Sine McDougall: It is child's play to get a head start at school

From a talk given by the senior lecturer at the University of Wales to the British Psychological Society Conference in Bournemouth
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The Independent Online

Teachers often notice that when children enter school some are more ready to learn basic skills than others. The aim of the Tandem Project is to help parents prepare their children for learning in school.

The Tandem Project is an 18-month early-intervention educational programme, targeting three year olds. It is being carried out under the Department for Education and Skills' Surestart initiative in partnership with Swansea City and the county council. The Surestart initiative is directed specifically at families with children under the age of four.

In the scheme, parents of pre-schoolers are given a series of games to play with their children over a six-week period. The games are designed to develop those basic capabilities which are thought to be crucial to the early development of literacy and numeracy skills.

The initiative has several key features. It strives to show parents that children can learn through play. Parents' enthusiasm and motivation is developed by the maintenance of close links between project workers and families for the duration of the project. It also attempts to promote a sense of community spirit by putting participating families in touch with each other (using newsletters and awards ceremonies for example).

It also aims to foster positive attitudes towards education so that both parents and children feel empowered to seek help on educational issues in future years.

On a more general level, the intervention increases the amount of one-to-one interaction between parent and child. This is widely acknowledged to be important to both cognitive and social development.

The games that parents play with their children are intended to develop a number of pre-reading and pre- numeracy skills. Reading games include listening carefully to and repeating words; learning nursery rhymes; recognising and discriminating shapes and letters and listening to stories. Number games include learning about more and less, bigger and smaller, longer and shorter, as well as recognising numbers and learning to count.

The important question is, of course, whether or not parents really do help their children to learn through these activities. The evidence, so far, is very encouraging and suggests that they do. When we compared the children's skills before the project with their skills after six weeks we found a dramatic improvement.

Even when children were given the games by project workers rather than their parents, their progress was no better than those taught by their parents in the key areas selected by Surestart. Nor could improvements in the children's skills be put down to a simple progression as a result of maturation over time. Children who did not play these specifically designed games made little improvement in pre-literacy and numeracy skills over the same period.

We have found that the children greatly enjoy the games. In addition, their parents have a great sense of achievement in being able to teach their children skills that will help them when they start school.

This sense of accomplishment is reinforced by a scheme known as the Tandem Achievement Awards, in which children receive a certificate, by way of reward, once they and their parents have completed the six-week course of games.

Those running the Tandem Project hope to continue its work through Surestart to help create a more even playing field for children entering school in Swansea.

In the long term, the Tandem Project will seek to foster an informal learning environment within participating families which will both assist children's progress within their schools and encourage parents' belief that they can participate in their child's education.