March 1, 2018

Parents Nationwide Say More Support Needed for At-Home Science Learning for Young Children

WALTHAM, MA and MENLO PARK, CA | In a first-of-its kind survey, Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International spoke to more than 1,400 parents about the educational activities they do with their young children. The findings showed that far more parents would engage in science-related activities with their children—if they knew how.

The survey results are captured in What Parents Talk About When They Talk About Learning: A National Survey About Young Children and Science, a new report being presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness on March 1 in Washington, D.C. The report details results of a national phone survey and in-depth interviews with parents of young children ages 3 to 6, a majority (63 percent) from low-income households. Many parents told researchers they think it is important to help their children learn at home, and they felt confident helping with reading and math. However, far fewer felt able to assist with science learning, and this was even more evident for parents with less education and from low-income households.

The findings are significant because science learning—the ability to develop and test ideas, ask questions, predict, and observe—is important for school success and is known to contribute to learning in other content areas, such as language development and critical thinking. Also, science achievement gaps start early and persist. Limited exposure to science and other STEM activities in early childhood can lead to a reduced interest in science and lower science achievement later on.

“This survey tells us that parents, regardless of income, want to give their children a strong start in the sciences, but many just aren’t sure how,” said EDC vice president Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology. “While parents and guardians we spoke to say they are comfortable using books to promote reading and counting everyday objects to teach math, they would like help to take advantage of their child’s natural curiosity about the world.”

Among the survey highlights:

  • More than 7 out of 10 parents have high levels of confidence in their ability to support school readiness related to reading and writing, mathematics, and social and behavioral skills. However, 5 out of 10 parents do not feel “very confident” when it comes to supporting their children’s science learning.
  • Early science learning is critical. Yet close to half of parents say other skills, such as reading and social skills, are more important than science for children to learn at home.
  • While almost all parents do daily learning activities with their children, only about half do daily science-related activities, such as exploring outdoors or cooking together.
  • Although parents say they regularly encourage their child’s science-related digital media use, they are less likely to help children make connections between a TV show, app, or game and daily life.
  • 7 out of 10 parents say having access to ideas for doing science with everyday materials would help them “do more science” at home. Researchers point out that in the past decade, more parents have helped their young children read and learn math—with achievement gaps narrowing—and now attention must focus on science.

“These findings underscore the importance of supporting science learning for young children, especially early exposure to STEM topics,” said SRI’s Phil Vahey, director of strategic research and innovation. “Our research shows that having developmentally appropriate materials, and an understanding of how to connect with a child’s observations and discoveries about the world, can encourage critical learning and problem-solving skills.”

During the interviews, parents consistently said they want ideas and activities to encourage science learning. Such activities may include:

  • Incorporating science into daily activities, such as cooking, grocery shopping, or gardening
  • Watching and talking about science videos together
  • Playing and talking about digital science apps or games together
  • Having chats that ask and find answers to children’s questions about their environment

The survey, conducted between August 31 and October 8, 2017, included 1,442 respondents, 909 of whom reported an annual household income of below $50,000. Researchers also spoke to 65 parents in eight focus groups and conducted 20 in-person home visits with 11 families.

This study was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready To Learn Initiative, led by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. It was conducted by EDC and SRI International, long-standing evaluation partners for the Ready To Learn Initiative.

Learn more about the findings and access related materials.

Education Development Center (EDC) is a global nonprofit that advances lasting solutions to improve education, promote health, and expand economic opportunity. Since 1958, we have been a leader in designing, implementing, and evaluating powerful and innovative programs in more than 80 countries around the world.

SRI International creates world-changing solutions to make people safer, healthier, and more productive. SRI, a research center headquartered in Menlo Park, California, works primarily in advanced technology and systems, biosciences, computing, and education. SRI brings its innovations to the marketplace through technology licensing, spin-off ventures and new product solutions.