Most parents want to help their kids do well in school, and for dads the answer may be found in something simple and fun.

A new study from the United Kingdom finds that kids do better in elementary school when their fathers regularly spend time interacting with them through reading, playing, telling stories, drawing or singing.

Researchers at Leeds University Business School found that when dads regularly interacted with their 3-year-old children in these ways, the kids did better in school at age 5. When they were involved with their kids at age 5, those children had improved scores in key assessments at age 7.

While dads had an impact on educational achievement, moms had more impact on kids’ emotional and social behaviors, the study found.

Even just 10 minutes of time each day makes a difference, according to the study, which looked at thousands of two-parent households.

Dr. Michael Yogman, a pediatrician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, chalked up the benefits to the double-dose of parenting in having two parents interacting with the children, the trusted relationship and something specific to dads themselves.

Yogman, who was not involved in this research, was lead author of an American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report called the Power of Play.

“I think fathers also provide complementary and non-redundant play experience with children, so that their interactions are a little more arousing and playful, even at very young ages,” Yogman said.

Dad play tends to have a more vigorous quality to it, Yogman said.

“The games they play with the baby have a different quality. They’re a little more arousing, more physical games. Holding the baby up high above their head, tickling the baby, bicycling the baby’s legs. Baby’s more likely to do belly laughs,” Yogman said. “Mothers are more likely to engage in repetitive verbal games.”

The critical issue is that the parents support the child’s development in complementary ways, Yogman said.

“So one parent typically emphasizes security, protecting the child from danger. And the other more often promotes independence, encouraging the child to explore and take risks and try independent problem solving. They provide unique benefits and complement each other. And it fits with most developmental theories, which require a balance of activities,” Yogman said.

The study authors agreed that having two involved parents exposes a kid to more variation, and that fathers tend to engage with their kids in different ways than mothers do.

For their research, the authors used data on 5,000 mother-father households in England from the Millennium Cohort Study. Their children were born between 2000 and 2002.

“Mothers still tend to assume the primary carer role and therefore tend to do the most childcare, but if fathers actively engage in childcare, too, it significantly increases the likelihood of children getting better grades in primary school,” said study co-author Dr. Helen Norman, a research fellow at Leeds.

“This is why encouraging and supporting fathers to share childcare with the mother, from an early stage in the child’s life, is critical,” she said in a university news release.

One theorist of child development said that play is the work of the child, and it truly is, said Lisa Cies, a child life specialist at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Cies was not involved in this study.

“Children use play for so many developmental tasks. They use it to learn how to engage with others. They use it to learn about their world and just how things work. ‘Oh, if I drop this spoon off my highchair tray, what happens to it physically and then who picks it up and, oh, it’s a game,’” Cies said. “So they’re learning about all these different facets of development and it’s also how they express their stress or cope. As adults, we have a lot of other coping mechanisms but children use play as an outlet for stress.”

In play at home, Cies suggests quality over quantity.

“It can be as short as 10 minutes, as long as the distractions are away and you’re following the child’s lead. And your agenda is simply to be present,” Cies said.

Dr. Jason Nagata, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed.

“Fathers should be aware that even small investments in time with their children can have important benefits,” he said, calling the study’s design and analysis “robust.”

If available, Nagata said fathers should take paternity leave so they can be involved with their children from the beginning.

However, “it is important to note that the study only included two-parent households with mothers and fathers, so the findings are not relevant for single-parent households or same-sex parents,” Nagata added.

Future research could provide guidance for single-parent or same-sex parent households, he noted. Also, the study focused on children in their first seven years of life. Future research could investigate fathers’ impacts on older children and teenagers’ education, Nagata added.

What you can do

For now, Yogman offered some suggestions for adding play to daily life.

Create playful games on the walk to school, like sidewalk hopscotch. Start counting games at the grocery store. Read together, pausing and letting the child embellish the story, he said.

“We’re not trying to add a burden to their already busy schedules, but we’re trying to show opportunities with things they’re already doing,” Yogman said.

Schools can help by developing strategies to engage fathers, the study’s authors said.

The research is published as “What a Difference A Dad Makes: Parental Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education (PIECE)” and was released Sept. 20 in an online webinar. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on the Power of Play.

SOURCES: Michael Yogman, MD, pediatrician, Cambridge Health Alliance, Massachusetts; Lisa Cies, MA, child life specialist, UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles; Jason Nagata, MD, associate professor, pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco; “What a Difference A Dad Makes: Parental Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education (PIECE),” University of Leeds, United Kingdom, Sept. 20, 2023