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Study: Playing With Your Toddler Can Boost Academic Success

Recently we heard about a study reporting that toddlers who played with puzzles may later develop better spatial skills. Now comes new research showing that the ways in which parents play with their 2-year-olds can predict their children's future academic outcomes.

Utah State University researchers found that a number of highly stimulating activities that parents engage in with their toddlers can have a positive impact on their kids' later academic performance.

Those activities include: encouraging and engaging in pretend play; presenting activities in an organized sequence of steps, elaborating on the pictures, words, and actions in a book or on unique attributes of objects, and relating play activity or book text to the child's experience, the university announced Tuesday.

"It's really about the importance about how we play with our kids," Gina Cook, one of the study's authors, said Wednesday. "If we do stimulating activities, our kids will do better later on."

The study also found that biological fathers who live with their children and teach during play with them can have an added positive influence—in addition to the mothers' contribution—on their children's later academic performance, according to Cook, a research assistant professor in the university's department of Family, Consumer and Human Development. The study is expected to be published in an upcoming special issue on fathers in the Family Science journal.

The 15-year study followed 229 low-income children enrolled in the national Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. The university is one of a number of schools participating in the project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Cook said the study looked at the combined long-term impacts of independent interactions with both mothers and fathers in "those critical stages of early development, and discovered that children not only benefit from the interactions they have with their mothers, but also their fathers."

Researchers videotaped interactions between mothers and toddlers and fathers and toddlers for about 15 minutes of play time and later examined them in relation to how the children performed academically at age 3 and then in 5th grade.

Observing families with resident biological fathers and those without, researchers found that "in both these family situations, children perform better academically when mothers teach more during play with their toddlers," according to the study. "When resident biological fathers teach during play with their toddlers, they make an additional positive contribution to their child's 5th grade math and reading performance on top of the mother's play, the child's gender, and participation in the Early Head Start Program."

That's not to say that the biological fathers were providing more brain stimulation, but rather the research "indicates that in homes with both biological parents, the mother provided higher levels of cognitive stimulation with the toddlers, and those fathers contributed to later academic outcomes above and beyond mothers."

"There's something about having a biological resident father, whatever that means," Cook said. "That's for future research."

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