Playing with parents: Early parent-child activities help academic achievement later

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Shawn Colloton reads to his kids John, Kelsey, Rebekah and Jack at their home.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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