Can you put a monetary value on the time parents spend playing with their children?

Probably, we can all agree that getting a good education is an important precursor to economic independence; and that success in school starts with the values we learn at home. But, what is the most important part of a parent’s role in raising a child to succeed in school?

Creating a home environment to raise a reader starts early with hugs and talk and lots of both. Looking at books together and pointing at pictures, making the sounds of animals and machines, singing songs and dancing around to music. Even very small children understand when you talk about the day’s activities, name objects and food. They enjoy playing games that include following one direction such as “give me the ball.” The whole family can enjoy coloring, drawing, and sending secret messages to each other. All of these activities promote the development of early literacy skills. But, can life-long earning potential be tied directly to these activities? How do children who do not receive this kind of attention from their parents differ from those who do? The results of a twenty year study may surprise you. What researchers discovered is that there is a very real financial pay off when parents play purposefully with their children.

The power of parental play is explored in the May edition of the Journal Science. “Labor Market Returns to an Early Childhood Stimulation Intervention in Jamaica” by University of California, Berkeley, professor Paul Gertler and James Heckman of the University of Chicago, tracks the employment status of adults who were born in abject poverty.

For the study, Sally Grantham-McGregor of University College London and Susan Walker of the University of West Indies, identified babies and toddlers in a poor neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, who exhibited stunted brain development, and small physical stature because of malnutrition and disease.  Beginning in the 1980’s, mothers in the intervention group were encouraged to talk with their children, to label things and actions, and to play educational games with their children, emphasizing language development and the use of praise to improve the self-esteem of mothers and children.

The children’s educational progress was reexamined at intervals during the next twenty years. In the group with the more interactive mothers, researchers measured consistent improvements in the children’s IQ, self-control, and aggressive behavior.

Twenty years later, the children of the intervention group had spent more years in school including college and were earning significantly more than those in the control group, enough of an increase to match the earnings of the non-disadvantaged population.

According to The National Bureau of Economic Research report, “Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psycho-social stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.”

This summer take time to chat with your children, notice and talk about things around you. Discuss the day’s events. Explain what you are seeing, hearing and doing. Encourage children to ask questions and talk about what is happening.Even before they can talk you should respond to their sounds and actions. Stretch vocabularies by asking follow up questions like “What do you think…?” or “Why did you like that?” Make each conversational moment longer by building upon what your child does and says. Talk about the things you see, hear and do together, explain what’s happening around you. Take turns and, make eye contact while talking to each other to stimulate longer more meaningful conversations. Follow up with more information about subjects that interest your child. There is great power in family fun!