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Household chores help children learn

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Father and child grocery shopping

Credit: Hendrickson

How many times have you set the table, written a shopping list or sorted the washing without a second thought?

That’s because these every day, seemingly mundane tasks have become second nature for most adults and the thought processes we use to complete them are largely invisible.

But researchers at Macquarie University have discovered that verbalising the processes you go through every day in your household could help your child read and write1

The research team split 50 families into two groups focused on either literacy or numeracy.

They asked the literacy parents to engage in household activities like writing letters and reading shopping lists.

They asked the numeracy parents to talk through the processes they took when they did activities involving numeracy concepts like setting a dinner table or cooking.

The study, published in the 2017 Mathematics Education Research Journal, found that parents can influence their children’s interests by exposing them to conversations about literacy and numeracy concepts.

Not only did children play more with literacy and numeracy, but they showed improved skills on tests of these areas. 

As a background to this study, we worked on the philosophy that children’s play is the foundation of learning in the early years and play is a direct reflection of what a child is interested in.
Dr Yeshe Colliver

Macquarie University Department of Educational Studies Lecturer Yeshe Colliver says the researchers were most interested in the processes adults take to complete tasks that remained invisible, because children otherwise had no exposure to those thoughts unless parents verbalised them.

“By the time we reach a certain age, we tend to work at a high level, processing what’s happening in our head, and all the basic steps we take to complete a task or solve a problem are invisible to our children,” Dr Colliver says.

“But if we start talking about the processes, making them visible to children, it will lead to better outcomes for children’s literacy and numeracy, our research found,” he says.

The researchers, who have recently expanded their 2016 study to include a further 20 families, as well as the amount of processes the adults engaged in, found that parents could influence the activities children were interested in playing with and learning about.

“As a background to this study, we worked on the philosophy that children’s play is the foundation of learning in the early years and play is a direct reflection of what a child is interested in,” he says.

“But because play is characterised by free choice, it can be difficult for adults to ensure all learning is useful for children.

“But we’ve now come to an era where a lot of the influence on child’s play comes from the internet or television and there is increasing concern that play as a result of these influences is not particularly helpful for later life. For example, Barbie and Superman won’t necessarily help your child develop their numeracy skills.

“So at the centre of our research was the question: Can we find a way to influence what children are interested in?

“Is it what they see around them, and if it is and we change what they are seeing around them will it influence their interests?”

The key elements of the research, according to Dr Colliver, was that the parents didn’t actively engage their children in the household processes.

They merely did them while children were nearby, which was crucial because there’s evidence that forcing children to do something can curb their interest in it, Dr Colliver says.

“The activities were between the parents and it was important that the children weren’t given the option to help or participate in the activities,” he says.

“The parent’s priority was attributing more value on the actual act, than to engaging the child to participate.”

After four weeks of the experiment, researchers recorded the children’s free play at their early childhood centre and found participating children chose to use literacy and numeracy concepts in their play more and more.

Dr Colliver says they often reflected the specific task they observed their parents completing, or they used concepts from that task in their own play, like writing their name or counting things.

“The take home message is that we shouldn’t be expecting children to do things we don’t do ourselves,” he says.

“So the implication is that if we want our children to become interested in literacy or numeracy we should be talking about those processes throughout our day and our household chores give us a great opportunity to do that.

Simple things like making sandwiches, setting the table or sorting the washing gave parents the opportunity to verbalise numeracy concepts, or writing shopping lists or letters was a good way to model literacy concepts.

“The children’s interest in literacy and numeracy came from seeing it in action, but then they were learning it in their own time,” Dr Colliver says.

1 Colliver, Y. Math Ed Res J (2017). Following in our footsteps: how adult demonstrations of literacy and numeracy can influence children’s spontaneous play and improve learning outcomes, Early Child Development and Care,