Family Engagement is an interactive process through which early childhood education providers and professionals, family members, and their children build positive and goal-oriented relationships. Building these relationships is a shared responsibility of families and professionals that requires mutual respect for the roles and strengths each has to offer. Family engagement means doing with—not doing to or for—families. Parents’ engagement with their children during daily activities creates opportunities for learning. Positive examples of and prompts for this engagement can increase how often parents talk and play with their children.1, 2, 3
In these guides created for early childhood professionals, explore digital tools designed to encourage parents to talk with their infants and children. Share these tools with parents, along with tips and information about talking with their young children. Parents’ early conversations with their children build the foundational skills for children’s later language, social and emotional, and cognitive skills.
Disclaimer: The information in this guide should not be considered an endorsement of any particular tool or the use of such tools in general.
Digital Tool Review
Technology is everywhere, and parents can use mobile technology to find tools and information about child development. The digital tools featured in this guide promote face-to-face interactions between families and their children. Each of these tools offers parents and caregivers tips or activities that support children's language and literacy development.
The goal of this review was to gather information about digital tools that:
- Are designed for families with young children, from prenatal to 8 years of age
- Offer parents ideas about how to engage with their child to support early language and literacy development
- Deliver demonstrations and tips directly to parents and caregivers
- Offer free content to family members who have mobile technology (Families may need to pay for Internet data or text messaging. Some tools charge for the full use of all features or information.)
This guide defines "digital tools" as services or apps for mobile technology (i.e., phones, smartphones, or tablets). The search for these tools delivered numerous text messaging tools and apps for mobile devices that prompt parents to interact with their children. All the tools included in this guide were designed for parents to use and then put away before interacting with their children. Some tools provide general prompts to support language and literacy development. Others deliver content matched to the child's age or skills. Still others focus on a specific group, such as military families. While some of these digital tools reach several thousand people, others have a few hundred thousand users.
Strategies Used to Search for Digital Tools for Parent Engagement:
- Internet Search Engines
- Internet repositories, including New America's Atlas: Integrating Technology in Early Literacy and Bridging the Word Gap Challenge
- Recommendations from colleagues in the digital media field
There are common patterns across tools. Many provide information intended for parents facing adversity. In interviews with digital tool developers, many developers emphasized the importance of "meeting parents where they are." Developers spoke about the power of technology to reach busy parents and to empower them as their children's first and best teachers. The content of the tools often focuses on enhancing everyday interactions and building parent-child relationships. Find detailed information about the identified tools in the following tables.
Considerations When Choosing a Tool
Digital tools have the potential to reach many families at a low cost. Some tools offer a promising way to encourage parents to engage with their children as they develop language and literacy skills. Yet, the landscape of digital tools is wide and ever-changing. To date, there have been no independent studies on the effectiveness of the listed tools. In addition, research rarely keeps up with the rapid development of new tools. Here are several things to think about when choosing a tool:
- Identify Hidden Costs. Many people own the technology for digital tools. Yet, many phone plans and pre-paid phones charge extra for text messages. Internet data is often needed initially to download the app and to receive daily activity suggestions. For some, access to this data may represent a hidden expense.
- Check Literacy Levels. Much of the content in text messaging tools and apps is text based. Yet, some users may want a tool that has photos, audio, or videos to support different literacy levels.
- Review User Friendliness. Digital tools differ in their user friendliness. Everyone has a different level of confidence with technology. Family members may want assistance with digital tools. Text tools can be easier to operate, and this consideration may inform the choice of a digital tool.
- Look for Two-Way Interaction. All tools listed in this guide promote two-way parent-child interactions. Some tools also invite two-way communication between the tool and the parent. For example, some tools ask parents to provide feedback and suggest activities.
- Customize to Children's Ability. Many of the tools match activities to a child's age. Some tools adjust to parent feedback on how well the activity matches a child's ability. These types of customizations may be helpful. Consider whether tools tailor tips to a child's developmental level.
- Consider Language and Culture. Some tools offer content in multiple languages, but many do not. Consider the language needs of the community when selecting a tool. Also, check whether images, language translations, and activities are responsive to cultural values and support home language use.
- Balance the Tool with the Interaction. The tools in this resource are designed for parent use.* When parents use a digital tool, they may accidentally draw their children to it. The tool may also disrupt important interactions between the parent and child. Find a tool that does not get in the way of important parent-child interactions.4, 5
* Tools designed for children were excluded. For those interested in technology made for children, several reviews provide selection guidelines.6, 7 We do not endorse specific tools or the use of tools in general.
These considerations are a starting point for providers and families. Individuals and groups can try tools and look for ones that fit their interests and values. Parents can also see which tools are enjoyable and helpful. Tools should support parents' time with their children. Parents, not the technology, are children's first and most important teachers.
Providers' and Parents' Guides to Digital Tools to Support Children's Learning
The Providers' Guide to Digital Tools to Support Children's Learning is a table that early childhood professionals can use to find family engagement activities for families. The information in the table comes from interviews with developers and public sources. It includes basic information and the website for accessing each tool. The table also includes specific information, such as whether there is any cost for using the tool and the target ages for the tool's information and strategies.
The Parents' Guide is a shorter version of the Providers' Guide. While both guides can be shared with parents, the shorter version is for parents who may not have time to read through the Providers' Guide, or who may prefer to focus on the highlighted details from the Providers' Guide.
When sharing the Parents' Guide, providers should be sure to emphasize the following key features:
- The table includes basic information and the website for accessing each tool. It also includes specific information, such as whether there is any cost for using the tool and the target ages for the tool's information.
- Each tool in this resource offers hints and ideas to help parents support their child's language and literacy development.
- The tools were designed for parents to use and then put away before interacting with their children.
- Children are not the intended users of the tools.
It is strongly recommended that parents and providers read the Organization of the Tables before using any of them, to understand the information listed in each column.
Digital Tools for Families that Promote Children’s Language and Literacy
1Barr, R., Brito, N., Zocca, J., Reina, S., Rodriguez, J., & Shauffer, C. (2011). The Baby Elmo program: Improving teen father-child interactions within juvenile justice facilities. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1555–1562.
2 Hurwitz, L. B., Lauricella, A. R., Hanson, A., Raden, A., & Wartella, E. (2015). Supporting Head Start parents: Impact of a text message intervention on parent-child activity engagement. Early Child Development and Care, 185, 1373–1389.
3Sheridan, S. M., Knoche, L. L., Kupzyk, K. A., Edwards, C. P., & Marvin, C. A. (2011). A randomized trial examining the effects of parent engagement on early language and literacy: The getting ready intervention. Journal of School Psychology, 49, 361–383.
4McDaniel, B. T., & Radesky, J. S. (2018). Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with child behavior problems. Child Development, 89(1), 100–109.
5Terras, M. M., & Ramsey, J. (2016). Family digital literacy practices and children’s mobile phone use. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1957.
6Guernsey, L., & Levine, M. (2015). Tap, click, read. Growing readers in a world of screens. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
7Hirsh-Pasek, K., Adamson, L., Bakeman, R., Owen, M., Golinkoff, R., Pace, A., Yust, P., & Suma, K. The contribution of early communication quality to low-income children’s language success. Psychological Science, 26, 1–13.
Last Updated: March 2, 2021