Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Making Play Work for Education: Research Demonstrates That Guided Play Can Help Preschool Children Prepare for Reading and Math Better Than Free Play and Direct Instruction Alone

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Making Play Work for Education: Research Demonstrates That Guided Play Can Help Preschool Children Prepare for Reading and Math Better Than Free Play and Direct Instruction Alone

Article excerpt

In 2014, New York City implemented a badly needed and bold initiative: It vastly expanded its prekindergarten offerings, with the promise of serving every 4-year-old in the city. The goal is to boost every child's academic and school-readiness skills by using guided play. This initiative provides the perfect opportunity to consider the relationship between play and learning, and the way in which guided play intrinsically links them. Research on guided play demonstrates how it is possible to couple a curriculum-centered preschool program with a developmentally appropriate pedagogical approach to classroom teaching.

The notion of guided play was first introduced to the literature in order to bridge the oft-discussed yet false dichotomy between play and learning (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2011). Children, especially in the preschool years, learn a tremendous amount through play. However, to fully test this claim, we need a clear definition of "guided play" so we can distinguish it from other types of play. This article does that. It also explains how learning through play occurs and why guided play is most effective for achieving specified learning goals in areas such as reading readiness and number sense.

Guided play defined

When we think of play in young children, we usually think of free play, where children can do anything they want with any materials they want, without intervention from adults. There is mounting evidence that free play is highly beneficial for various aspects of children's development (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2008; Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006). Children who play more have better social skills (Singer & Singer, 2009), demonstrate better self-regulation (Diamond & Lee, 2011), and are more creative thinkers (Dansky, 1980). Although these links are largely correlational (Lillard et al., 2013), they suggest that play has value for the development of well-adjusted, creative individuals who will be prepared to solve challenging problems.

But not all play is created equal. While free play is a wonderful realm for children to explore their social and self-regulatory skills, research suggests that it might not be the best way to achieve educational outcomes (Fisher et al., 2010). It's easy to see why this is the case: Although children engaged in unfettered exploration could potentially stumble on the information that a teacher is trying to impart, it would lead to haphazard success at best. Guided play is the best way to incorporate play into early curricula without compromising educational goals, while allowing children to enjoy school.

What's the difference between guided and free play? To help characterize this distinction, we offer a two-by-two grid (see Table 1), that categorizes types of play according to who initiates them and who directs them. Free play is both child-initiated and child-directed; children decide what to play and how. When play is both adult-initiated and adult-directed, it's really a form of direct instruction, where adults are telling children what actions to take. When play is child-initiated but adult-directed, this is co-opted play: Children start out in charge, but adults take over and begin to set the agenda for the scenario, without providing space for children's autonomy. Finally, guided play is a blend of adult initiation and child direction.

In guided play, it's crucial that children direct the action because it gives them the autonomy to make decisions about what to do in any given moment. They are in control of what happens next and in what they wish to explore and how. Children do not just perceive that they are in control; in guided play, they truly can decide what to do next and how to respond. This is an important feature of guided play because even children are sensitive to the difference between circumstances where they lead and those where they are given an educational experience dis guised as play--what one might call "chocolate-covered broccoli. …

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