THURSDAY, Sept. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Interaction with teachers plays a crucial role in pre-kindergarteners' development of language and math skills, especially for children from low-income families, finds a new study.

U.S. researchers looked at more than 2,700 children in public pre-k programs in 11 states and categorized the children according to how they spent most of their time in the classroom, including free-choice play or individual or group teacher-directed activities that focused on areas such as early literacy instruction and the development of fine motor skills.

Children who focused on free-choice play spent little time on academic activities and made smaller gains in language and math than the children who took part in teacher-directed activities. More than half of the children in the study spent the majority of their time in free-choice play.

The findings suggest that free-play activities may not be best for children's early development, the researchers said.

The study authors also found that children from low-income families who received individual instruction from teachers made greater gains in language and math skills than those who spent most of their time in other activities. This supports the belief that poor children do better in programs that focus on learning and provide more individual instruction.

The study is published in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development.

"If early childhood education is to level the playing field by stimulating children's academic development, more quality instructional time spent with teachers and less free-play time without teacher guidance may prepare children better for starting kindergarten," Nina C. Chien, a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, said in a news release from the Society for Research in Child Development. "Our work has implications for policy and practice."

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