the home learning environment - how it helps children's development

Research highlights the importance of a stimulating Home Learning Environment (HLE) in supporting children’s early learning and development. 

how play supports the home learning environment

Children play in many different ways depending on their interests and age/developmental stage. The different types of play often overlap, and children switch between them randomly and rapidly as they explore and try out new ideas, feelings and relationships through their play.

Research shows that the early years are crucial for brain development (though it's never too late to make a difference, so never give up!). Opportunities to explore and discover through play help with this process. Positive and supportive attachments between children and their parent/carer help them to feel confident in exploring and making choices.

When parents/carers observe their children playing, they discover what their children are interested in. Providing play opportunities that reflect these will encourage children to engage with activities and build their concentration. Being alongside children, so they can see that their parents/carers are interested, will also encourage children to stay focused. Children who are able to explore freely, can use their senses to discover how natural and everyday objects look, sound, feel, smell and taste, what the objects do, and how they can play with them. Babies will learn that there is no right or wrong way to play with things. They gradually learn that some things work and some don’t!

Coping with strong emotions resulting from success or challenges can be difficult, especially for young children. Play can be serious or fun, and it allows babies and children to find out about themselves and their world. Play should provide a safe opportunity to practise for life.

Peep Learning Together Programme sessions are play-based, with lots of ideas for activities that parents/carers and their children can do together which are fun as well as supporting learning and relationship-building.

how songs and rhymes support the home learning environment

Singing and using rhymes are great ways for parents and carers to share and explore language with their babies and young children. Research shows that from birth babies are ready and able to communicate with and mimic other people. Singing together supports this. Becoming familiar with the sounds and rhymes in songs’ words and phrases is an important part of language development and (later) of learning to read.

When singing near their baby, parents usually have a softer, more emotional tone, sing more slowly, and leave pauses to see what the baby will do in response. Research shows that when parents/carers sing to them, the baby will often be attentive and engaged, listening with more alert concentration than to the spoken word. Singing and chanting songs and rhymes can draw people together as well as encouraging them to be expressive individuals. Letting children choose songs to sing helps to build positive self-esteem.

Music underpins all of the Peep Learning Together Programme strands. In Peep sessions we sing familiar and new songs. Parents and carers sometimes need support and reassurance to sing with their babies and children, especially in group situations. Many of us (including practitioners) feel embarrassed singing in public, especially if we think that we're not very tuneful. Understanding that babies and children (or others in the group!) don't mind how tuneful we are - just as we're not put off by other people's singing - but that it's great fun, can make a difference.

how conversation supports the home learning environment

Babies try hard to communicate, and they need recognition of their efforts. Parents and carers are often best placed to show this, as they usually understand their baby’s ‘speech’ long before others are able to do so. Babies and young children also need opportunities to hear sounds clearly, and it can help not to have background noises (such as television) some of the time. Babies and young children need to hear lots of language to build up a bank of words and meanings before they start to talk.

Research tells us that children’s language development is really important to how well they do, at school and beyond.  For example, we know that children’s language development at age two predicts their performance on school entry, and that children's vocabulary at age five is a key predictor of reading ability, mental health and employment challenges as an adult. However, research also tells us that the communication environment at home (the quantity and quality of everyday conversation) is a better predictor of early language than a child’s social background (Law et al, 2009).

Children who learn more than one language will benefit from hearing their ‘mother tongue’ because this is bound up with cultural identity and sense of belonging. Once this is established children are able to pick up other languages more readily.

how sharing books and stories supports the home learning environment

Sharing books and stories provides opportunities to:

  • be together
  • recognise and value how children engage with the story or pictures
  • look and talk together about what characters are doing and feeling
  • explore emotions and feelings, and encourage empathy
  • enhance imagination and creativity
  • extend children’s vocabulary and language, including story language (e.g. ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff…’ ‘And the wild things roared their terrible roars…’)
  • show how books work by turning pages, pointing to words, using pictures
  • develop a life-long love of books and reading

Books include all types of reading materials – catalogues, board books, picture books, electronic books etc. Books and stories are a key element of the Learning Together programme and are an integral part of every session. 

Click the links below to download two leaflets about it:

> Learning Together at Home handout for parents: PDF to print  or  PNG Image for screen

> How the Home Learning Environment supports children's learning - more detailed leaflet

'Home matters: Making the most of the HLE' - DfE-funded Guidance from Peeple, NLT, NCB & FYT

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Peeple was part of a DfE-funded consortia in 2018 with the National Literacy Trust, NCB and the Foundation Years Trust, to promote the importance of the home learning environment at a strategic and practice level. We jointly produced the following downloadable guidance:

>  'Home Matters' guidance for schools, nurseries, local authorities and public health partners on making the most of the home learning environment.

Our 'call to action' includes these recommendations:

  • Mainstream support from leaders and staff for parents to enrich the home learning environment (HLE) across early years, education, healthcare and social services
  • Ofsted should include support for home learning in early years inspections
  • Initial teacher training and other early education courses should include modules on the home learning environment and working with parents
  • Early education messages should be integrated into health services and messaging so that anyone in contact with families pre-birth and from birth to the age of three delivers the HLE message
  • There should be national and local public health campaigns on the importance of early childhood development, specifically talking with babies.

EY HLE: a key influence on children's educational outcomes from age 3 to 18 - EPPSE study

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The Effective Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) study tracked 3000 children from the age of three through to 18.  The study found that when students were 16 years old, their early years Home Learning Environment (EY-HLE) continued to be one of the most significant influences on their outcomes (1). "The quality of the early years home learning environment (HLE) showed a clear association with later differences in average GCSE results. The differences for GCSE English and maths were approximately 10 grade points, and for total GCSE score the difference was 125 points for those who had experienced a high versus low quality early years HLE. This again confirms earlier findings about the likely importance of parents providing a stimulating HLE in the early years." (p54)  By the time students were 18 years old, 'the early years Home Learning Environment shows a continued effect on overall A-level attainment' (7).

The researchers (from the University of Oxford and Institute of Education) monitored a number of activities that parents/carers do with their children (that they named the 'Early Years Home Learning Environment) which make a positive difference: singing songs and nursery rhymes together, reading with their child, visiting the library, playing with letters and numbers, painting and drawing, taking children out and about, and providing opportunities for them to play with their friends at home.

What adults do with their young children (both at home and by sending them to pre-school) is more important than their social class, educational background or where they live.(2) 

Growing up in Scotland (GUS) - “parenting behaviours are learnable, and changes in parenting are associated with improved child development”

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The findings from the EPPSE study have been replicated using data from ‘Growing up in Scotland’ (GUS) which is a longitudinal research study tracking the lives of over 5000 children and their families from the early years, through childhood and beyond. This study showed that the learning environment in the home had a greater influence over children’s outcomes than their mothers’ social class or education level.(3)

'Growing up in Scotland' also reported a thorough review of early interventions which concluded that, to gain the most impact, interventions should include both parent and child together, with a focus on enhancing the quality and quantity of parent/child interactions. The report concluded that “parenting behaviours are learnable, and changes in parenting are associated with improved child development”.(3)

Research references

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  1. Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2014) Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE 3–16), Influences on student’s development at age 16.  Ref: ISBN 978-1-78105-402-4, DFE-RR354
  2. Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) Technical Paper 12, The final Report: effective pre-school education. London, DfES Publications and Institute of Education
  3. Melhuish, E (2010) Impact of the Home Learning Environment on child cognitive development: secondary analysis of data from ‘Growing up in Scotland’. Scottish Government Social Research
  4. Blanden, J. (2006) ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed in later life? [PDF]. Ref: Working paper 31. London, DWP Publications
  5. Roulstone, S., Law, J., Rush, R., Clegg, J. and Peters, T. (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes. Ref: RR134. London, DfE Publications
  6. Nutbrown, C., Hannon, P. and Morgan, A. (2005) Early literacy work with families: Policy, practice and research. London, Sage Publications Ltd
  7. Sammons P, Katalin T, Sylva K, Melhuish E, Siraj I & Taggart B (2015)  Pre-school and home learning effects on A-level outcomes: Effective Pre-school, Primary & Secondary Education Project (EPPSE)  University of Oxford, DfE RR472A

peep learning together programme

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The Peep Learning Together Programme encourages parents/carers to do more of the things that help improve the quality of the home learning environment.  Download our Topic Aims Map, to see the wide range of ways in which the Learning Together Programme does this, or our shorter Peep Learning Together leaflet to share with colleagues. 

Our work has been evaluated in five independent studies by the Universities of Oxford and Warwick. Follow the link to find out more about our evidence-base.