Frank Edelblut: Parents don’t have to choose between play-based learning and academics

For the Monitor
Published: 2/13/2020 6:30:26 AM

As a father of seven children, I know a thing or two about parenting and I know it can be tough. Each child is unique and has their own individual needs. It can feel overwhelming, and many times you wonder if you’re even doing it right. I also know the value for children of unstructured play and have been a strong supporter of making sure that children in our schools, particularly our young ones, are not overwhelmed by too many academics too early.

There’s no handbook on how to raise your children; we all just grab hold of the resources we can find and try to do our best. That’s why when I became commissioner of the Department of Education my goal was not only to help children, but also to find tools that could help the parents raising them.

Research shows that a child with an engaged parent will do better in school. That’s one goal of the Waterford UPSTART program, to help parents engage more in their child’s learning. When I was first approached about a pilot program starting in New Hampshire, I knew it was something I wanted to support. has created an early education tool that works for every 4-year-old. Whether the child is enrolled in preschool, being cared for by a relative, or at home with mom or dad, every child can get an academic boost that will prepare them for kindergarten.

Recently, several professionals from Plymouth State argued in the Monitor that young students should not spend too much time behind computers. I could not agree more.

I would never support a program that would put our children in front of computers for long periods of time. Waterford UPSTART is not one of those programs, nor is it an online preschool, as some critics would claim.

Waterford UPSTART prepares children and parents for success in school. The children get 15 minutes of personalized, online instruction five days a week, but that’s just one piece of this program. Parents receive support as well through a family coach. This coach is with the parents every step of the way to answer questions and provide ideas for engaging their child in offline learning, such as reading books together, playing outside, and having rich conversations in the car or on a walk. Parents are also able to monitor their child’s progress, are given academic and social-emotional tools to use with their children daily and can connect to other families for support. Waterford UPSTART empowers the parents as much as the child.

Waterford UPSTART has been validated by eight years of rigorous external evaluations in Utah, and a third-party randomized-controlled trial (RCT) shows strong evidence of effectiveness. That makes supporting them a no-brainer. I connected them with superintendents across the state to see if there was interest, and there was. In New Hampshire, we believe in giving our residents a choice. I saw this as a solution that could work for many of our families.

Let me also clarify that the state of New Hampshire is not spending a single dime on this program. This pilot, which will help 200 New Hampshire 4-year-olds from economically disadvantaged homes prepare for kindergarten, is completely funded by philanthropic dollars, and is doing all the leg work. was recognized by the TED organization as one of eight Audacious Projects for 2019, which basically means TED believes this nonprofit program has the ability to change the world. As an Audacious Project, Waterford UPSTART was given funding to begin pilot programs in states across the nation.

While I completely believe in the power of play-based learning, I don’t believe this is an either/or conversation. We see far too many children enter kindergarten without the academic knowledge they need to be successful. All too often, these children are left behind. The average Waterford UPSTART graduate begins kindergarten reading at nearly a first-grade level. If we can give families a program that can get their children ready for school on day one, why wouldn’t we want to provide that for them?

I believe Waterford UPSTART will be a great tool for parents and guardians in New Hampshire – a tool that can make the job of parenting just a little easier. As a young father, I would have cherished a program like this.

(Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.)


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