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By Jackie Mader


Parents are under a lot of pressure these days: They need to support children’s emotional development after a traumatic few years of the pandemic, address learning loss and prepare children to be productive, successful members of society. The good news is, research shows there’s a simple way to help kids do well academically and socially—and that involves simply giving them opportunities to play. But not all parents know how to support play or what kind of play benefits children the most, according to the forthcoming results of a recent survey by researchers at Temple University and the LEGO Foundation, which also funded the research.  

The survey questioned a representative sample of nearly 1,200 parents of children ages 2 to 12 in the United States about their beliefs and behaviors related to parenting and different kinds of play, including free play where a child is independent, and guided play, where an adult provides support. The initial findings of this survey found huge support for play among parents, but researchers found some misconceptions around how to best use play to support learning.  

Earlier this month, I spoke to Charlotte Anne Wright, one of the researchers involved in the survey and a senior research associate at the Temple Infant and Child Lab, to learn more about how parents can support playful learning without getting overwhelmed or overburdened. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What were the biggest findings of the parent survey on thoughts and beliefs around play? 

Overwhelmingly, parents are receptive to these ideas. Overall, parents are seeing the value of playful learning over direct instruction, which is very exciting. Interestingly, the most parents reported that children can learn the most from free play, followed by guided play, games and then direct instruction. So these results are showing that we’re hearing more calls to let the children play, and a lot of parents are hearing these messages. Parents are still indicating that free play leads to more learning than guided play, but research is finding guided play is actually leading to the best learning outcomes when there’s a learning goal for children. It seems like parents are receiving these messages about the power of play, but perhaps they’re lacking the nuance and research-backed information to understand what type of play is most beneficial for learning.  

So, it sounds like if there’s a learning goal that a parent has in mind, the way to do that is to engage in guided play versus setting a kid free to just do what they would like? 

Yeah, definitely. So free play is fundamental to anyone’s life, right? We know that it can help social emotional development, physical development, and executive function development. It’s really important. But research is finding when there’s a learning goal, that guided play yields the best results for that. The reason why guided play is so effective is because it reflects these key characteristics of decades and decades of research of how we know how human brains learn best. We know that we learn best when we’re active, not passive, engaged, not distracted, when it’s meaningful, when it’s connected to what matters what we already know. When it’s iterative, so children can test and try out different ideas, and when they’re interacting socially with others, and when they’re joyful. And so that’s part of why guided play is so powerful. 

A benefit to free play is that parents can take a break and know that their children are enjoying themselves, but we are hoping to give advice for or guidance for how to support guided play without it feeling like something extra, and how parents can support that without feeling overwhelmed and like, ‘Oh, now I have to be involved.’” 

What would that look like during the day like on a day-to-day basis?  

When parents are thinking about bringing this into day-to-day life, it’s really about everyday interactions. For example, when parents are walking through the park with their child, it can spark an experimentation with shadows, or maybe collecting different shapes or different types of leaves or different types of rocks and sorting them. Or a ride on the bus could be an opportunity for searching for different shapes and letters, or maybe creating a creative story based off what you see. Or a trip to the laundromat could finish with a race to match pairs of socks. Or cooking, [which is] something on this survey that parents mentioned sharing with their child often. There’s so much learning and learning opportunity within cooking and parents are probably already doing a lot of the things [that support learning]. The goal is that it doesn’t feel like something extra that requires special skills, but [it’s] a way to change the lens on how we view everyday experiences and share with children to enrich them a little bit more. 

So, it’s not that parents need to sit down with their kids and really focus on doing an activity and facilitating that. We can think of guided play as these everyday experiences, but infusing the learning goal within those experiences?  

In school, a teacher would prepare the environment and then give children the agency within that environment and the [help] needed to meet the learning goal. And of course, the parent can do a similar thing, if they want to. But I think the research is showing that it can be simpler than that. They can take things that they’re already doing, and just shift the way they view them to think about ‘how can I make this a little bit more meaningful for my child?’ And it can also mean very simple changes to the environment as well. For example, the parent notices their child has really mastered building with regular shaped blocks. Maybe they add differently shaped blocks into their child’s blocks—that doesn’t require too much effort or too much work. It doesn’t require sitting down and teaching their child something. But it’s guided play because parents are [supporting] their child’s learning by adding something. 

Guided play can take a lot of different forms, which is maybe why it can be difficult to conceptualize, but it really comes down to an experience or interaction that’s initiated by an adult but maintains child’s agency. With that interaction, children have agency and freedom to explore and discover things on the way to meeting learning goals.  

Are there any cultural preferences or personal preferences to keep in mind, for example, if a parent or a culture really values kids being independent or engaging mostly in free play? 

Traditionally, certain cultures have valued free play or direct instruction more than others, but things seem to be changing. There seems to be a shift. We did analyze the data according to demographic information, and we did find some interesting differences. We found parents who were older, more educated and had higher incomes, and interestingly, also had older children, were more likely to identify free play as a preferred learning style. And preferences for direct instruction were highest among parents who are less educated and had a lower income. 

We didn’t really see any demographics that were strongly associated with preferences like guided play or games, but we are seeing these differences with free play versus direct instruction. We didn’t find any notable differences according to race and ethnicity throughout the survey.  

What is your biggest takeaway from this survey data? 

Parents are getting messages that play can be a powerful thing. However, parents think free play leads to the most learning, so there’s need for parents to receive clear research-backed messages to understand that free play is really important, but children learn most skills and content best through guided play. We’re really excited to move forward with getting these messages out to parents and helping them understand the different ways play can look and how they can support that without having to feel overburdened. 

You can read more about play and parenting in this recent white paper, published by Wright and her co-researchers, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Bo Stjerne Thomsen, chair of Learning Through Play and vice president of the LEGO Foundation. 

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More on early childhood play:

Last year, our early childhood team at The Hechinger Report reported a series on play looking at the research behind play, what play looks like in pre-K, how elementary schools are trying to incorporate more play into the day and how play can be brought into middle school so older children can reap the benefits of that time.

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Research quick take:

  • Metropolitan areas with high densities of Hispanic populations saw large declines in child care employment during the pandemic, and those areas recovered more slowly as the pandemic went on. That is the main finding of a new report by the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families. The report also found that in 2022, there were fewer Latino child care workers compared to pre-pandemic numbers. 

  • Families spend, on average, 27 percent of their household income on child care expenses, with nearly 60 percent of parents planning to spend more than $18,000 per child on child care this year. That is the main finding of a new report on child care costs from

More Early Childhood news

Child care disruptions expected as record funding nears an end,” The New York Times 

Blue state governors are pushing Congress on child care as federal subsidies dry up,” The 19th 

Should your job provide child care?” Fast Company 

State announces $24M investment into early childhood programs,” NBC Montana  

Colorado free preschool program matches more than 27,400 families, seats still available,” Chalkbeat 

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