Guided Play Enhances Children’s Learning

By: Inas Essa

The first thing that pops up into our mind when we hear the word “play” is free time, fun, more fun, and no instructions. However, guided play could have much more benefits and enhance children’s learning according to a new study that has shown that guided play until age 8 years old improves children’s engagement and enhances their learning abilities.

There has been a growing debate in Early Childhood Education regarding the potential benefits of free play and direct instruction for children's learning and development. Such a spectrum between free play and direct instructions has involved many arguments, which concluded that “play-based learning”, including the integration of a high degree of child autonomy and adult guidance serves as a “middle ground” between the apparently opposite ideas of free play and direct instructions.

That said, guided play has been considered a powerful way for early learning, harnessing the motivation and exploration that children benefit from during free play combined with the support or guidance of an experienced partner.



The Evidence

Until recently, clear evidence regarding the benefits of guided play has been lacking to support the generally accepted idea of how play supports children's development and learning.

Assistance during play has been widely believed to foster children's learning by providing them opportunities for active participation and self-reflection more than that afforded by traditional didactic teaching methods. Additionally, it aims to allow children to engage with and learn from their environment while receiving support from adults that is contingent on their individual needs.

Several studies have found positive links between guidance during play and children's academic and socioemotional outcomes, including vocabulary development, prosocial skills, and supporting the development of children's cognitive ability to switch between tasks. Yet, it has been difficult to draw solid conclusions about the overall benefits.

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge gathered and assessed data from several, widespread studies and information sources on this topic. It reached the conclusion that teaching younger children through guided play supports their learning and acquisition of important early math skills at least, and sometimes better than the traditional direct instruction they receive at school.


The Concept

The term “guided-play” generally refers to playful educational activities that, although involving an adult using open-ended questions and prompts, give children the freedom to explore a learning goal in their own way.

The recent study has shown the link between the effectiveness of guided play and how it could be just as effective as more traditional methods of direct instruction in the development of key literacy, numeracy, and social skills, besides the acquisition of executive functions (essential thinking skills). These activities may include creating imagination-based games that require children to read, write or use math, or incorporating simple early learning skills, such as counting, into play.

Although these methods are common in pre-school education, they are used less in primary teaching; such a deficit that has been criticized by some researchers.



The Explanation

Dr. Elizabeth Byrne, co-author of the study, said: "It is only recently that researchers have started to conceptualize learning through play as something that exists on a spectrum. At one end you have free play, where children decide what to do with minimal adult involvement; at the other is traditional, direct instruction, where an adult tells a child what to do and controls the learning activity".

She added: "Guided play falls somewhere in between. It describes playful activities, which are scaffolded around a learning goal, but allow children to try things out for themselves. If children are given the freedom to explore, but with some gentle guidance, it can be very good for their education—perhaps in some cases better than direct instruction".

Additionally, Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play in Education, Development, and Learning at the University of Cambridge, said: "The argument is sometimes made that play, while beneficial, adds little to children's education. In fact, although there are still some big questions about how we should use guided play in classrooms, there is promising evidence that it actively enhances learning and development".

The findings indicate different possible explanations for why guided play may improve numeracy in particular. One possibility is that the gentle prompting that guided play entails may be a particularly effective way of teaching children to work through the logical steps that math-based tasks often involve.

Equally, the fact that guided play often involves hands-on learning may be important. "Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract," Byrne said. "They become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context. One reason play matters may be because it supports mental visualization".

Moreover, the researchers suggest that guided play may influence other characteristics that have a positive effect on educational progress by enhancing children's motivation, persistence, creativity, and confidence.

Dr. Christine O'Farrelly, a Senior Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, said: "It is likely that playful activities have the sort of positive impact we saw in our analysis partly because they are acting on other skills and processes that underpin learning. If we can understand more about how guided play shapes learning in this way, we will be able to identify more precisely how it could be used to make a really meaningful difference in schools".