While you might not know what she’s saying, a baby’s babbling is a sign that she’s learning. When her caregiver responds with encouraging words, the exchange becomes more than a bonding moment – it builds a growing vocabulary. Early childhood learning takes place everywhere, not just in classrooms or childcare centers.

Caregivers (parents, guardians, grandparents, and other caring adults) want to give their children a strong start. Efforts to strengthen their confidence and ability to be their children’s first teachers are expanding across Philadelphia, reaching caregivers in their homes, through their children’s preschool and elementary classrooms, and in community locations. We support organizations that reach families in all these places to help adults find ways to nurture children’s early literacy skills.

Decades of scientific research show that home visits from a nurse, social worker, early childhood educator, or other trained professional shortly after the birth of a child improve the lives of children and families. Home visiting programs can vary in scope, frequency, and core focus, but they all seek to build trust between the expert visitor and the family. Most home visiting programs operating in Philadelphia focus on child health and development, among other outcomes.

Data source: Child Trends, 2018

During a home visit, families can learn and practice healthy parenting techniques, discuss challenges, ask questions, and learn about child development. The trusting relationship and wealth of information provided by a home visitor creates an opportunity to enhance early learning in the home. To make the most of this opportunity, we wanted to know more about the landscape of home visiting services in Philadelphia.

Research conducted by Child Trends identified several opportunities to strengthen and expand the home visiting services available to families, including a need for more and better professional development opportunities to help all home visiting providers engage and retain families and staff. In response, we supported Health Federation of Philadelphia to develop a suite of in-person and online opportunities for professional development and peer learning for home visitors and program supervisors. Over three years, this project will reach all 17 local home visiting programs with shared training and will create, for the first time, a local community of practice for home visitors.

Child Trends’ research also identified an opportunity to ensure families are being connected to the home visiting program that best matches their needs. Philadelphia Department of Public Health and home visiting providers have collaborated to create the city’s first centralized intake system for home visiting services: Philly Families CAN. The new web-based tool acts as a “one-stop-shop,” making it easier for families – and for organizations that refer clients to home visiting – to access these services and understand the different types of programs that are available. Philly Families CAN will support enrollment and data collection for multiple home visiting providers, allowing for more efficient and effective matches between families and available services.

In addition to home visiting, there are a range of evidence-based programs that help caregivers and children develop relationships that support early learning. To increase the use of such evidence-based programming in Philadelphia, we created the Caregiver Engagement Initiative. The initiative pairs social service agencies – groups experienced in supporting families – with early childhood education (ECE) providers to offer parent education programs as an extension of the children’s ECE enrollment. These partnerships make sense because social service agencies bring expertise in providing adult education, and ECE centers have close connections to caregivers and knowledge of child development. Five partnerships are funded through our Caregiver Engagement Initiative, designed to reach more than 1,500 caregivers through 19 high-quality ECE center locations.

Different parenting programs were chosen by the partner teams to guide their approach to engaging caregivers. From a curriculum that teaches parents how to build school readiness skills to a program focused on helping parents of children with behavioral and emotional challenges, all have strong evidence of effectiveness and were chosen to meet the needs of the specific communities served. An evaluation of the Initiative will help identify which parent engagement models can be most effectively implemented locally, informing potential future investments.

Understanding that not all caregivers are going to be able to spend time in regular programming at their child’s ECE center, the Foundation has also supported other means of connecting centers and families. For example, we were the inaugural funders of “Text to Talk,” a program developed by researchers at Temple University College of Education. Through this program, teachers send carefully crafted messages directly to caregivers’ smartphones. The messages share tips to encourage caregivers to use the words their children are learning in school that week, creating a bridge between school and home. Early findings suggest that vocabulary growth has been enhanced as a result of the tool and many teachers and families are enthusiastic about using the tool to further engage families in their children’s learning. Text to Talk is now being implemented more broadly in pre-k classrooms in Philadelphia and may soon be used by interested partners across the city to strengthen connections between ECE centers and families.

The caregivers of elementary school students are important partners for teachers to reinforce learning at home. The ritual of the parent-teacher conference is one way to foster that partnership. A research-based approach known as the Academic Parent-Teacher Team (APTT) is a new take on traditional one-on-one conferences. In a series of three structured meetings held in the fall, winter, and spring, teachers meet with their students’ caregivers as a group to explain what their children have been learning in school and model ways for families to accelerate learning at home. In addition to the group sessions, families have individual meetings with their children’s teacher. Evidence from APTT implementation in other districts indicates program effectiveness, in particular in elementary schools that focus on literacy improvements. With our support, the School District of Philadelphia Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) is implementing the APTT model in nine schools in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. Staff in the FACE office will soon be ready to support the expansion of APTT to elementary schools around the city.

In similar fashion, the School District is expanding a partnership with Book Trust to all 150 District elementary schools, serving an estimated 40,000 kindergarten to third-grade students. Through Book Trust, students choose one to three books each month. Children read these books in school and then take them home to make them a permanent part of their home library. Caregivers get tips on how to support their children’s engagement with these books at home. Like APTT, this strengthens connections between the classroom experience and the support children receive at home.

As the School District seeks to engage families more fully in the push for early literacy proficiency, it is making data more accessible to help caregivers understand their students’ progress. We supported the School District to develop an easy-to-use, reliable online resource showing early literacy and other key education data for every charter and district school in Philadelphia. Through an outreach effort, families and school partners are learning how to access and use the new information. In combination with other parent engagement efforts related to early literacy, newly available and clear data will help families have conversations about early literacy progress and goals with teachers and school leaders.

Families go many places together outside of the childcare center or school. The time that caregivers spend with their children out in the community is an opportunity to share tips and demonstrate activities to support them in their role as their children’s first teachers. For example, in doctors’ offices across the city, pediatricians participate in the Reach Out and Read program, which is proven to build literacy among children age 5 and under. During a visit at a doctor’s office that participates in Reach Out and Read, a pediatrician or nurse provides a family with brief guidance on reading aloud, along with a developmentally appropriate book for the child’s home library. To expand the reach of this evidence-based program, we have supported a collaborative effort, led by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to advocate for public funding to support delivery of the Reach Out and Read program in Pennsylvania.

We are also seeking to support large organizations and institutions, with strong community connections, to prioritize early learning in their ongoing programming. For example, we supported the Free Library of Philadelphia to develop Read, Baby, Read, a program that offers storytimes, play groups, and parent groups for babies, toddlers, and their families. In new baby-friendly spaces, a staff member leads caregivers in song and reading techniques that they can replicate at home. Beginning at two branch locations, Read, Baby, Read has drawn robust attendance, and in 2020 we supported the Free Library to expand these programs and amenities to ten additional branches.

Sometimes large institutions do not seem accessible to families across the city. For this reason, the Foundation created the Informal Learning Initiative to help museums and other cultural centers engage directly with families in neighborhoods across Philadelphia. The initiative pairs a cultural institution, such as Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial or The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, with at least one community-based organization that has strong relationships with families, such as Sunrise of Philadelphia, Congreso de Latinos Unidos or ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania. Together, they design a series of learning opportunities to engage children and their caregivers in creative play and discovery geared toward developing children’s early literacy skills. The partnerships are vehicles to bring early learning programming directly to families in ways that not only engage children, but also involve adults as active participants. By building these connections between families and organizations in their city, we anticipate that more families will have access to the information and activities that they need to support their children’s early learning.

Organizations participating in the Informal Learning Initiative:


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