PARENTS and carers are children’s first teachers and the tiny things they do, like chatting, reading and playing with their young children make a huge difference to their performance at school.

The importance of parental engagement during these formative years cannot be overstated. Getting the early years right has the potential to shape a child’s growth, development and life course for the better, irrespective of socioeconomic background or circumstance.

In Britain, some children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds start school 4.5 months behind all others and leave school at age 18, a staggering 18.1 months of learning behind their more advantaged peers.

That’s why the Social Mobility Commission is launching its new campaign, “It’s Child’s Play”, to show parents how they matter and how quick, easy and rewarding it can be to make space for everyday learning moments with their children. The first wave of our campaign launches this month in Middlesbrough and Great Yarmouth and gives parents activity prompts for little chats they can have, games they can play and learning activities they can do. It will be extended to Blackpool in January.

As part of the campaign, we will be taking over bus stops with bright interactive posters of fun activities like: count the frogs, solve the maze and mimic animal sounds. We’ll also be sending resources out directly to parents in the surrounding area and posting on social media. 

We want to make the point that even before a baby is born their brains are primed for learning – like sponges, absorbing information from their environment.

Simple chats can help children learn words, understand things quicker, and support their emotional development. Parents can encourage this by narrating their actions as they go about their day: “I’m going to the shop”, “I’m making tea”. 

Even involving children in silly games like ‘what sound does a cow make?” or “let’s do a funky chicken dance” can help!

Reading is another powerful tool parents can use to get their kids ready for school. When parents read to their young children, they introduce them to a world of words, ideas, and stories. The benefits of reading go beyond language development and extend into listening skills, attention span and love for learning. These skills are the cornerstones of success at school.

The good news is that to unlock these benefits parents don’t have to pick up long, complicated books. In fact, reading anything can help – the back of a cereal packet, an extract from a magazine or any words that happen to be around. 

Play is also crucial. It’s often underestimated in its educational value, but research commissioned by the SMC shows that ‘guided play’ – where a parent plays with their child – can improve a child’s understanding of things like shapes and names compared with children who play alone.

By playing with their families, children develop essential skills like problem-solving, creativity, and social interaction. Whether it's building blocks, playing characters, or exploring nature, playtime is essential.

However, it’s tricky to make sure parents are aware of the power they hold to kickstart their child’s future. Home and family life is rightly private and pushing tired, stretched parents to do more and more can come across as patronising, ‘parent-shaming’ or simply tone deaf, especially in today’s difficult economic climate. 

But parents and families really do make a massive difference to a child’s potential. I owe every success I’ve had in my life to the way my parents looked out for me and supported my learning.

My own schooling wasn’t the best, but my determination to do well was because of my Mum and Dad’s encouragement, so I know just how powerful parents can be. 

Before I started school, my Mum ran the local launderette (amongst other work she could do whilst looking after me and my brother), and I still remember how we would count and say the colours of the clothes in each load. (I loved doing it so much, I even took to singing and dancing about laundry to entertain those watching their wash!)

And I will always cherish my Dad, after a long and tiring day on a building site, chanting out loud with me the words from the page of a BoBo Bunny Annual every night before I went to bed. 

It was their example of being and doing their best, together with their love, that gave me the self-confidence far beyond what you’d expect of someone from where I grew up.   

As a society we should ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive academically and emotionally. By reminding all parents of the powerful difference they can make to their child’s development we are supporting the next generation to make the most of what life can offer.  

  • The Rt Hon Baroness Stowell of Beeston MBE, Commissioner at the Social Mobility Commission.

To read more about the It’s Child’s Play Campaign click here.