PROVO — Tonight, it's 7-year-old John's turn to ride Daddy's back because he was the quietest as they gathered their toys and got ready for bed. So they're kissing the day goodnight sprawled on Shawn Colloton's bed as he reads "Tops and Bottoms." Kelsey, 5, and Rebekah, 4, are nestled raptly against his sides, John draped over his shoulder. Jack, 2, is restless, more anxious to buzz the room and gather the books he hopes Daddy will read next.

As Colloton voices different Southern drawls for the hare and the bear in the story, he's claiming his me-time with his young brood. But he's also helping build kids who will test better in math and reading when they reach fifth grade. That's a happy side effect of the imaginative play in which he and his wife, Linda, engage even baby Joe, who's just 1.

More than play

How parents play with their children matters. In a study that spanned 15 years, researchers at Utah State University have demonstrated a positive connection between how parents play with toddlers and the children's future academic success. They started in 1996 with the U.S. Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, which looked at 229 low-income families with kids at age 2 and again at 3, before circling back to see how they did in reading and math in fifth grade. They found a correlation between the early parent-child interactions and later academic achievement.

The results, says Gina Cook, research assistant professor in the Family Consumer and Human Development Department at USU, document the particular importance of two things: how crucial certain kinds of play are to a child's future and playtime with both mom and dad. Most research has focused on interactions with moms. They found dads are very important, too, she says.

The best results came when both father and mother were involved in more stimulating activities during play, like encouraging children in pretend play or engaging them using books with bigger vocabulary words or asking open-ended questions related to outside experiences that the children had and could discuss.

Nuts and bolts

Trained coders looked at video of 15-minute parent-child interactions with books and toys. They looked for cognitive stimulation, for warmth and sensitivity, for all kinds of things, in fact, Cook says. Among other things, they found that when a biological father is a resident in the home, moms teach their children more.

They found that the children of those moms that engage in higher-level play did better in fifth grade reading and math than children who didn't have biological dads at home. When dad lived there, mom was able to do more of that higher-level learning, Cook says. That's what made the difference.

"Interestingly, when the biological father is living with the mother and child, mothers provide more cognitive stimulation to their toddlers, but it is the fathers in only these families who really add something more to their children's early environments," says Cook. "It is important for parents to engage with their children during the vital, early stages of brain development, because that early exposure to cognitive stimulation with both mothers and fathers can have a long-lasting and positive influence on the educational success of at-risk children.

"Parents need to be engaged and involved in pushing and asking questions," she says. "They need to do more than just be there. Talk and interact with kids and push the kids to a higher level with questions and good conversation. Fathers are important to that."

Tailored to the toddlers

Linda Colloton is a full-time mom right now who indulges her limited spare time in playwrighting and screenwriting and other creative pursuits. Her husband, Shawn, is a graphic designer and illustrator. With both parents drawn to the imaginative and creative, it's no surprise that her approach to parenting is hands-on and engaging.

She says they do all kinds of things, like making clean-up time — the folding clothes and making beds — into a game or activity with Mary Poppins-like appeal. Kelsey and Rebekah love princesses and cutting out little paper purses and filling them with bits of homemade paper money. They like to play store, too, and Mom and Dad are part of all of that.

Jack, 2, likes to build his wooden train with help from Mom and Dad. Joe, who they call "Baby Godzilla" because he destroys everything, would eat the train tracks if his parents didn't help Jack build them and curb the baby.

And the eldest, John, is perhaps the most imaginative of all. He will take any object and make it whatever he wants it to be at that moment in time, his mom says. So a rocket or superhero might become an airplane, although it's highly unlikely he'll use an airplane as an airplane. "He doesn't like to play with toys as they really are," and that's all right with her.

Are they deliberately building good readers and math students? Partly. They want their kids to do well in school. But they're more interested in making sure the kids know "we will play with them on whatever level they need," Linda Colloton says. "If they want to color, we will do that. They don't have to play with dolls like Barbie because they're the right age for it if they don't want to. And it carries over into education. Not everyone is a math or science person. If Kelsey wants to do fashion design and art, we will help her become that. We will not force her into being something else."

Purposeful play

Playtime's not only fun, but where the family builds "trust and confidence in her parents because they helped her that way when she was young and she will know as she gets older that we will help her meet her needs," Linda Colloton says.

The study builds on a body of research spanning organizations that shows the effects of different types of play and the importance of parent-child play that is creative and open-ended.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, put out a fact sheet using the example of 30-month old Anthony, who wants to build a castle with his mom. When they're nearly done, he starts taking it apart and setting the blocks in a straight line, which she doesn't get. When she asks him what he's doing, he tells her he's building a path so the dragons can find their way to the castle.

It shows, the academy says, "how all areas of Anthony's development are linked and how his mother's response encourages his healthy development." The fact that she lets him direct the play encourages his creativity and imagination, the group notes, "two very important aspects of overall healthy development."

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