Vanessa Lee Abraham at a Smile Inside workshop at the Northside Marketplace in December 2018. (Photo: Ilenia Pezzaniti)

Akron-based Smile Inside makes games that teach kids to manage emotions

words by Rosalie Murphy, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Vanessa Lee Abraham started keeping a journal when she was about 14 years old. What she wrote down then continues to inspire her work today.

Vanessa is the owner of Smile Inside, a business where she creates products to help kids and teens enhance their social and emotional literacy.

“I was extremely inspired when I was a teenager,” Vanessa says. “I was lucky enough to be chosen to go to a couple of camps, and then I started getting involved in leadership. We would do retreats, and there was a lot of bonding… and personal development. I found those activities to be more valuable than anything I was learning in school.”

Vanessa Lee Abraham at a Smile Inside workshop at the Northside Marketplace in December 2018. (Photo: Ilenia Pezzaniti)

In ninth grade, Vanessa took a humanities course that focused on learning about herself and how she related to the world. She wrote down “every activity I thought was a gem, ones that really, truly had an impact on me. I continued my education to become a teacher, and continued to research and trial activities, learn, revise, rewrite, and then put it into the form of a curriculum.”

Vanessa earned her B.S. in Education from Ohio University in 1995.  A few years later, she moved to Australia, where she lived and worked for 16 years.

She designed and facilitated camps and workshops based on social and emotional learning, worked in student welfare at a high school and became a yoga instructor on the side.

Around 2006, she turned Smile Inside into a business and became a private consultant, trainer and facilitator.

She moved back to Akron, her hometown, about three years ago, and is working on establishing a network here. She recently made Smile Inside products available at the Northside Marketplace.

A card and dice game called “Feel in the Blanks” is for sale. So are two 150-activity Smile Inside handbooks, one for middle schoolers and one for ninth graders.

Coming in 2019 is the CODE Book, an activity book for kids between the ages of 5 and 12, that helps them track and reach their own goals. Both are designed to help kids reflect on the way they’re feeling, name their emotions and learn how to live with them. 

A Smile Inside workshop at the Northside Marketplace in December 2018. (Photo: Ilenia Pezzaniti)

Emotional literacy is necessary, Vanessa says, for young people to understand “the stuff that’s going on inside of you and what to do with it and how to resolve it and how to cope with it… Having social and emotional skills, especially at a young age, expands your capacity to be able to learn.”

She adds, “We still are learning about these things as adults, so you can imagine what it’s like to be a child who is just struggling to understand why somebody is being cruel to them at recess.”

Vanessa designed the shelf-ready version of the CODE Book after participating in I-Corps at the University of Akron, where she did extensive customer research to understand what teachers and counselors need. She learned, for instance, that many don’t have access to color printers, so they’d prefer hard copy activity books.

The best part of being an entrepreneur is deciding what she wants to work on and setting her own schedule, Vanessa says. The hardest part is asking for help in the “things I’m just not very good at,” whether it’s in bookkeeping, creating her visual display or marketing her products.

Smile Inside’s next big challenge is to partner with a researcher to better understand how the activities Vanessa has designed are impacting the way kids learn. Scientific data is necessary for recognition from the body that governs social and emotional learning in the U.S., Vanessa says.

In the meantime, anyone who works with kids or teens can purchase a Smile Inside game and use it in classroom, at an after-school program, or at home.

“I really think that, if we build better people, we’re building a better world,” Vanessa says. “Building a better person has many different definitions, but we need to be capable, and if we feel capable that we can set goals and achieve goals, then I think we’re on the right track.”

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.

This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.