Every night, thousands of kids go to sleep listening to the calming voice of Ryan and his furry friend, Cool Koala. To understand what makes Cool Koala effective in teaching coping strategies for anxiety and self-regulation for kids with ADHD parenting blogger Emily Maresca, of Momsense, sat with the two founders, Ryan Judd and Misha Feigenson for a chat.
Let's start with you, Ryan. From music therapist, to a Billboard Top 10 recording artist, to a meditation teacher? Can you describe your journey so far?
RJ: It has been an amazing ride! Music has held a profound significance in my life, serving as a powerful tool for unlocking my emotions and allowing me to express the full range of human feelings. Whether I am feeling happy, sad, angry, or nostalgic, music has the ability to resonate with me in a way that few other things can. In addition to being blessed with music, I feel so fortunate to have had the education, opportunities and mentorship that have helped me along my path. One of the pivotal moments that helped this come to fruition was discovering the music therapy and counseling psychology program at a wonderful school called Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. This remarkable institution is renowned for its contemplative education and offered me not only a comprehensive education in music therapy but also an immersive experience in meditation and mindfulness.
Misha, your career is no less fascinating. From professional musician, to physicist with a PhD in Nanotechnology, to a creator of one of the most popular baby sleep apps? Talking in physics terms, it seems like your pendulum has a large amplitude. Tell us about yourself.
MF: That's true. From a very young age I wanted to become a professional musician. My instruments were violin and viola. In my early twenties, however, I had an actual career crisis. I was always an independent person and wanted to do my own thing; more and more, playing in the orchestra felt limiting to me. My act of rebellion was to run as far from music as I could (I should note that music is still a big part of my life today, but not as a profession.) In those days it seemed to me that physics would be a worthy destination, but of course, it wasn't an easy journey. For starters, I had to fill in all the missing classes of math and science, which I had skipped out of in school, because of my love of music. To prove to myself that the whole transition was not in vain, I felt that I had to go all the way to doctorate, which I eventually did. I did not become a distinguished scientist, but university campus is where I first met my wife, Miriam. But perhaps this is another story (like our kids say - TMI ;). Fast forward ten years, when our first son was born, we were desperately looking for ways to keep our newborn calm and happy and…sleeping through the night! I decided to use my programming skills and build an app, which played calming white noise sounds and gave us sleep statistics we needed. My favorite feature though was the one which would identify the sound of the crying baby in the middle of the night and start soothing our son by itself, so we could continue sleeping. Miriam's father came up with a great name - Sound Sleeper. Sound Sleeper turned out to be very helpful not only to us, but to many parents around the world. In fact, within a few years it became one of the most popular baby sleep apps in the App Store (by now Sound Sleeper has close to six million downloads.) I finally felt that I was ready to start my independent career. I left my job in physics and started my own software development company.
Tell us how you guys met and how the idea for Cool Koala was born?
MF: Our partnership started about six years ago. At that time, I was looking to bring a variety of types of relaxing music to Sound Sleeper. I loved Ryan's music very much and was happy when he agreed to license it to me to use it in the app. Fast forward five years, in the middle of the COVID lockdown with four kids, I was desperate in search of tools to help them relax and de-stress. After looking into several options on YouTube and not being satisfied with the results, I happened to check Ryan's channel and found that he had recently released a few meditations for children. I listened to them together with my kids and we were simply enchanted. Ryan's calming voice, his gentle guitar stroke, his meaningful and wise words - not only did these techniques bring calmness and relaxation to my family, but in them, Ryan also taught practical skills that we could all use to control our emotions and feel better.
My kids clamored to listen to these meditations again and again. I felt that they were learning very important skills, and I wanted to bring this type of extraordinary content to more people in a more accessible way. I talked to Ryan, proposing that we create a mobile app, and he loved the idea. That is how we decided to work together on creating Cool Koala.
RJ: When Misha approached me about creating an app for guided children's meditations, I was instantly captivated by the concept. Despite realizing that it would entail a great deal of effort, I was deeply motivated by the idea of utilizing my talents to help children in need. The timing of the project seemed almost too perfect, and the journey of composing, recording, and producing these meditations has been both enriching and gratifying. Witnessing the final result of the entire project has been an immensely fulfilling experience for me!
Cool Koala is a lot more than just putting kids to sleep, isn't it? What is the philosophy behind the creation of the app?
RJ: It is definitely more than just a sleep app! Our nightly guided meditations serve as a powerful tool for teaching vital social-emotional skills to children. Through our program, children learn valuable techniques that help them release frustration, anger, and worry. Additionally, we equip them with inner resources such as breathwork for relaxation and anxiety relief, as well as progressive muscle relaxation techniques to calm their bodies. Our app also promotes the development of compassion and gratitude in children.
Meditation has recently become a buzzword. It seems like everybody is either meditating or building a meditation app. How do you set yourself apart from your competitors?
MF: That's true. In the past five-seven years, meditation has become a common tool to help many of us recharge and deal with the fast pace of life. The rise of meditation apps like Calm, Headspace and hundreds of others helped popularize this important movement. However, the audience of these apps are mostly adults and teens. The scene of quality meditation apps for kids remains mostly untapped, despite the growing need. Kids need tools and techniques to help them heal the effects of the pandemic and also balance the mental health damages caused by excessive use of devices.
Three things set Cool Koala apart from its competitors: 1) Our content is specifically geared towards ages 5-10. In addition to helping kids fall asleep, it focuses on equipping them with practical tools to help them deal with worries, anger and frustration; 2) Every night Cool Koala features one single - completely new - meditation and in this way prevents unnecessary negotiations at bedtime and reduces decision fatigue; 3) Cool Koala is completely screen-free, meaning nothing is happening on the screen during the meditation. Not only is this very important during bedtime, but not adding additional screen time to the kids is part of our core belief.
The pandemic has taken a toll on children’s mental health. Medical professionals often talk about anxiety and the ADHD crisis. How can Cool Koala help?
RJ: It all starts with sleep! By helping kids settle down and fall asleep easily, we are helping their bodies and minds be strong during the waking hours. The addition of the anxiety reduction and self-regulation skills we teach through the meditations make Cool Koala the perfect addition to the nighttime routine of a child with ADHD and/or Anxiety.
You recently announced support of nonprofits like Make-a-Wish and Lucy's Love Bus. What other initiatives will you be introducing in the coming year?
RJ: Yes, it’s an honor to partner with nonprofits who help children with life threatening illnesses. Through these partnerships, we provide our app free of charge for these kids. Our aim is to expand our collaborations with organizations that cater to children's needs. This altruistic approach is a fundamental pillar of our mission, and we take great pride in our community outreach efforts. We are delighted to offer our assistance in any way possible.
With less than a year since the release of the app, what feedback do you receive from parents?
MF: When we first released the app, we had no idea that it would be used during bedtime. We looked at our statistics and were surprised to see that the majority of our users used the app during the evening hours. After talking to parents, it became clear that all of them used Cool Koala to help their kids fall asleep. Following this realization, we redesigned the app completely to gear its content and functionality specifically towards bedtime.
It is an amazing satisfaction, to hear and read accounts of parents who are thrilled to see their kids getting to bed, and falling asleep, more easily, and also learning important skills which help them manage their emotions. Not only that, but we have also recently been grateful to receive several significant endorsements from child psychologists, who recommend Cool Koala to children and their families.
What is your vision for Cool Koala?
RJ: Our ultimate goal is to make Cool Koala an invaluable resource for millions of children and families worldwide who are grappling with the difficulties of ADHD and Anxiety. Having personally experienced the impact of these challenges, I am passionate about bringing a ray of hope, comfort, and respite to those in need. My vision is to make a positive difference in the lives of as many individuals as possible.
Ryan, before we go, can you give parents a few techniques to help their energetic little ones to relax?
RJ: Sure, I'd be happy to share some relaxation techniques with you. However, it's important to note that timing plays a crucial role in teaching skills to children. It's not advisable to instruct a child when they are upset, anxious, or agitated. Instead, it's best to introduce and practice skills when the child is most receptive, such as when they have settled down for the night or when you have their undivided attention, like during a car ride. One technique that's particularly effective is called progressive muscle relaxation. It involves contracting and releasing different muscle groups in the body. For example, a simple way to begin is by making tight fists during a slow inhale and then relaxing the hands on the exhale. To reap the full benefits of this technique, you can progress to other muscle groups, such as the shoulders, legs, and face. In the Cool Koala meditations, I guide a few progressive muscle relaxation exercises, which you may find helpful.