Children learn everywhere, and all the time. They are constantly observing, asking questions, trying new things, and building relationships as they explore their environments. Research suggests that only 20% of children’s waking hours each year are spent learning in classrooms. That means 80% of their time is open for exploring and learning in the home and community settings. As we have discussed in previous blogs, research suggests that parenting and the home environment are the dominant factors in children’s academic success (1, 2, 3, 4).
In this post we stretch the concept to include the community surrounding the family. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you take a look at this readable 10-page research summary, Family Engagement in Anywhere, Anytime Learning by M. Elena Lopez, and Margaret Caspe at the Harvard Family Research Project. It reminds us of the learning divide between children living in high and low resource families and communities – not just in the schools, but also in out-of school learning opportunities, such as libraries, parks, grocery stores, museums, summer camps, and other environments. Authors Lopez and Caspe launch this appeal:
Tackling inequality of educational opportunity means that we must broaden our understanding about where and when children learn.” - page 1.
We must expand our definitions of learning to anywhere, anytime if we aim to close the opportunity and achievement gaps so that all children can succeed inside and outside their communities. This doesn’t mean simply enrolling children in after school programs or summer day camps. It goes further, asking parents to engage with their children to create a culture of learning at home and wherever they are in the community.
Here are a couple of quotes to peak your interest:
“Research shows that families with high incomes spend nearly seven times more money on out-of-school time enrichment activities, such as music lessons, summer camps, and travel, than families from low-income homes.3 The stresses of poverty and long work hours make it hard for families to actively participate in their children’s learning and development. Families that suffer from economic adversity spend less time with their children, from even the earliest ages, in places like zoos, museums, and libraries, and less time engaged in the types of literacy activities that are associated with school success than families who are economically stable.(4,5)”– page 1
“Parent training in shared reading techniques, coupled with efforts to bring more books into the homes of young children, improves early language and literacy abilities.12 Early childhood programs can boost children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, which can last into early adulthood and often set families on a trajectory of involvement in children’s learning.13 When family involvement levels are high from kindergarten through fifth grade, the achievement gap in average literacy performance between children of more and less educated mothers is nonexistent.(14)” page 1
The second quote above points to the good news. We can make a difference for children in low resource families. Lopez and Caspe provide specific suggestions on how we can close the achievement gap between low income families and their higher income peers.
“Singing songs, reading books, and telling stories are important parent–child activities that support learning when children are young. . . . These parent–child activities need not take place only at home or school, but can occur at the grocery store, the Laundromat, or anywhere and anytime children and families are together.” – page 3
“When schools, communities, and networks of families and institutions guide families to navigate and access community opportunities, especially those at no or low cost, families are better able to ensure children’s safety and promote valuable learning opportunities.” – page 5
“Together, families, schools, and communities can create avenues through which children and youth can explore their interests across grades and transition points. . . . adults with different areas of expertise might play different roles at different times across this learning pathway. However, families remain a constant resource . . . along this learning continuum. Families might become active teachers of certain skills and knowledge or regularly participate in planning meetings or exhibitions.” Page 5-6.
The Harlem Children’s Zone serves as an example of a low resource community that has built neighborhood supports for children, youth and families. Beyond their work in schools, they work in Community Centers offering family enrichment activities including classes, health and fitness opportunities.
The Harlem Children’s Zone also recognizes that focus on school and enriching the environment alone is not enough. They also focus on building a strong parent-child relationship, through a program they call Baby College, which provides workshops and home visits over the course of a 9-week term. Parents gain expertise in a number of areas, including child behavior and safety; communication and intellectual stimulation; linguistic and brain development; and health and nutrition. This work is important because quality parenting can promote learning and buffer the impact of toxic stress. A parenting assessment tool can identify strengths and areas for growth. By strengthening parenting and providing opportunities to engage in the community, we can close the achievement gap.
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