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Friday, 21 June 2019

Guided Play is Better Than Free Play for Learning


I'm constantly coming across posts from homeschooling mothers about how free play is important for children. They are adamant that children be allowed to play all day without any structured lessons from adults. Well no, both have their place for children but if you want children to learn through play then you have to guide their play. So yes, guided play is better than free play for learning. This is based on research.

There are many research on this, one found that kindergarten scores, storytelling, executive function and motivation improved through literacy-rich guided play. Another research found that children learnt the mathematical concept of geometric shapes much better in guided play than free play or direct instructions. 

What is Guided Play?
Basically, guided play has these two components:
  1. Children lead the play.
  2. Teacher or parent observe the play and ask open-ended questions at the appropriate time to encourage thinking.


In free play, children are left to themselves to play. Without guidance, they are unlikely to learn beyond what they already know (except of course, in exceptional cases). But with the help of a more knowledgeable other, they can reach the next step in learning. This is known as scaffolding in teaching. The teacher or parent scaffold children's play to support and extend their learning. It's also teaching children in what Vygostsky called 'The Zone of Proximal Development'.

There are two ways you can guide your children's play. One is to let children play randomly with whatever they choose and then observe them for opportunities to enrich their play. The other way is to set up their play area in an enticing way with what they are interested in. Maybe they've just developed a craze for horses. So you might display in the reading area fiction and non-fiction books of horses. You might set up some blocks with toy horses or set up a farm with different animals including horses. When they start to engage with one of these set ups then you observe their play for the opportunity to extend their learning. You might introduce new words associated with horses such as stable, ranch, paddock, gallop, trot and so on. Or you might introduce mathematical concepts such as above, below, between, in front, behind and so on. It really depends how the play evolves. 

Let me give you an example. The children in my class were learning about shapes. In the block corner there were some triangle and square shapes that connect together for building things. One child started to lock the squares together to form a box. He put another square on top and formed a cube. 

"Well look at that!" I said. "I wonder what this is called?" 
"A box!" He said. "I've made a box."
"Yes, it's a box." I replied. "It's also called a cube. A cube is a shape that is made up of squares."
"It's a cube." He repeated.

I left him to continue his play. He eventually took the triangles and connected them together. He came up to me and said, "It's a pyramid."
"Yes, it's a pyramid!" I then made a pyramid with a square base and asked him, "Is this still a pyramid?"
"Yes," he replied.
So I asked him, "Why are they different?"

He looked at both of them, turning them over and comparing them.
Finally, he said, "This one is all triangles but this one has a square."
"Yes, this one sits on a square so it's called a square pyramid. And this one sits on a triangle so it's called a triangular pyramid."

This child became fascinated with 3D shapes (it's not something that I teach preschool children but I will extend their learning when appropriate). He loved to see what he could build and loved to learn the names for them. In other play episodes he would attach two triangular or square pyramids together or two cubes together and asked me for their names. Sometimes, when I don't know the names of them I would tell him, "I'm not really sure of that one. Let me search for the name." Then I'd get my ipad and start searching and eventually found the right shape and told him the name, to his delight. 

Through guided play, this child learnt 3D shapes and their names. If I had left him to play without any guidance, do you think he would have became fascinated with 3D shapes and learnt their names? I doubt it very much. Maybe he would have continued to build random shapes and played with them for a bit but that would have been the extent of his learning.

If you're interested in guided play to teach your children then read this article based on all the research into guided play: Guide Play: Principles and Practices.

For more on children's play and cognitive development, get my book (my affiliate link):

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