Parents wanting to polish their preschooler's literacy and numeracy skills are better off asking them to try writing out a Christmas wish list rather than buying every item on it.
That's the verdict from new Macquarie University research which found an improvement in the skills of young children who used writing and counting in practical ways such as making lists or composing letters.
Lead study author and lecturer at Macquarie University's Institute of Early Childhood Yeshe Colliver said parents often felt pressured to buy pricey apps and educational toys in the belief they would boost brain power.
Dr Colliver's work with four-year-olds found the children were interested in what the adults around them were doing and parents could incorporate that into learning.
"You don't need to purchase expensive toys to stimulate your child's development," he said.
"Children learn how the world works by watching and copying the people around them. This puts a bit more power into the hands of parents. They don't have to become victims of modern marketing and commercial products because they can have an influence."
Dr Colliver and study co-author Amael Arguel asked parents to do everyday problem solving activities involving literacy and numeracy skills, such as writing a letter, in the presence of their children and assessed them against a control group. Over four weeks, the children who were exposed to adults doing problem-solving started to do more activities themselves involving literacy and numeracy, such as writing letters or sorting objects into patterns.
"These sorts of activities show the value of the things we do in every day life," Dr Colliver said.
"The truth is we need those skills because we use them every day, we tend to overlook how much we use them and how much we can utilise them in helping children to understand the world."
Early childhood educator Libby Klingberg said the research suggested parents should scrap the apps in favour of engaging children in regular household chores.
"Parents get such mixed messages with regard to learning needing to be structured and formal," said Ms Klingberg, director of Explore and Develop early learning centre in Macquarie Park.
"You see the rise of early childhood tutoring now which is frightening. You're seeing the rise and rise of literacy and numeracy apps for children.
"If we take a bit more time and invite children into an adult world by breaking down what we are doing into components a child can understand, literacy and numeracy is something they will just absorb. It's much more effective than giving them the iPad with the latest app."
North Ryde father Scott Kennedy took part in the study with his daughter Sophia, who will start kindergarten next year.
Mr Kennedy and his mother used a $30 easel and butcher's paper to write letters to his British father, stressing the importance of written communication with family members living overseas.
"If we showed an interest in letter writing, so did she," he said.
"She became much more interested in words and sounds than she had been previously. It's been incredibly beneficial. I now think she's ready for school."
Seven things you can do at home with your child to improve literacy and numeracy
1. Write a letter or a postcard
Demonstrates the importance of literacy and written communication.
2. Make a shopping list
Helps with problem solving, thinking about what food needs to be bought and in what quantities.
3. Set the table
Think about how many people are eating. How many plates, cups and knives and forks are needed?
How much food will a certain number of people eat? What if there is an extra guest? How will this affect the quantity of ingredients needed?
5. Send an email
Talk about what you are writing, how you are spelling the words and sound them out as you go.
6. Sort out the laundry
Helps children identify patterns, for example finding matching socks.
7. Stack the dishwasher
Helps with grouping different items such as round bowls and flat plates.