While reading books to your toddler and playing "pretend" may not seem like super exciting activities to most parents, new research published in the journal Pediatrics clearly shows that engaging in these activities when your kids are little can lead to huge, surprising payoffs when they enter school. And we're not just talking literacy here.
For the study, titled "Reading Aloud, Play, and Social-Emotional Development," researchers videotaped one group of families’ interactions while reading and playing with their young children—babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Then, the researchers reviewed the videos and provided positive feedback and reinforcement on the interactions. The other group didn’t get any instruction or reinforcement on how to interact with their kids. When the researchers followed up with the kids a year-and-a-half after the study, they found that the kids in the intervention group were less hyperactive and had better social skills than the kids in the other group.
“This study showed that when parents read and play and talk and teach their children, even during the first three years, there are long-standing and large effects that include improved behaviour when they enter school,” says Alan Mendelsohn, associate professor of pediatrics and population at the New York University School of Medicine. “This includes better attention, better capacity to sit still and better capacity to engage their peers and teachers. All of that is really important because when children can sit still and engage with others, they can learn better.”
So just what it is about reading and pretend play that helps a kid learn to sit still and listen? First, they both facilitate conversation. “That back and forth language and communication is so important as they begin to use words, and begin to use words to describe their feelings,” says Mendelsohn. “In learning about language and about feelings, kids can begin to internalize that language and use it for themselves.” The idea is that by the time a kid gets to school, he may get angry by another child’s behaviour, but he won’t get up and hit him.
But it’s also about quality time. “People often think that if a child has a behaviour problem, you have to find a way to discipline that problem. But a three-year-old is probably exhibiting a normal behaviour, like hitting, and the key to addressing those behaviours is probably more in building relationships between the parents and kids,” says Mendelsohn, who previously co-directed a behaviour problems clinic at Bellevue Hospital in New York.
To that point, it really is important that this interaction be between a caregiver and the child. As Mendelsohn puts it: “You don’t get this from screens."