Learning materials in the home, learning activities, and meaningful conversations as infants and toddlers make children more likely to develop early cognitive skills that can help them succeed in school later.

The study, which appears in the journal Applied Developmental Science, followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade to track the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills and understand the factors that might explain long-term influences.

“There is growing evidence for the power of early learning environments on later academic success,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the study’s lead author and a professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“Our study confirms that strong home learning environments arm children with foundational skills that are springboards to long-term academic achievement,” she says.

Research shows that the home learning environment powerfully shapes children’s language and cognitive development. Children’s participation in learning activities, the quality of parent-child interactions, and the availability of learning materials like books and toys are three key features of the home learning environment that support language and pre-academic skills in early childhood.

In this study, Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues examined early home learning environments and whether they predict 5th grade academic skills for children of families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds. The researchers studied 2,204 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project.

Children’s learning environments were measured through a series of home visits at 14 months, at 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten. The researchers looked at literacy activities (including book reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers), learning materials in the home (including books, toys, or games that facilitate expression and learning), and the quality of mothers’ interactions with their children.

Examples of high quality interactions included labeling objects in the environment and responding to children’s cues; these sensitive interactions are attentive to children’s needs and cognitively stimulating.

Learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade based on the number of books in the home and the quality of mothers’ engagement with children, both spontaneous interactions and during a discussion-based task.

At the pre-kindergarten and 5th grade visits, children were assessed on age-appropriate academic skills. The pre-K visit included measures of vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving; the 5th grade visit measured vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities.

The researchers found that early learning environments supported the emergence of pre-academic skills that persisted into early adolescence to predict children’s 5th grade academic skills. Pathways from early learning environments to later academic skill were similar for children from White, Black, Hispanic, English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

Notably, learning environments were highly stable over the 10-year study, suggesting that the experiences parents provide their infants as early as the first year of life may solidify into patterns of engagement that either continue to support or impede children’s emerging skills.

The study highlights the importance of early childhood experiences for children’s skill development and long-term academic success, and reinforces the notion that families have a major influence on children’s academic outcomes.

The researchers note that the findings have implications for policy and practice, including the design of interventions for young children and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Improvements to early learning environments, whether it be in the home or through early childhood programs like Early Head Start, can effectively support the development of children exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage,” says Tamis-LeMonda.

Additional coauthors of the study are from Rutgers University-Camden, Brooklyn College, Mathematica Policy Research, and Michigan State University.

The study used data from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, which the Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services funded. Funding from the National Science Foundation also supported the research.