Study Bolsters Effectiveness of ‘Guided Play’ for Learning

Thursday, January 13, 2022 – Practical learning can be fun, and new research suggests it works in addition to traditional teaching methods.

This technique, known as “guided play,” involves gently adult-led learning activities but gives children the freedom to explore while learning. They include games that require children to read, write, or use mathematics.

“It is sometimes said that play, while useful, adds little to children’s education,” said Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at Cambridge University in England.

“Indeed, although there are still some big questions about how directed play is used in the classroom, there is promising evidence that it actively promotes learning and development,” he said in a university news release.

Researchers have found that the strategies are more common in a preschool setting, but that they can also work well in early elementary school.

The study examined the directed play of 3,800 children between the ages of 3 and 8.

Researchers discovered 39 studies conducted between 1977 and 2020 that contain some information about directed play compared to free play or direct instruction, although the studies were on broader subjects.

Then they calculated how much the overall positive or negative impact of directed play on different aspects of learning.

Conclusion: Guided play was as effective as traditional methods in developing literacy, the ability to work with numbers, social skills and basic thinking skills known as executive functions. The researchers said that some of these skills – such as learning mathematics – may be learned more successfully through guided play.

“It is only recently that researchers have begun to conceptualize learning through play as something that is on a particular spectrum,” said study co-author Elizabeth Byrne from Cambridge College of Education. “At one end you have free play, where the children decide what to do with minimal adult participation; and on the other, there is traditional and direct education, where the adults tell the child what to do and control the learning activity.” Guided play falls somewhere in between.

“They describe fun activities that revolve around an educational goal but allow children to try things out for themselves,” Byrne explained in the statement. “If children are given the freedom to explore, but with some gentle guidance, that can be very good for their education – and in some cases perhaps even better than direct guidance.”

The researchers also found evidence that directed play better develops children’s ability to switch between tasks. They found no statistically significant evidence that directed play is less effective than direct instruction about any of the studied learning outcomes.

It is possible, they said, that guided play helped children learn to work through logical steps in math tasks. They added that the fact that it involves hands-on learning may be important.

“Kids often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” Byrne said. “It’s easier to understand if you’re already using it in a fantasy game or a terrifying context. One reason why it’s so important to play may be that it supports mental imagination.”

The authors said this style of learning may also boost motivation, perseverance, creativity and confidence, which could make a difference in schools.

The study was published January 12 in the journal Child growth.


  • University of Cambridge, press release, 12 January 2022

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