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6 Reasons Why Your Kids Need Guided Play

Optimal outcomes with optimal play.

Key points

  • Guided play creates optimal learning environments.
  • Benefits are strongest when the child is engaged, actively involved, having fun, iterating, and playing with themes meaningful to them.
  • "Knowledge-based" learning, such as language, math, and science, are well supported by guided play.

“Play” is critically important, and different types of play matter in different ways.

Most research on play, historically, has been focused on free play (1, 2). As the name implies, free play is characterized by children initiating and freely driving the play experience, with minimal or no adult involvement.

Guided play, in contrast, involves some involvement from adults, either before the play starts, or very selectively during the play (3) with the intent of supporting specific learning goals. With guided play, adults are a factor in one of two ways: they either create the play environment to support specific outcomes and then step back to let children play, or during child-directed play, the adult purposefully provides guiding questions or comments that highlight or support certain learning goals.

Guided Play in the Real World

A free play moment can be turned into a guided play experience through activity-related questions. For instance, an adult observing a child stacking blocks (image 1) can pose deliberate questions such as:

“How many blocks are in your tower?” Learning outcomes: verbal and object counting, cardinality.

“What color is that block?” Learning outcomes: color names and recognition.

“What do you think will happen if you put this block on the edge of your tower?” Learning outcomes: logic and simple physical concepts, hypothesis testing, and experimentation.

“What block is the smallest?” Learning outcomes: informal measurement, making observations

Edward_Indy/Adobe Stock
Free play with blocks can easily turn into guided play.
Source: Edward_Indy/Adobe Stock

The child has selected the block activity and is directing how and for how long they play, while the grownup fosters specific learning goals through targeted prompts and observations.

Why is Guided Play so Effective at Supporting Learning Goals?

Free play, by its very nature, lacks extrinsic goals (i.e., adults aren’t crafting or influencing the play), and is great for supporting storytelling, social-emotional, and self-regulation skills.

Guided play, in contrast, is based at least in part on learning goals, and is particularly effective for “knowledge-based” learning including language, math, science, and computational thinking. But why is guided play so effective?

Some of the reasons are obvious: the play experiences are designed to support learning and adults may provide meaningful questions and comments that evoke “ah-ha!” moments in the child. But there’s more to it than that. It turns out that guided play shares many of the characteristics that some researchers (4) have determined create, “optimal learning environments.”

Six Reasons Why Guided Play “Works”

First, guided play involves active learning, as opposed to passive learning. That is, the child is focused and participating in the play rather than simply observing something.

During play, children are highly engaged in what they’re doing, meaning they’re not as likely to be distracted by something else. Not surprisingly, we learn better when we’re not distracted and when we’re focused on the task or concept at hand.

Playing makes the underlying skills meaningful rather than abstract. For instance, learning about fractions is more meaningful in the context of pretending to share pizza with a group of friends than it is with flashcards.

Oftentimes, play is socially interactive, meaning children play with others, which has been shown to enhance multiple aspects of children’s development (5, 6).

Play is typically joyful, and positive emotional states have long been associated with learning benefits. When children are engrossed in something they feel good about, they’re motivated to stick with it, and can develop a positive attitude about learning.

Guided play often involves children naturally generating, testing, and revising hypotheses, almost like scientists—which is great because learning is an iterative process.

All Play is Valuable, But Guided Play Is Uniquely Effective for Key Learning Goals

Guided play is not inherently more valuable than free play or other types of play, but it does have its value. It is uniquely effective when caregivers, educators, or designers (e.g., game designers, learning designers) want to address specific learning goals. It is effective not because of the intentionality of the adults involved; rather, guided play champions many of the characteristics that are naturally found in optimal learning environments. When the child is engaged, actively involved, having fun, iterating, interacting with others, and playing with themes that are meaningful to them, then the opportunities for learning are abundant.

References

(1) Eberle, S. G. (2014). The elements of play. Toward a philosophy and a definition of play. American Journal of Play, 6(2), 214-233.

(2) Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students of life. New York: NY: Basic Books.

(3) Weisberg, D. S., Kittredge, A. K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Klarh, D. (2015). Making play work for education. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(8), 8-13.

(4) Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, J., Liu, C., Neale, D., & Whitebread, D. (2018). Accessing the inaccessible: Redefining play as a spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1 - 12.

(5) Berk., L. E., Mann, T. D., & Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds), Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth (pp. 74-100). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

(6) Howes, C., Unger, O., & Matheson, C. C. (1992). The collaborative construction of pretend: Social pretend play functions. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

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