School Readiness: Learning Through Play

By: Carol M. Rubin

Winter 2011

Why would parents have to be taught what many of us take for granted—theimportance of spending one-on-one time with our children reading, building,imagining, talking, questioning, listening, singing, and creating? For manyparents, such concepts are foreign. Perhaps they grew up in homes where therewasn’t the time to read together or there was no understanding of the power ofplay. When someone models these behaviors in a positive and caring way, parentscan be helped to become powerful teachers for their children. That’s thepremise behind the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP), a research-validated,home-visiting program started in 1965 by psychologist Phyllis Levenstein at NewYork’s Stony Brook University. Originally called the “Verbal InteractionProject,” the program was created to enhance the verbal, thinking, andsocial-emotional development of 2- and 3-year-old children from low-income families.The assumption was simple: cognitive enrich ment should occur when a child isyoung and language skills are developing. Levenstein chose home visits as themost effective approach and initiated a two-year, twice-weekly program cycle.

Laying a Foundation

“Learning through play” is the method modeled by the homevisitors. The theory is that children’s cognitive growth results from the natural,playful exchange of conceptually rich language between parent and child. Theprogram provides strong motivation through its curriculum materials. Bilingualbooks, puzzles, blocks, and educational toys are given to families in theirnative language and serve as tools to encourage parents to talk, read, and playwith their children. When the program ends, each family has a library ofhigh-quality children’s books and educational toys. Parents are taught thatthey are their children’s first and most important teacher. Through reading andplaying together, they see the school-readiness skills their children arelearning. PCHP serves families challenged by poverty, limited educationalopportunities, language and literacy barriers, or geographic isolation. Thetargets include two-parent families, single parents, teen parents, fosterparents, grandparents raising grandchildren, recent immigrants, American-bornfamilies, homeless families, and special needs families. Home visiting is themost effective strategy for reaching families who lack transportation, aresocially isolated, are unfamiliar with the community, or are facing the multipleproblems associated with homelessness and poverty. During 2009-2010, theMassachusetts sites—located in 80-plus cities and towns from Pittsfield to Boston—workedwith more than 1,500 young children and their siblings and 1,500 parents.One-third of the 150 home visitors are bilingual, speaking Spanish, Portuguese,Haitian Creole, French, Somali, Bengali, Punjabi, and Cambodian (Khmer). Theprogram’s benefits extend beyond the targeted child to other siblings. An olderschool-age sibling in a family of recent Bulgarian immigrants, for example,once asked the author, “Can I learn, too, and be in the program?” The children’sgrandfather, who spoke no English, taped the sessions so that he, too, would beable to listen and learn from spoken English.

Program leaders see real change in children as they develop a loveof books, ask to be read to, increase their attention spans, and improve theirlanguage skills dramatically. They also see parents beginning to feel more effectiveand developing greater confidence in their parenting. Nationally, one-third ofparents who graduate from the program reenter as paid home visitors.

A “Typical” HomeVisit

Although every home visit is different, the following scenario mayprovide a tangible sense of what is likely to occur. Linda, the Parent-Child Home Program visitor, arrives as agreedat 4 p.m. She greets Sonya and Eddie, Sonya’s 2-year-old son, and they settle intothe most comfortable play space. It may be on the living room rug, the couch, or atthe kitchen table. This week Linda has brought stacking cups, brightcolorful plastic cups that can be played with in several ways. Eddie opens thepackage and carefully takes out the cups, looking at each one’s size, shape, andcolor. He begins by trying to stack the cups one on top of another, not in anyparticular order. Linda comments on what she observes, saying, “I see you’reputting one cup on top of another. … What happens when the tower gets tall? … Crash! That’sa loud noise!” Then Eddie’s mother, Sonya, takes one of the smaller cups and putsit inside ofalarger cup. “Look,” she says, “the small cup fits into the big cup.” Linda and Sonya talk about the bright colors, and point tomatching colors in the room, or in the clothes Eddie is wearing. It doesn’tmatter whether Eddie is perfectly fitting the cups into one another, or whetherhe can identify all the colors. There’s no right way to play. What Linda isencouraging is exploration, observation, using one or two new words or concepts—such as inside of or on top of—and pointing out cause and effect. “When you do this, the cupscome crashing down.” The parent is a participant. Later, Linda may bring outsome crayons and try to trace around the cups. Or she may offer Play-Doh andhelp Eddie use the cups to make different molds or shapes. At the conclusion ofthe half hour, Linda sings the clean-up song and all three help to put away thestacking cups. Eddie also loves “Twinkle Twinkle” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,”so they sing those songs together, too. Linda reminds Eddie and Sonya that theywill see her for a second visit later that week.

 In this cumulative program, each home visit has its own tempo.Linda’s relationship with Sonya and Eddie keeps growing and developing throughrespect and trust. Gradually, Sonya begins to feel more comfortable reading the words anddiscussing the pictures—imagining, pretending, and singing along with Eddie.She is developing an appreciation for the joy in learning. During the two years thatPCHP works with families, parents often bring up worries and turn to theirhome visitor for information. Staff members refer families to services such as foodbanks, the USDA’s Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), Head Start, andpublic preschool. They visit the public library with families and walk to the closestplayground together. Home visitors may translate school information, help familiesfill out applications for vouchers and scholarships, and encourage attendance atfree communityevents. As University of Alaska professor emeritus Todd Risley has written, “The Parent-Child Home Program arguably has the best cost-benefit ratioof any literacy program. Its years of data demonstrate that it actually changes parental behaviors … prompting parents to foster language development in their children.”

Starting Early Really Works

Longitudinal research demonstrates that the Parent-Child HomeProgram bridges the achievement gap for low-income children:

• A 1976-1996 study of the effects of the Pittsfield,Massachusetts, program found that 84 percent of program participants graduatedfrom high school, whereas only 54 percent of a randomized control group did.1

• A study of special education referrals in Salem, Massachusetts,indicates that Parent-Child Home Program children are referred for specialeducation at a lower rate than children from the general population. That hasfinancial implications as PCHP costs approximately $2,750 per child per year,but special education services may reach $14,000 per child per year.

• A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychologyreports that 93 percent of childrencompleting the Parent- Child Home Program in South Carolina pass the statewide first grade test, comparedwith the 74 percent of all students eligible for free lunch statewide.2

• Recent Pittsfield, Massachusetts, research on kindergartenassessments indicates that children who participated in both a pre-K program and the Parent-Child Home Program performed substantially better thanthose who had only pre-K. The data were included in a report from the Centerfor Law and Social Policy in Washington, DC.3

• A New York University study, published in the National HeadStart Association journal Dialog, concluded that the Parent- Child Home Programsuccessfully bridges the achievement gap, preparing children to enter school asready to learn as their more advantaged peers.4 The Parent-Child HomeProgram can be replicated in other cities and towns where there areunderperforming schools and a high incidence of poverty. With trainedhome-visiting staff in place, it is possible to scale up quickly to offerdirect services to families.

Carol Rubin, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is MassachusettsRegional Coordinator for the Parent-Child Home Program, may reached at


1 P. Levenstein, S.Levenstein, J.A. Shiminski, and J.E. Stolzberg, “Long-Term Impact of a Verbal InteractionProgram for At-Risk Toddlers,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 19 (1998): 267-285.

2 P. Levenstein, S.Levenstein, and D. Oliver, “First Grade School Readiness of Former Child Participantsin a South Carolina Replication of the

Parent-Child Home Program,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 23 (2002): 331-353.

3 D. Ewen and H. Matthews, “Title1 and Early Childhood Programs: A Look at Investments in the NCLB Era,” s sue s /page s ? type=chi ld_c a r e_and_e a r ly_education&id=0005.

4 L. Allen, A. Sethi, and J.Astuto, “An Evaluation of Graduates of a Toddlerhood Home Visiting Program atKindergarten Age,” Dialog 10, no. 1

(2007): 36–57.

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