Forged new relationships with strategic partners, for example the Behavioural Insights Team and major players in the design sector.
  • Helped Save the Children’s innovation team adopt a new, agile way of working.
  • Attracted third-party backing for further Wonder Words development with a six-figure donation from Johnson & Johnson and a multi-year partnership with a high street retailer.
  • In Belfast the campaign is going from strength to strength. The Co-design work lead to a partnership with Belfast’s Health and Social Care Trust and is being more widely supported by the NI government.
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