• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 17th February, 2014

Which children are set to benefit most from preventative interventions?

strong>Play, reading, and storytelling help children learn. Knowing which groups in society are less likely to engage in these activities could help target preventative programs that promote reading and play.Children are shaped in part by their environment. A home full of communication and language – through play, reading books, and telling stories – gives young children a chance to develop intellectually and socially. However, some homes are richer in language than others. A new study that aims to describe how often mothers play, read, and tell stories with their children finds “significant inequalities” between different demographic groups. What are 14,000 children doing with their time?This study by London-based researchers used data from the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Survey to explore how often mothers played and read with their five-year-old children according to social and demographic factors. The survey contains contemporary information on more than 14,000 children born in 2000-2002. It is unusual because unlike previous studies it examined playing, reading, and telling stories as separate entities.Overall, only half of mothers said they read to their five-year-olds every day. Less than a quarter said they played with their child every day, and 13% said they told stories every day.Weekly averages were much higher. Among all mothers, 95% reported reading, 85% playing, and 57% telling stories at least once a week. In every case, socially advantaged groups reported reading and playing with their children at a higher rate than less advantaged groups. Mothers with degrees were somewhat more likely to read to their child at least once a week than those with GCSEs (98.6% vs. 95%). Women with professional jobs were similarly more likely to read (98%) than those with routine occupations (93%). White mothers were more likely to report reading with their child than Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black mothers. Mothers with partners were more likely to read than lone mothers. Similar demographic patterns applied to reports of playing with children. The patterns were different for storytelling, however – and in some cases were just the opposite. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black mothers were all more likely than White mothers to say they told stories to their children at least once a week (56 to 62% for the minority groups, compared to 54% for whites). Women who never worked or were unemployed were as likely to tell stories as were professional women. Lone mothers were as likely as those with partners to report telling stories to their child. LimitationsThis study has several important limits. First, it can be difficult to define concepts like “play” or “storytelling,” and different mothers may mean different things when they use these words. Second, mothers who are asked how often they engage in these activities may give an answer they feel they ought to, a phenomenon called “social desirability bias.” An alternative method is to ask people to complete diaries of how they spend their time.Third, this study explores how mothers spend their time with children, but it does not reveal how children spend their time with other carers. Some under-fives spend a great deal of time with other family members or babysitters or in center-based care. They may spend more time reading, playing, and hearing stories in those contexts. Finally, this study highlights that there are inequalities in parent-child interactions, but further research is necessary in order to explore the reasons. When mothers and fathers spend little time reading, playing, and telling stories with their children, is this because they are pressed for time or because they don’t enjoy or value these activities? How can we use this information?Targeted prevention programs can give children and families a boost. But they can be expensive to deliver, so there is an incentive to make sure they reach the children who will benefit most. Established programs such as Bookstart and Surestart are used in the UK to encourage parents to read with and play with their children. Because they are designed to benefit “less active readers,” information from this and similar studies could help to identify groups that may benefit from these interventions. Further research could explore whether they are appropriate programs for ethnic minority families, where there may be additional language and cultural issues to consider.In addition, the groups that were most likely to report reading and playing with their children were rarely the groups most likely to report telling stories to them. Given these differences, it is worth noting that communication and language learning may take different forms in different homes. But the current economic climate may make it difficult to put these findings to work to target UK families that would benefit from programs promoting language learning. Today, budget cuts are threatening schemes such as Bookstart as libraries and Surestart centers close around the country. This development, the authors argue, “may serve to widen existing disparities in children’s developmental and educational outcomes.” ReferenceChild: Care, Health and Development. doi:10.1111/cch.12090

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Prevention Action is an online news publication reporting internationally on innovation and effectiveness among programs for improving children's health and development. Prevention Action is primarily concerned with efforts to prevent or address impairments to children's health or development… Read more


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