MDRC in the News
New Findings on How Parents Can Support Prekindergartners’ Learning at Home
Developmental Psychology recently posted an article, “Time Well Spent: Home Learning Activities and Gains in Children’s Academic Skills in the Prekindergarten Year,” by Meghan McCormick, Amanda Ketner Weissman, Christina Weiland, JoAnn Hsueh, Jason Sachs, and Catherine Snow, that offers new findings from MDRC’s Expanding Children’s Early Learning project in Boston. Using a rich dataset with parent reports of home learning activities and direct assessments of children’s math and language skills, the study examines the extent to which parents of children enrolled in the Boston Public Schools prekindergarten program report engaging in home learning activities to support children’s constrained and unconstrained language/literacy and math skills and how those activities predicted gains in all students’ — and particularly low-income students’ — academic skills during prekindergarten.
In the paper, the authors define constrained skills as those competencies that can be directly taught and assessed. These skills are typically mastered by most children in early elementary school and include letter and word knowledge, counting, and basic arithmetic. In contrast, unconstrained skills include the vocabulary knowledge, deeper understanding, and problem-solving skills that develop more gradually over time, are more complex to assess, and are essential to making academic progress and to functioning in a complex, information-rich world. Parents support constrained skills when they spend time doing things like directly teaching letters and numbers or asking close-ended fact-based questions. Parents support unconstrained skills when they engage in activities like shared book reading, reading books with numbers and shapes, playing with puzzles and blocks, and telling stories. In this study, the authors found that:
- Unconstrained language activities (e.g., book reading, storytelling, defining/discussing new words) predicted gains in children’s language skills during prekindergarten, over and above constrained literacy/language activities.
- Unconstrained math activities (e.g., playing with blocks and puzzles, reading books involving numbers and shapes) predicted gains in math skills during prekindergarten, over and above constrained math activities.
- These associations were larger for children whose parents had not completed a four-year college degree.
- After controlling for time spent supporting unconstrained skills, parental time spent on activities to support constrained skills (e.g., directly teaching letters, parts of a book, numbers, basic arithmetic) did not predict gains in children’s skills during the year they were enrolled in a formal prekindergarten program.
With limited time for parents to engage in at-home learning activities during the school year when children are enrolled in prekindergarten, these study results suggest added value in engaging young children in rich discussions and play-based activities with open-ended manipulatives like blocks and puzzles, over and above directly teaching children literacy and math skills. This may be particularly true in families where parents have lower levels of education. If children are not enrolled in a prekindergarten program that is working to support their constrained skills, however, it may be important for parents to engage in complementary activities at home that support both types of skills.
“These findings suggest that parents don’t need to be formal teachers to help their prekindergartners develop academic skills — storytelling and reading and playing together can make a difference,” said MDRC’s Meghan McCormick, lead author of the paper. “Busy parents with increasingly limited time may find this particularly encouraging because these are activities that can be integrated into many parts of the day and don’t require formal lessons or planning.”