Not just for play: parent engagement can boost toddlers’ skills development

According to a new Yale study of low-income families, toys, books, and participation in household activities can boost a child’s cognitive and emotional skills.
Mother playing with child

A study involving low-income families in central Colombia found that toddlers whose parents engaged them in play with books and toys made of discarded household materials showed significant improvements in their cognitive and socio-emotional skills

Encouraging low-income families to stimulate their toddlers with play and involve them in household activities can improve the children's cognitive and socio-emotional skills development, Yale researchers found in a new study of an early-childhood intervention designed for families in central Colombia.

The study, published last month in the American Economic Review, is one of the first to develop a model for understanding how early childhood interventions among the poor change parental behavior and thus affect the cognitive development of their children.

What the results emphasize is that shifting parental behavior towards more engagement with the child is very important for children in low-income environments,” said Yale economist Costas Meghir, a co-author of the paper. He noted that the fundamental aim of the research is to identify ways to prevent poverty from being passed down from one generation to the next by ensuring children develop to their full potential.

The researchers found that toddlers whose parents provided more learning materials, such as books and toys, experienced significant improvements in their cognitive and socio-emotional skills. The researchers also found evidence that parents invest more in their children, not less, as the result of outside assistance. This helps inform a debate regarding whether external programs displace parents’ own investment in their children, the researchers said.

Families were randomly assigned to receive the intervention from among a sample of households enrolled in the Colombian Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program, a social welfare program that targets the poorest 20% of the population and is one of the largest samples ever to examine the efficacy of programs aiming to stimulate child development.

As part of the intervention, local women who had been identified as leaders within the CCT were trained to visit households each week and teach a parenting curriculum that encouraged mothers to teach their children through daily routines and activities. The curriculum included showing mothers how they could make toys out of discarded objects or how they could interact with their children during daily household chores, play activities, and conversation. This approach emphasized to mothers that engaging with children need not be expensive and that children could learn through existing household routines and resources.

After the intervention, which lasted 18 months, improvements in children’s cognitive and socio-emotional skills were measured through a combination of maternal assessments, questionnaires, and psychological scales. Children who received the intervention exhibited better cognitive and socio-emotional skills compared to their baseline levels than children who did not receive the intervention, as the researchers explained in a previous paper published in 2014 based on this same experiment. In the newly published study, the researchers developed a model to determine why the intervention was so successful.

The mechanisms through which the intervention worked could either be that the weekly sessions improved a child’s skills or that the program changed parental behavior and the way the child is incorporated into the household routine,” said Meghir, the Douglas A Warner III Professor of Economics. “We found that the main force of the experiment comes from shifting parental behavior.”

Increases in children’s cognitive and socio-emotional skills could almost entirely be explained by parents’ increased investment in learning materials and in the quality of time they spend with their children, the researchers said. The visits from the local women leaders were meaningful, they added, because they encouraged parents to provide more books and toys to their children, but the visits alone were not the reason why children exhibited improved skills. This is important because it suggests a policy priority — namely, improving parenting behaviors — according to the researchers.

The fact that the intervention did not provide parents with additional resources and yet managed to change parental behavior has led the researchers to look more into parental beliefs about child development.

We know that parents make decisions based in part on their beliefs on the process of child development,” said Orazio Attanasio, the Cowles Professor of Economics at Yale and a co-author of the study. “One parent might be reading a lot to her child because she knows it’s good for the child. Another parent might not be doing that because she thinks it is useless. Information about parental beliefs about the process might be very important.”

An upcoming study by Attanasio and Meghir in India is the first to capture parental beliefs on the process of child development over time and may shed more light on how those beliefs influence investment decisions. That study and the recent paper are part of Attanasio and Meghir’s research series on the effects of early childhood interventions on human capital development. The authors are affiliates of the Economic Growth Center at Yale, which supports economics research to advance the well-being of poor and marginalized people in developing countries.

Co-authors of the study were Sarah Cattan (Institute for Fiscal Studies and IZA), Emla Fitzsimons (UCL Institute for Education and Institute for Fiscal Studies) and Marta Rubio-Codina (Inter-American Development Bank).

Lisa Qian is a senior studying economics and an intern with the Economic Growth Center.


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