If there’s one thing we know about education in the United States, it’s that the system is replete with socioeconomic and racial inequities. Now, a new study from researchers at Temple University and the University of Delaware suggests that bringing early childhood education outside school walls could help close that achievement gap. And what better place to start than the supermarket? Unless you’re living on a subsistence farm, sooner or later you are going to be visiting a grocery store. You have to get your food from somewhere — and as food deserts are quenched by initiatives like West Oakland’s People’s Community Market, grocery stores will only grow in terms of accessibility. For low-income communities, the study shows, they might even act as natural extensions of the preschool classroom.

The general idea of The Supermarket Study was to leverage the huge variety of food in a grocery store as a vocabulary builder — and then, in turn, to use this lush nutritional dictionary to help forge logical connections. In practice, it’s pretty unobtrusive: All one needs to do is place a bunch of signs around a supermarket. (Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an author on the study and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “In front of the milk section for example, you might see, “I come from a cow. Can you find something else that comes from a cow?””)

These kinds of semantic cues can encourage educational conversations between parents and children. Hirsh-Pasek lays out the motivation behind the study:

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

High-quality preschool prepares children for entrance into formal schooling. But preschools cannot do it alone and preschool failures cannot be blamed for the persistent gaps that have plagued American education since 1975. Perhaps it is time to augment debate about universal preschool with discussions of how to build learning communities that enrich children’s experiences at home, in school and beyond.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Enter The Supermarket Study, a way to change the paradigm in early learning as we re-imagine ordinary spaces as opportunities to build smart communities. Everyone has to buy food. And families—be they rich or poor, working one job or three—frequent supermarkets and grocery stores—places where they roll their children in carts through the aisles and meet basic needs in a familiar and unthreatening space. That’s why this unassuming place proved a perfect staging ground for a proof of concept on how we can enrich children’s everyday environments.

By adding and removing the signs and then acting as a fly on the wall, the researchers were able to test whether or not their learning tools would encourage more parent-child interaction, and whether or not any changes varied by socioeconomic status. In many ways, the intervention pulls a feather from the hat of behavioral economics, in which subtle “nudges” are used to effect consumer change. (A prototypical example is placing fruit — as opposed to cake — in the most appealing display cases in order to encourage healthier food choices in a cafeteria.)

The results are promising. In stores in low-income communities, presence of the signs was associated with a 33 percent increase in conversations between parents and children, placing the parental chatter on par with the baseline level apparent in middle-income stores. Interestingly, when the researchers put signs in stores frequented by middle-income customers, they failed to produce the same effect.

The team now plans to expand the reach of the study to more grocery stores and communities to see if they’re onto something. Other future ideas include attempting to take advantage of check-out aisles for math skill development.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Our focus has been squarely on school reform,” writes Hirsh-Pasek. “And school reform is important. But schools exist within the context of a wider community and if the community does not reinforce the learning opportunities that are outside the school walls, they cannot succeed.”