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Can a smartphone app for parents help toddlers’ development?

(20 September 2017)

A new trial will find out if a smartphone app that sends activities and tips to parents can help improve toddlers’ language and communication skills.

The trial, which will be carried out by researchers in the School of Education at Durham University, will involve parents and guardians of 1,500 children.

Games and play

Parents and guardians will be sent short video clips with ideas of games to play with their child, along with brief written instructions and a series of text reminders encouraging them to try out the games in the EasyPeasy app.

Previous small-scale testing of the app (by Oxford University, funded by The Sutton Trust) has already shown that it improves children’s concentration and their willingness to complete difficult tasks. This new trial by researchers at Durham will see if this positive effect can be seen with a larger group of families.

Learning environment

There is good evidence that engaged parents and a vibrant home learning environment are major influences on children’s development, yet little is known about how to better support families who are struggling to provide this.

The content on the EasyPeasy app covers all areas of the early years’ curriculum and aims to encourage positive interaction with children at home.

Lead researcher, Dr Lyn Robinson-Smith from the School of Education at Durham University, said: “It is really important that different methods and interventions offered to and implemented by schools and nurseries are tested in large-scale trials to make sure they are effective.

“We already know that the home learning environment has a big impact on children’s development but we need to know more about how we can best support parents and guardians to provide activities in the home that foster development and complement their child’s learning at nursery and school.”

Toddlers’ language skills

The study will use a randomised controlled trial (RCT) where half of the families will use the app and the other half won’t in order to compare results.

The trial will focus on nursery classes in primary schools and look specifically at changes in children’s language and communication, self-regulation and the home learning environment.

The design of the app encourages positive habits of play and interaction at home by sending tailored prompts, encouragement, and reminders to parents. The short video clips feature real families playing and modelling the games and include tips and hints through small ‘pop up’ animations.

Improve social mobility

The trial is funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said, "We know that the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest pupils begins before they’ve even started school. Tackling this disparity early on is critical to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and improving social mobility.

“But it can be difficult to get parents involved in their child’s learning. EasyPeasy is an inexpensive app that encourages positive play and interaction with children at home. After early promising results, our trial will find out if this could be an effective way of improving parental engagement.”

The evaluation report will be published in Spring 2019.

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