Think of a preschooler using a smartphone app or playing an online game and the accompanying image is likely to be that of a child with head down, eyes glued to the screen, disengaged from his surroundings. But a recent study presents a surprisingly different picture. WestEd researchers found that some digital media materials can actually generate social engagement and learning, enabling parents and their young children to work together to improve children’s academic achievement.

The study followed low-income parents and their preschool-age children to evaluate whether using a suite of digital and hands-on learning materials at home could increase children’s math skills. WestEd found that the intervention was positively associated with gains in children’s math knowledge and skills and that parents’ level of math awareness and engagement with their children’s learning also significantly increased. These positive gains mirrored the results of earlier pilot studies.

These are very promising results, says Betsy McCarthy, a senior research associate in WestEd’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program and the study’s principal researcher. Promoting math learning at the preschool age is particularly important, she says, as a large research base has shown that children who are well prepared for kindergarten math are more successful throughout their academic careers and more likely to graduate from high school.

The learning materials, which included digital games, short videos, and downloadable hands-on materials, were developed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn Initiative, which promotes early learning, particularly for children from low-income families — a population much less likely to be ready for kindergarten.

The study’s results are also very exciting for staff at PBS, which has consistently focused on helping kids most at risk for starting school without sufficient math skills, says Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS KIDS Digital. “We see great promise in the possibilities of scaling a project like this one. The outcomes have the potential to have a profound impact on kindergarten readiness for children in low-income communities.”

Engaging digital content

WestEd researchers followed 153 children, ages 3 to 5, and their families in San Mateo County, California, as they participated in a nine-week intervention. Children and family members were asked to work together on “suites” of PBS KIDS digital-content activities for 30 minutes a day for four days a week, and parents and guardians were encouraged to attend weekly parent meetings at their child’s preschool. “We were pleasantly surprised by how successful families were in accomplishing these goals,” says McCarthy.

The transmedia suites used in the intervention were presented in several formats — including short videos, digital games, and mobile phone activities — accessible via digital devices such as computers, smartphones, and tablets. Connected by common storylines and curricular goals, the suites focused on two overarching math concepts: numbers and operations from 1 to 10, and shapes. Featuring many preschool children’s favorite fictional characters, such as Curious George, Peg+Cat, and The Cat in the Hat, the narrative in the digital media was designed to be fun and engaging for children and family members, says McCarthy.

“The games are also adaptive to children’s ability level,” she says. “If children have trouble, the content gets easier, and it only becomes harder as they’re more successful.”

Improved math scores and increased engagement

By the end of the intervention, children’s math scores on the stringent Test of Early Mathematics Ability, third edition (TEMA-3) were, on average, significantly higher than those for students in the comparison group.

Although low-income children began the study with lower baseline test scores in math, their mean test scores improved by an equivalent amount to the improvement made by their more affluent peers.

Far from being passive participants, kids enthusiastically collaborated in front of the screen, resulting in there being unexpected, yet welcome, social–emotional benefits for the children. This finding was consistent with those from other studies done by WestEd. When the researchers observed children in the classrooms while they were playing the digital games, they found that the students were almost always working through the content in pairs or groups, sometimes in mixed-ability groupings with students of different skills helping one another.

“Now we know this digital-learning, parent-engagement model works.”

“In all our studies,” says McCarthy, “we found that when more than one person was in front of the screen, the children became more highly engaged than when they worked alone.”

Parents also reported having fun watching the videos, playing the digital games, and engaging in hands-on math activities with their kids, and they learned new math concepts as well. Even adults who previously thought of the teacher as the sole content expert began actively supporting their kids to learn math, says McCarthy.

“Parents realized they could help their children master early math and apply ideas from the games to their daily lives. One parent began having her child count out pieces of fruit in the grocery store, while another encouraged writing digits in flour when baking in the kitchen,” she reported.

DeWitt is particularly excited by the model’s ability to enhance parents’ feelings of efficacy and engagement. “A few years ago, we conducted a survey that found parents had high levels of anxiety about working with their kids on math,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see parents become comfortable enough to work with the material and to be inspired to incorporate math into their daily interactions with their kids. The digital media can do a lot, but it’s the parent–child involvement that will increase kids’ excitement for learning as they enter school.”

The potential for scaling up

The study was a scale-up of earlier pilot studies in which the WestEd research team was responsible for implementing the intervention and training parents in how to use the digital media suites with their children. In this study, however, the researchers “passed the baton” to preschool teachers: “With just 10 hours of training, preschool teachers at low-income preschool sites were able to fully orchestrate the intervention by training parents and running meetings,” says McCarthy. “That experience gives us confidence in the potential for moving this sort of intervention to a more scalable model that wouldn’t need a third party to help implement it.”

Moving forward, all the materials are available for free at If preschools want to implement this model, they can download resources to learn how to facilitate meetings to show parents how to use the digital media and learning materials with their children. “The model WestEd created for training parents seems to be easily replicable,” adds DeWitt. “It doesn’t require a ton of heavy lifting.”

Many PBS stations are already bringing the content to kids through after-school settings or summer learning programs, DeWitt says. “I think this model is something we’ll want to get out to our station networks and continue to bring to more kids through our community partnerships — such as with United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Head Start centers.”

As PBS takes such steps, she says, it will continue to evaluate the availability of smartphones and tablets in low-income households, as well as community access points to the Internet. “Access will improve with time,” she says, “but we know there’s a digital divide, so community connections at after-school centers, libraries, and community centers, for example, may be the best way to reach some of these families.”

WestEd has also done a number of assessments of technology accessibility, says McCarthy, and found that many low-income families have smartphones, whether or not they have a data plan. “This provides an opportunity to reach them through apps that can be downloaded, then used even when they’re not online,” she says, adding that this approach was used in an earlier pilot study in Richmond, California.

“Although there may be certain challenges in rolling out this intervention on a large scale,” says McCarthy, “now we know this digital-learning, parent-engagement model works.”

Even better, it may have broader applications than its original design. The model doesn’t have to be limited to math, says McCarthy, or just to these suites of digital media and learning materials. For instance, she says, WestEd has begun working with Twin Cities Public Television on a project that will combine television programming, interactive games and apps, and online communities to bolster the science knowledge of young children living in low-income households.

“WestEd will continue to study the effectiveness of digital learning for young children,” McCarthy says, “but the completed research already points to profound changes in parent behavior and ways to prepare kids for academic success.”