The home environment powerfully shapes how children develop language and cognitive abilities. Research has identified three important features of the home environment that influence children’s abilities in the first three years of life:
- Participation in learning activities with parents, including book reading, storytelling, and playing counting and board games.
- The quality of parent-child interactions. If parents are responsive and sensitive, and provide rich language input (for example, naming and describing objects, events and actions), children develop better language skills.
- The availability of learning materials in the home, including children’s books, toys that encourage imaginative play (such as, toy telephones, tea sets), and toys that encourage fine motor skills and spatial cognition (such as blocks and puzzles).
These three features are important irrespective of different parenting styles that are known to exist between different ethnic groups.
We wanted to go further and ask whether the home learning environment in the first years of life contributes to children’s academic performance up to 10 years later, at the age of 10-11. To do so, we followed an ethnically diverse group of 2,204 low-income families, drawn from an evaluation study of Early Head Start in the USA that started in the late 1990s.
We used various standardised measures during home visits in the child’s first three years, including filming and coding the quality of mother-child play interactions involving age-appropriate toys, such as animal sets, cooking sets, cash register and grocery items, cookie cutter and rolling pin, and Play-Doh. When the child was 10-11 (in fifth grade), we carried out tests on language, reading, and math. We also interviewed mothers extensively about their children’s engagement in learning activities such as book reading, and their access to various learning materials.
We found a strong correlation between the early home learning environment and language, literacy and math skills when the child was 10-11. These associations were the same for all ethnic groups.
We also measured children’s language and cognitive skills on entering school at age 4. We found that the home learning environment explained children’s scores on these early abilities, and thus gave children the foundational skills required to do well in school at age 10-11. Children’s language and cognitive skills at preschool age accounted for 91% of the correlation between the early home learning environment and their abilities at age 10-11.
Finally, we measured the home learning environment when the child was 10-11, again using standardised measures, replacing the mother-child play activity with a discussion task. We found that a child who starts with a good home learning environment is likely to have a positive learning environment throughout childhood. The later home learning environment accounted for 9% of the correlation between the early home learning environment and abilities at age 10-11.
Our research highlights how important the early home learning environment is. Growing up in poverty has been shown to diminish home learning assets—which is one reason children growing up in poverty are likely to lag behind in language and cognitive skills. Supporting the home learning environment during the first years is a way to mitigate the long-term disadvantages of early poverty for children’s long-term prospects.
We should note that we observed only correlations. Causation could work both ways. For example, a more able and communicative child may elicit more responsiveness from parents.
One theory to explain the link between early experiences and later academic ability is a “cascade model” – if children develop early language and cognitive skills, then they will learn and develop faster throughout all of their childhood. Children with better vocabularies process new information faster, learn new words faster and learn to read faster. Their IQs are likely to be higher.
Header photo: J Jongsma. Creative Commons.