Preschool Science at Home: PEEP Family Science Apps Help Low-Income Families Engage in Digital Learning

by Megan Silander, PhD, and Gay Mohrbacher
May 1, 2019

A growing body of research points to the importance of engaging children in science from an early age, for both their future trajectories in science careers and school readiness. For some children, preschool provides the chance to engage in meaningful science learning. But, for the 46% of American 3- and 4-year-olds who do not attend preschool, opportunities for science enrichment are limited. For such children, accessing science experiences depends almost entirely on parents. However, many parents have limited experience supporting such learning.

To help these parents and their young children do more science together, public media producers at WGBH and researchers at the Education Development Center (EDC) set out to design and test a media-based intervention based on the Emmy Award-winning preschool science series PEEP and the Big Wide World. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the intervention’s design was based on the premise that media has the promise to be a powerful tool to model scientific thinking and practices, foster reflection, and engage and motivate children and adults alike. A particular focus of the R&D process was to ensure low-income families could use the resources without any special materials or new technology.

Home visiting organizations as the context for R&D
To meet the needs of our target families, the project used a design-based implementation research (DBIR) approach, partnering with two evidence-based home visiting organizations serving both English- and Spanish-speaking parents: AVANCE and HIPPY USA (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters). With home visiting programs, trained early childhood specialists go into families’ homes to give parents the skills and tools they need to foster children’s healthy development and school readiness. Participation is voluntary, with programs often reaching parents who are socially or geographically isolated. More than three-quarters of households served by home visiting services report annual family incomes below the federal poverty guidelines. One-third of parents are under 21 years old, and a little under one-third do not have a high school diploma.

 

The PEEP Science apps are available in both Spanish and English for free in Google Play and the App Store.

PEEP Family Science digital app
The original design of the materials used a printed guide to direct parents through the steps of the intervention, which was provided on a website along with the videos. In response to initial pilot study findings that not all families were able to access the internet regularly, and that the printed guides were too text-heavy for some families, the developers embedded the videos and activities in apps that could be downloaded by parents at their regularly scheduled HIPPY or AVANCE parent group meeting, using the program’s Wi-Fi (or a hotspot). Families then were able to use the intervention at home without having to consume mobile data. The app provided all the resources in one place—not only PEEP animated and live-action videos, but also contextual prompts for parents, activity instructions, and short parent videos modeling positive adult/child engagement strategies. In essence, the app took the place of the printed parent guides that home visitors typically leave with families.

As we adapted the original plan to the app, we found some additional benefits to this approach: The app format required a limited use of text, broke activities into smaller incremental steps, and allowed for more visual prompts—important for parents with low levels of literacy. In addition, the format made it easier to encourage families to leverage the unique affordances of their smartphones to enhance their investigations. For example, they might document an activity by taking photos or recording video or sound, prompting parents and children to go back to watch, listen, and reflect on what they did and learned.

Through several rounds of research, we ultimately produced four separate PEEP Family Science apps— in both Spanish and English—exploring the topics of sounds, shadows, ramps, and colors. Each app contains four weeks of science exploration, encouraging two ½-hour sessions per week that combine watching a short video with doing a hands-on investigation. The apps are available for free on both Google Play and the App Store.

Research Findings
Our DBIR process culminated in an implementation study with over 200 low-income parents and 18 educators from HIPPY and AVANCE, located in urban and rural locations in Texas and Arkansas. Results indicate that almost all parents were able to use the PEEP Family Science apps with ease using their own technology, and that there were very few technical challenges.

  • Observations of families indicated that parents and children used the intervention to explore core disciplinary ideas in physical science, such as testing and experimenting with how objects move on inclines; describing, identifying, and comparing colors; and exploring differences in the pitch and volume of sounds. Researchers also observed families using several science practices, including asking questions; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Moreover, some parents reported their child learned new vocabulary and ways of talking about science from both the animated and the live-action videos in the app.
  • Results from parent surveys suggest that parent attitudes and behaviors changed after using the intervention. In contrast to a comparison group of similar families, on average the intervention families reported greater frequency of science activities, greater confidence in their ability to help their children learn science, more use of parent engagement strategies and increased use of joint media engagement strategies.
  • Families initially told us that there were barriers to doing science with their children because they felt that they themselves lacked knowledge or that they needed special materials. Later, families reported that the PEEP characters gave them a fun and easy entry point into doing science and that the animated stories were motivating.

Media can motivate families to engage in content they might otherwise perceive as complex or not relevant, and can be a powerful model for doing and talking about science, especially in contrast to typical approaches to parent engagement that rely on printed guides. However, parents and educators both need support in understanding best practices in media use to enhance children’s learning. The app has certain best practices built into its design—for example, each video session comes with questions for parents to ask their children, ensuring that screen time is an active rather than a passive experience, and every video session is immediately followed by a related hands-on science activity so children can connect the video to their own real-world experimentation. In contrast with other media that target children, this app was designed primarily for parent use, thus reinforcing the need for parents to co-use media with children. But our study findings indicate that parents and educators require additional, more explicit supports beyond the app to deepen their understanding of the advantages and pitfalls of using media as an educational tool.

 

Megan Silander is a researcher at the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology. She conducts research on the use of digital tools and media to increase capacity to support children’s learning, both in and out of school. Her recent research has focused particularly on under-resourced families’ use of media and technology to support their children’s learning in the home. Megan holds a Ph.D. in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gay Mohrbacher is senior project manager, WGBH Education, where she coordinates educational outreach to early childhood audiences for PBS station, WGBH. WGBH is recognized as a national leader in producing media-based resources to support learning and teaching. A top priority is serving under-resourced children, and working with national partners and local communities to overcome barriers to educational success.