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Fathers give children an educational advantage by simply playing with them

Children’s success at primary school can be greatly influenced by their fathers, according to a new study by the University of Leeds

The research shows that a child’s academic performance is enhanced when their fathers engage in activities such as reading, playing, storytelling, drawing, and singing.

Focus of the study

The researchers analyzed test scores of five and seven-year-olds using data from the Millenium Cohort Study, which tracked children born between 2000-02 as they grew up. 

The data was gathered from almost 5,000 households in England with both parents present. The analysis showed that three-year-olds performed better academically by the age of five when they had fathers who regularly played with them

The father’s involvement at the child’s age of five further enhanced the child’s Key Stage Assessment scores at the age of seven.

Sharing childcare responsibilities 

Dr. Helen Norman, the lead researcher from Leeds University Business School, emphasized the importance of fathers sharing childcare responsibilities with mothers. 

“Mothers still tend to assume the primary carer role and therefore tend to do the most childcare, but if fathers actively engage in childcare too, it significantly increases the likelihood of children getting better grades in primary school. This is why encouraging and supporting fathers to share childcare with the mother, from an early stage in the child’s life, is critical,” said Dr. Norman. 

In contrast, when mothers engaged in the same activities with their children, they influenced their emotional and social behaviors more than their educational achievements.

Father engagement 

The research team encourages fathers to dedicate as much time as possible for interactive activities with their children. For fathers with demanding jobs, sparing even just ten minutes a day can make a significant difference in their children’s educational progress.

Furthermore, the study also suggests that schools and early education providers should consistently collect contact details for both parents, and develop strategies to engage fathers specifically. 

“Our analysis has shown that fathers have an important, direct impact on their children’s learning. We should be recognizing this and actively finding ways to support dads to play their part, rather than engaging only with mothers, or taking a gender-neutral approach,” said study co-author Dr Jeremy Davies, Head of Impact and Communications at the Fatherhood Institute. 

Study implications 

“This study shows that even small changes in what fathers do, and in how schools and early years settings engage with parents, can have a lasting impact on children’s learning. It’s absolutely crucial that fathers aren’t treated as an afterthought,” said Andrew Gwynne MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood.

The findings are consistent with a 2022 report led by Gillian M. Waters of the University of Bradford, which noted that the children of parents who treat play as valuable are more likely to have higher cognitive abilities, better social skills, and show greater independence. The current study emphasizes the potential for fathers, in particular, to give their children an educational advantage.

The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), was presented in an online webinar on September 20, 2023. Dr. Norman and Dr. Davies, along with a panel of parental engagement experts and fathers, provided insights and discussed the significant findings.

The study is published on the Leeds University Business School website.

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