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What happens when you stop teaching young children via direct instruction and instead set up purposeful opportunities to play? They could learn just as much—or more— when it comes to literacy, numeracy and executive function skills critical to early academic success, according to a new review of 17 studies of play.

Researchers looked at 39 studies of play and included 17 in a meta-analysis that found when children ages three to eight engage in guided play, they can learn just as much in some domains of literacy and executive function as children who receive direct instruction from a teacher or adult. (The studies that were excluded did not fit the review’s criteria of assessing child learning and development outcomes.) Guided play, unlike free play, means there is a learning goal set by an adult and children are ‘gently steered’ to explore. The study found children also learned slightly more in some areas of numeracy, like knowledge of shapes, and showed a greater mastery of some behavioral skills, like being able to switch tasks.

These findings, which were published in the journal, Child Development, add to a growing body of research that has found play is not simply a carefree tangent to learning, but rather an effective way to teach important early skills.

“Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” said Elizabeth Byrne, a co-author of the study and a research associate at the University of Cambridge, in a statement. That’s why the hands-on nature of play may be helpful. Those concepts “become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context.”

These findings come at a time when many experts are calling for more play for kids to mitigate the trauma children have experienced during the pandemic. Last year, a report by the LEGO Foundation that looked at 26 studies of play from 18 countries found play is so powerful it can reduce inequality and close achievement gaps between children ages 3 to 6. Those studies, which also looked at free play in addition to guided play, found children progressed in several domains of learning, including language and literacy, math and social-emotional skills.

While direct instruction gets information across quickly and is effective for certain skills or lessons in a classroom, “real learning” occurs when children are active and engaged, said

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That’s why play can be so effective, she added, as children are active and engaged when playing, but may be passive listeners when sitting through some direct instruction lessons. “What it’s really about here is can we teach human brains in the way human brains learn,” Hirsh-Pasek said.

An added benefit is kids enjoy play more than sitting and listening to an adult talk at them. “The kids are happier, the teachers are happier. It’s teaching them more about how to collaborate and communicate,” she added.

In the years prior to the pandemic, some states and districts were bringing more play into schools by creating play-based kindergarten classrooms. It was an attempt to move away from the rigorous, academic-focused kindergarten classrooms that emerged in a nation concerned about low reading scores and meeting the Common Core standards. One top pre-K researcher recently called for more play in pre-K amidst concerns that state-funded pre-K programs involve too much direct instruction and not enough time spent outside.

Meanwhile, programs like the Playful Learning Landscape project, led by Hirsh-Pasek, and nonprofits like KABOOM! aim to create play-based learning opportunities outside of the classroom while also improving access to playgrounds.

While play seems simple enough for kids, Hirsh-Pasek said guided play is a bit more purposeful.

Ideally, guided play involves forethought in setting up play opportunities based on a learning goal, but it doesn’t necessarily require extensive adult interaction. For example, if a climbing structure is painted to show units of measurement, children may take notice and talk about how high they’re climbing. Or if kids are trying to learn addition and subtraction during lesson, throwing a giant number line on the ground and letting children jump forward or backward becomes a guided play activity.

Teachers or parents “become guides on the side,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “When we interact too much and become helicopter parents, the kids check out,” she added.

The authors of the review note that not all studies included in their report have the same definition of guided play, and that means outcomes may vary. They also called for more research on factors within guided play, such as varying levels of adult guidance and child choice.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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  1. I urge caution in reading this analysis and concluding that “guided play is as good as or better than adult-led, direct instruction.” While the results provide some evidence that guided play may be useful in helping young children master some early mathematical concepts and skills, it’s important to take several major limitations into account when drawing conclusions about how best to support our youngest learners.

    First, there is a very high level of heterogeneity across the studies. Participant numbers varied widely; only five of the studies analyzed included a sample size of over 200 children. In addition, the guided play studied was not limited to learning in early-childhood classrooms. Instead, “studies were also included if they were carried out in laboratory-based, museum, or home environments.” As a result, the type of adult leading the play ranged from parent to teachers, researchers, therapists, and more. (Curiously, studies in which researchers directed the guided play found more evidence that it positively impacted children’s learning outcomes than those directed by other adults, including teachers.)

    The studies also varied in design and were conducted over several decades in different countries with varying levels of income inequality. The amount of exposure to guided play also varied significantly between studies, as did the size of the classroom or group of students assessed and how “guided play” was conceptualized (likely resulting in varying levels of adult guidance and child choice across studies).

    Another major consideration is that the children’s ages varied widely. While most studies reported on children between three and six years old, the population studied in others ranged from one to eight years old. Surely, the time devoted to “guided play” should vary significantly depending on whether a child is learning how to take his or her first steps or beginning to tackle reading comprehension, multiplication, and division.

    And finally, as the study authors themselves note, “many of the included studies were assessed as having a high risk of bias due to lack of blinding, lack of using random sequence generation, and/or failure to report sufficient information on allocation concealment and selective reporting.”

    The study also found weak or no evidence that guided play benefits other key math outcomes, such as spatial skills and math vocabulary, and also doesn’t improve children’s literacy skills, behavioral regulation, inhibitory control, or socioemotional development more than direct instruction.

    Ultimately, although this study sheds some light on the benefits of play-driven learning, given the limitations noted above, any interpretations of the results should be made cautiously. Particularly at a time when more and more children are falling behind academically and socially due to the ongoing pandemic, much more research is needed to better understand how guided play affects various student outcomes and how these may vary based on learning environment, delivery, and student demographics.

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