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Improving and scaling up a digital book-sharing programme

In this design-led project, Nesta’s fairer start team and our collaborators at the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge, wanted to understand how the digital Playtime with Books programme could be scaled up for wider delivery. The Playtime with Books programme was developed by the PEDAL team alongside Professors Lynne Murray and Peter Cooper.

Playtime with Books aims to support parents/carers to playfully share and explore books with their 10 -24 month old children. In this project we aimed to identify and understand the needs and priorities of potential delivery partners and parents/carers as well as barriers they might face. The key learning from the stakeholder research emphasised the importance of building trusted relationships between facilitators and parents/carers, embedding the programme in existing initiatives/networks, using familiar digital platforms, minimising number of digital platforms, exploring a flexible model and optimising facilitators’ time in training and administrative tasks.

First 1,001 days and the school readiness gap

Research suggests that the first 1,001 days in a child’s life is a period of rapid growth and development (Cusick, S. E., & Georgieff, M. K., 2016). During this period, parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their children’s development. Positive features of parenting such as parental sensitivity and a positive home learning environment are associated with children having better outcomes in the early years (Batchelor et al., 2022). However, wider systemic factors driven by poverty can undermine a family’s ability and resources dedicated towards responsive parenting (Oppenheim & Milton, 2021). By age three, there are already large disparities in children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, correlated with factors including sex, ethnicity and socio-economic background (Cattan et. al, 2022).

Children entering school with robust oral language abilities have significantly improved chances of positive long-term outcomes in literacy development, educational attainment, mental health, employment and social inclusion (Asmussen et al., 2018)

Analysis of early years foundation stage profile 2021-2022 (EYFSP) data in England currently shows that at age five, 68.6% of children eligible for free school meals are on track with their development in language and communication as compared to 82% of their advantaged peers.

Role of book sharing in supporting children’s language development

The frequency of shared learning activities between caregivers and young children have been shown to be important for child language development and vocabulary development . Activities such as picture book sharing, playing with a toy together and pointing and talking provides an opportunity for parents and children to share an activity and enjoy reciprocal interactions. This not only helps in building a rich enjoyable home-learning environment but also fosters positive parent-child interactions. Evidence shows that frequent shared activities, including book sharing with preschoolers can support vocabulary development at age three and later.

Support to embed book sharing in family routines may be particularly important for parents experiencing poverty, who face additional barriers in sharing books regularly.

The Playtime with Books model

Book-sharing programmes, such as the Murray and Cooper shared picture book intervention have shown positive effects on children’s language development. However, there is currently a lack of effective book -sharing interventions developed for delivery in the UK, especially for younger children aged 0 - 2. Some parents may also experience barriers to attending in-person parenting support services due barriers related to transport, childcare, and/or inflexible work schedule. To help address these challenges and increase UK parents’ access to support with book sharing, the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge has developed a programme called Playtime with Books. This is a programme that can be delivered completely remotely using digital technology, with support from a trained practitioner.

We partnered with PEDAL between February and May 2023 to gather views from a wide range of stakeholders on this programme’s feasibility for delivery at a wider scale across the UK. The programme is delivered online, with participating families taking part in their own time with support from a programme facilitator. Here is a breakdown of the activities.

  • As a pre-programme activity parents meet their facilitator in a short welcome video call to hear more about the programme. This is also where parents receive their free pack of four picture books which they will use throughout the programme.
  • The programme then kicks-off with online self-paced sessions that introduce skills they can use when book sharing with their child. There are five skills sessions in total that are spread over 6-8 weeks. Facilitators encourage parents to complete the skills sessions and engage in daily book sharing interactions with their child.
  • Over the six weeks, facilitators have up to three video calls with parents where they support parents with any challenges or concerns they have. They also use this opportunity to share video-feedback on short clips the parent has filmed of themselves and their child sharing a book together, to highlight and reinforce positive book sharing behaviours and interactions with the child.

The four books and the weekly routine

What did we do?

In this project we set out to engage a wide range of stakeholders so that we could explore:

  • feedback on the current Playtime with Books model, including its strengths and weaknesses
  • thoughts on which families might benefit most from the programme as well as potential barriers parents might face in accessing the programme
  • opportunities to improve Playtime with Books, so that it works better for service delivery organisations and parents
  • whether Playtime with Books is a model that could be offered more widely.

We conducted 20 research calls with a range of expert stakeholders and service delivery organisations. We spoke with local authority early years services, reading charities, targeted services, family support organisations and digital services supporting parents. Activities included research calls, group sessions and workshops.

What did we learn?

The research helped us identify and understand which service providers might be interested in delivering Playtime with Books in the future and what families/caregivers value in a service. The following themes emerged.

  • Relationships and trust between families and professionals play a crucial role in onboarding parents to new programmes and supporting their continued engagement. If parents trust the practitioners, they are more likely to engage with the service. Thus programmes such as Playtime with Books should build on existing relationships with parents and make time for preliminary activities to build that relationship
  • There is an appetite for the programme among some early-years service providers, including children’s centres, nurseries and library outreach services. These services emphasised the need to embed the programme into existing initiatives, to build on existing local offers for families. Some suggestions included partnering with local libraries, nurseries and Family Hubs.
  • Service providers would like flexibility in delivery modes, so that the programme could be delivered virtually or in person depending on the needs of families and context of local service delivery. While a lot of programmes ran virtually during the pandemic, many services had returned to in-person delivery and some service providers felt that parents would find it easier to access the programme in a community location (eg, a children’s centre) or during a home visit.
  • Some of the professionals we interviewed were interested in participating in a further pilot of Playtime with Books, to help identify and test improvements to the delivery model.

When we discussed the access needs of parents and carers,and how best to support their engagement, we learned that:

  • sustaining parents’ engagement with programmes is a common challenge but through trusted relationships it is possible
  • it would be helpful to use apps and platforms that are familiar to parents, to minimise friction with sign-up and engagement
  • we should try to limit the number of different apps/digital platforms used in delivering the programme, to make it as easy as possible for parents to participate. We should also further explore parents' access to digital devices and data when considering the viability of the model
  • we should build parental confidence to bookshare. Given that the activity is led by parents, it is important that they feel comfortable and confident in book sharing with their child. The aim is to build the parental capacity and embed this in their daily routine.
  • we should explore informal ways of engaging parents by meeting them in the venues and activities that they use in their day-to-day life to initiate contact and help get them engaged with services before inviting them to participate in a more formal programme.

The team also gathered feedback on how the time involved in delivering the service could be reduced for both professionals and parents, to help make it feasible to deliver at a larger scale. Some of the suggestions included:

  • developing a more light-touch version of the online sessions for parents, making the content more ‘bite size’ and delivering it over more sessions, rather than a small number of longer sessions
  • making parents’ registration and sign-up a more seamless experience. Using platforms that are more familiar to families, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Drive could help ensure that we optimise facilitators’ time and capacity as parents would need less support with the registration process
  • exploring families’ willingness to participate in video-feedback services which might be a barrier for some families. Parents who feel less comfortable with it may need support from a practitioner to build their confidence
  • services staffed by volunteers may need support from trained professionals to deliver video-feedback as they may not have the skills and confidence to deliver this independently
  • reduce the demand on facilitators by automating certain aspects. It would also help if training time could be reduced from two half days currently required.

Additional suggestions included involving parents and carers in selecting books that are representative of their ethnicity and cultural background. Choosing books that feel most relevant to families will support parents and carers with practising book sharing with their children. Some of those we interviewed also suggested the potential value of engaging community leaders to champion the programme.

Next steps

Following this project, Nesta and PEDAL are now developing plans for further collaboration on testing and adapting the Playtime with Books model to increase its feasibility for delivery at a wider scale.

In the next phase of work, we would like to develop partnerships with local service providers to help us to further test implementation of the Playtime with Books delivery model and learn about how it could be improved. In this work we will explore the following.

  1. Optimise the digital platform in line with family and services’ needs
  2. Recruit project partners including charities and local authorities/service providers
  3. Work with project partners to recruit parents to participate in co-design
  4. Test the adapted intervention by piloting its delivery with parents and gather feedback from parents and service providers
  5. Understand the delivery costs involved in implementing this programme.

In the longer term, both Nesta and PEDAL are interested in the potential for the Playtime with Books programme to be implemented at a wider scale, to help support children’s early language development and reduce the income-related early years attainment gap in the UK.


Pankhuri Anand

Pankhuri Anand

Pankhuri Anand

Analyst, fairer start mission

Pankhuri is an analyst in the fairer start team.

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Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Louise works as part of a multi-disciplinary innovation team focused on narrowing the outcome gap for disadvantaged children.

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Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Designer, Design and Technology

Imran Nazerali is a designer who cares about people.

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Suraj Vadgama

Suraj Vadgama

Suraj Vadgama

Director of Design, Design & Technology

Suraj leads the Design & Technology practice at Nesta.

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