Publication - Research and analysis

Growing up in Scotland: the impact of children's early activities on cognitive development

Published: 18 Mar 2009
Directorate:
Children and Families Directorate
Part of:
Children and families, Education
ISBN:
9780755919680

This report uses data from the first three waves of the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) to explore children’s cognitive ability.

92 page PDF

1.8 MB

92 page PDF

1.8 MB

Contents
Growing up in Scotland: the impact of children's early activities on cognitive development
Chapter 6 Conclusion

92 page PDF

1.8 MB

Chapter 6 Conclusion

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this report. At the purely descriptive level the following are uncontroversial:

  • The range and extent of activities that children experience, and the importance that parents attach to those activities, are strongly associated with socio-demographic factors. Children living in low income households, in the 15% most deprived areas of Scotland, in families where no-one has a full time job (or any job), whose mothers have few or no qualifications or were young when they were born all experience a smaller range of activities than their more advantaged counterparts.
  • Children who regularly take part in a wide range of activities and whose parents rate activities as very important have higher cognitive ability scores at the age of 34 months than children who experience fewer activities and whose parents attach less importance to them.
  • Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds in terms of their household income, employment status, area deprivation and maternal education and age have lower ability scores than children from more advantaged backgrounds. Low birth weight and signs of developmental delay at 22 months are also associated with low scores.

Trying to untangle the dynamics of these underlying relationships is somewhat more complex. Analysis exploring how all these factors interrelate suggests the following:

  • Most of the socio-demographic factors explored in relation to cognitive ability have a significant independent association, though the specific factors that are important differ depending on the assessment.
  • The overall variation in ability scores explained by either socio-demographic factors or activity levels is relatively small, though it is comparable to other similar analyses (for example the multivariate analysis of MCS presented in Dex, 2008). This means that other factors must therefore help explain cognitive ability than have been considered here or that are available within the study. These would include other associated cognitive skills not measured due to space constraints in the interview, genetic differences of a kind that a social survey would struggle to measure, as well as wider measures of children's early experiences such as maternal mental health (see for example Kiernan and Huerta, 2008).
  • The range and extent of activities that children experience also have a significant independent association with their cognitive ability levels once socio-demographic factors have been controlled for. This association is evident even when the relatively more advantaged, and consequently relatively more active, children are excluded from the analysis.

It is clear that parents from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the most likely to be dissatisfied with the range of activities available to their child so any attempts to encourage parents to do more activities with their children needs to be mindful of this pre-existing demand. Perhaps the most critical policy implication resulting from this analysis is that many of the kinds of activities that appear to be associated with positive outcomes for children can have few or no monetary implications for parents, for example singing songs or looking at books (as long as parents have access to libraries). It is therefore important to avoid any impression that children need to participate in numerous expensive classes and hobbies in order to benefit from the advantages conferred by activities.

There are, of course, limits to the interpretations that can be placed on any analysis of this kind, as noted at the start of Chapter 4. It would therefore be rash to infer that activities alone could close the gap between the outcomes of children from the most and least advantaged backgrounds without steps also being taken to address the wider socio-economic context. Further, only an experiment that exposed one group of disadvantaged children to lots more activities than they would otherwise have experienced while leaving a second control group unexposed would be able to quantify the impact and likely costs relative to the benefits achieved via such an initiative. Though there is nothing in the evidence here to suggest that enriching children's lives with a range of different activities from an early age can do harm.