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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!