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Abstract

Children, especially in the preschool years, learn a tremendous amount through play. Research on guided play demonstrates how schools can couple a curriculum-centered preschool program with a developmentally appropriate pedagogical approach to classroom teaching. However, to fully test this claim, we need a clear definition of the term “guided play”: In guided play, the adult structures the play environment, but the child maintains control within that environment. Guided play can lead to dramatically better learning outcomes than didactic situations. If you tell them, children will learn. But if you guide them, children are more likely to actively explore and learn more.
8 Kappan May 2015
Making
play
work for
education
Research demonstrates that guided play can help
preschool children prepare for reading and math better
than free play and direct instruction alone.
By Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Audrey K. Kittredge, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek,
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and David Klahr
In 2014, New York City implemented a badly needed and bold
initiative: It vastly expanded its prekindergarten offerings, with
the promise of serving every 4-year-old in the city. The goal is
to boost every child’s academic and school-readiness skills by us-
ing guided play. This initiative provides the perfect opportunity
to consider the relationship between play and learning, and the way in
which guided play intrinsically links them. Research on guided play dem-
onstrates how it is possible to couple a curriculum-centered preschool
program with a developmentally appropriate pedagogical approach to
classroom teaching.
The notion of guided play was fi rst introduced to the literature in
order to bridge the oft-discussed yet false dichotomy between play and
learning (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2011). Children, especially in the
preschool years, learn a tremendous amount through play. However,
to fully test this claim, we need a clear defi nition of “guided play” so
we can distinguish it from other types of play. This article does that. It
also explains how learning through play occurs and why guided play is
DEENA SKOLNICK WEISBERG is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, Pa. AUDREY K. KITTREDGE is a postdoctoral research fellow at Carnegie
Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa. KATHY HIRSH-PASEK is the Stanley and Debra
Lefkowitz professor of psychology at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa. ROBERTA
MICHNICK GOLINKOFF is the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp professor of psychology at the
University of Delaware, Newark, Del. DAVID KLAHR is the Walter van Dyke Bingham
professor of cognitive development and education science at Carnegie Mellon University,
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Illustration: Thinkstock/iStock
Play and the Common Core
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most effective for achieving specifi ed learning goals
in areas such as reading readiness and number sense.
Guided play defi ned
When we think of play in young children, we usu-
ally think of free play, where children can do anything
they want with any materials they want, without in-
tervention from adults. There is mounting evidence
that free play is highly benefi cial for various aspects
of children’s development (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2008;
Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006). Children
who play more have better social skills (Singer &
Singer, 2009), demonstrate better self-regulation
(Diamond & Lee, 2011), and are more creative
thinkers (Dansky, 1980). Although these links are
largely correlational (Lillard et al., 2013), they sug-
gest that play has value for the development of well-
adjusted, creative individuals who will be prepared
to solve challenging problems.
But not all play is created equal. While free play
is a wonderful realm for children to explore their
social and self-regulatory skills, research suggests
that it might not be the best way to achieve educa-
tional outcomes (Fisher et al., 2010). It’s easy to see
why this is the case: Although children engaged in
unfettered exploration could potentially stumble on
the information that a teacher is trying to impart,
it would lead to haphazard success at best. Guided
play is the best way to incorporate play into early
curricula without compromising educational goals,
while allowing children to enjoy school.
What’s the difference between guided and free play?
To help characterize this distinction, we offer a two-
by-two grid (see Table 1), that categorizes types of play
according to who initiates them and who directs them.
Free play is both child-initiated and child-directed;
children decide what to play and how. When play is
both adult-initiated and adult-directed, it’s really a
form of direct instruction, where adults are telling
children what actions to take. When play is child-initi-
ated but adult-directed, this is co-opted play: Children
start out in charge, but adults take over and begin to set
the agenda for the scenario, without providing space
for children’s autonomy. Finally, guided play is a blend
of adult initiation and child direction.
In guided play, it’s crucial that children direct the
action because it gives them the autonomy to make
decisions about what to do in any given moment.
They are in control of what happens next and in
what they wish to explore and how. Children do not
just perceive that they are in control; in guided play,
they truly can decide what to do next and how to
respond. This is an important feature of guided play
because even children are sensitive to the difference
between circumstances where they lead and those
where they are given an educational experience dis-
*
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TABLE 1.
Types of play
Adult-initiated Child-initiated
Adult-directed Instruction Co-opted play
Child-directed Guided play Free play
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10 Kappan May 2015
educational outcomes (Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, &
Golinkoff, 2013; Weisberg et al., 2013). For exam-
ple, a recent study found that children who explored
the meanings of new words in an adult-guided play
session learned those words better than children who
engaged in free play (Dickinson et al., 2013). In this
study, children heard new vocabulary words used in
a story that were defi ned by an instructor and then
had the opportunity to play with replica toys related
to that story. Some children engaged in a free-play
session with these toys for 10 minutes while the in-
structor merely observed. For other children, the
instructor took a more active role, either working
with children to re-enact scenes from the book or
engaging children in conversation about the words
in the context of their play actions. Children in the
free play condition learned the words markedly less
well than children in the other two adult-guided play
conditions.
To take a second example, another study taught
children the meaning of new words directly or en-
gaged them in a playful activity in which they had
to actively determine a relationship between the
new words and their referents. In a test of reten-
tion, children who learned in this playful context
outperformed those who were directly taught the
word-object pairing (Zosh, Brinster, & Halberda,
2013). In addition, parents who engage in guided
play with their children use more spatial terms like
“over” and “between” (Ferrara et al., 2011), poten-
tially helping children learn these diffi cult words bet-
ter. And children who play board games with adults
that involve numbers show marked growth in their
early math skills. These studies provide good evi-
dence that guided play situations help children learn
as well as traditional didactic situations.
More interesting, guided play can lead to dramati-
cally better learning outcomes than didactic situations.
For example, one recent study found that children
learn the properties of shapes, like triangles, regard-
less of whether they were taught directly or through
guided play. However, children who learned through
guided play were better at extending the concept of
“triangle” to less typical instances of triangles, like
those with large internal angles (Fisher et al., 2013).
This suggests that in guided play, though not in di-
rect instruction, children learned the distinguishing
features of the shape (i.e., a triangle has three sides
and three angles) and could transfer that knowledge.
Another clear illustration of this contrast between
direct instruction and guided play comes from a study
that showed preschoolers a new toy (Bonawitz, et al.,
2011). For some children, the toy was described as
part of a teaching demonstration, creating an adult-
initiated, adult-directed situation. The adult said,
“I’m going to show you how my toy works,” and then
guised as play — what one might call “chocolate-cov-
ered broccoli.” On this point, free play and guided
play are the same in their focus on the child as an
active participant and leader. Guided play crucially
incorporates an element of adult structuring of the
play environment, but the child maintains control
within that environment.
Within the learning context, adults guide play in
one of two ways: by carefully preparing the environ-
ment beforehand and by scaffolding children’s actions
as the play unfolds over time (Fisher et al., 2010). En-
vironmental preparation occurs frequently, as when
a teacher chooses which toys will be available for a
given play session in a Montessori classroom (Lillard,
2013), or when a museum exhibit offers interactive
elements as part of a child visitor’s self-paced explora-
tion. There are also multiple ways for adults to guide
play on the fl y while maintaining the crucial element
of child control. For example, adults could ask open-
ended questions while children are playing. Phrases
that invite children to think more deeply about their
activities, such as “What do you think would hap-
pen if . . . ” provide a gentle nudge toward a learning
goal while allowing children to absorb the necessary
information at their own pace. Adults also could in-
corporate objects that children might not have no-
ticed on their own: “I wonder what would happen if
you try using this one?” Again, this allows children
to maintain control because it gives them the option
of rejecting this suggestion. It also allows the teacher
to inject helpful hints about different ways to explore
as the child moves toward the learning goal. The key
idea is that the adult should be relatively unobtrusive
and respectful of children’s choices.
Guided play takes place in a structured environ-
ment with some form of adult scaffolding, allowing
a teacher’s expertise to inform how children should
approach the situation. Yet guided play leaves the
locus of control with the child, making room for self-
directed exploration. This kind of subtle attentional
focusing takes advantage of children’s sensitivity to
the mise en place: the situational factors that prepare
them for particular kinds of actions within the envi-
ronment (Weisberg et al., 2014).
Balancing freedom and structure
A growing body of literature suggests that this bal-
ance between freedom and structure is what makes
guided play a successful teaching tool for a range of
Guided play can lead to
dramatically better learning
outcomes than didactic situations.
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V96 N8 kappanmagazine.org 11
pulled out one of the tubes, which made a squeaking
sound. The adult did not demonstrate three other
hidden functions of the toy. When these children
were given a chance to play with the toy, they pulled
the squeaker but didn’t tend to discover the other
three functions. For other children, the situation
was set up as guided play: adult-initiated but child-
directed. The experimenter pulled the squeaker as
if by accident and said, “Did you see that? Let me
try to do that.” In contrast to the fi rst group, chil-
dren in this group not only pulled the squeaker but
also explored the toy further and discovered more
of the other functions. These results illustrate that
direct teaching can work; if you tell them, children
will learn. But guided play works better; if you guide
them, children are more likely to actively explore
and learn more.
But what if a teacher wants to focus children’s
attention on a specifi c learning goal without sup-
pressing their exploration? In the study with the
toy, children in the guided play group didn’t spend
as much time pulling the squeaker as children who
were directly taught. This suggests that their explo-
ration may have come at a cost to learning about
the function that the adult wanted the children to
learn. A new study suggests this tradeoff may not
always be necessary. When children are shown just
one way to fi nd toy animals in a miniature forest
(“here’s how you can fi nd animals”), they focus on
the demonstrated strategy and fi nd fewer animals in
different hiding places. But when the demonstration
is followed by a hint — “here’s how you can fi nd ani-
mals…but there could be lots of other ways to fi nd
animals” — children not only use the demonstrated
strategy but go beyond it, exploring and discovering
more animals in different hiding places (Kittredge,
Klahr, & Fisher, 2014, 2015).
These results suggest that if teachers implement
this method, which combines elements of direct
teaching with guided play, they would reap the ben-
efi ts of both approaches. Specifi cally, this situation
illustrates one of many ways to implement the adult-
initiated, child-directed formula for guided play.
Giving children a nudge in the right direction and
letting them choose their actions from there can be
a productive strategy for teaching.
Effective learning accelerator
The work reviewed here demonstrates that guided
play can be used for teaching preschool children. By
melding elements of unstructured exploration with
teacher-led instruction, teachers can harness the ap-
peal of play in the service of learning, allowing for
the transmission of new skills and information in a
child-led and genuinely enjoyable context. Guided
play, by respecting children’s self-direction in an
If you tell them, children
will learn. But if you guide
them, children are more
likely to actively explore and
learn more.
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12 Kappan May 2015
adult-initiated environment, allows for a strong cur-
ricular foundation with developmentally appropri-
ate pedagogy. As S.L. Kagan writes, “The literature
is clear: Diverse strategies that combine play and
more structured efforts are effective accelerators of
children’s readiness for school and long-term devel-
opment” (Kagan & Lowenstein, 2004, p. 72).
It also is important to consider how guided play
might be implemented for children at a variety of
ages and for a variety of learning outcomes. More
research is needed on these issues to determine
how it might be feasible to incorporate the prin-
ciples of guided play in educational settings outside
preschools. This research should include closely
matched control groups engaging in play-based
interventions that are not guided or that involve
different kinds of guidance, as well as no-play con-
trols, to determine the full extent of guided play’s
utility. Pedagogical choices might also vary across
content areas and across age groups. For instance,
in certain kinds of learning contexts, such as those
in which the environment provides few if any clues
about the underlying structure of the material to
be learned, some have argued that a more directive
pedagogy might be needed (Klahr & Nigam, 2004).
But, as noted earlier, engaging children in guided
play and ensuring that they learn key concepts are
not mutually exclusive, especially since the guided
play framework can provide the right amount of
such structure.
Conclusion
The results reviewed here should lead us to ask
how the principles of guided play might be useful
in educating people of all ages and in a variety of
contexts. Exploration within a controlled environ-
ment and self-directed activities in partnership with
a more knowledgeable peer could benefi t not only
children’s learning throughout the school years, but
also adult productivity. We can see the promise of
this kind of suggestion if we use the idea of play as
a metaphor for any kind of activity that engenders
active, engaged participation (Chi, 2009). For ex-
ample, elementary school and college students who
engage in exploratory problem-solving before a lec-
ture on that topic learn better than those who get the
standard lecture-then-practice form of instruction
(Schwartz, Sears, & Bransford, 2005). Adults might
also benefi t from situations that are set up playfully
but with some particular constraints. Much of the re-
cent interest in “gamifi cation” — adding game-like
features to educational and productivity software —
falls into this category. However, not many studies
have carefully examined whether learning through
games provides long-term benefi ts. Additional re-
search is needed to understand how instructional
Play has value for the
development of well-
adjusted, creative
individuals who will
be prepared to solve
challenging problems.
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Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., Berk, L.E., & Singer, D.G.
(2008). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Applying
the scientifi c evidence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kagan, S.L. & Lowenstein, A. (2004). School readiness and
children’s play: Contemporary oxymoron or compatible option?
In E. Zigler, D.G. Singer, & S. Bishop-Josef (Eds.), Children’s
play: The roots of reading (pp. 59-76). Washington, DC: Zero
to Three Press.
Kittredge, A.K., Klahr, D., & Fisher, A.V. (2014). Direct
instruction of discovery. Poster presented at the annual
meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
Philadelphia, PA.
Kittredge, A.K., Klahr, D., & Fisher, A.V. (2015). Instruction of
discovery: Pedagogy’s effect on exploration, Manuscript in
preparation.
Klahr, D. & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning
paths in early science education: Effects of direct instruction
and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15 (10), 661-
667.
Lillard, A.S. (2013). Playful learning and Montessori education.
American Journal of Play, 5 (2), 157-186.
Lillard, A.S., Lerner, M.D., Hopkins, E.J., Dore, R.A., Smith,
E.D., & Palmquist, C.M. (2013). The impact of pretend
play on children’s development: A review of the evidence.
Psychological Bulletin, 139 (1), 1-34.
Schwartz, D.L., Sears, D., & Bransford, J.D. (2005). Effi ciency
and innovation in transfer. In J. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of
learning from a modern multidisciplinary perspective (pp.
1-51). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Singer, D.G., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (2006).
Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s
cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.
Singer, D.G. & Singer, J.L. (2009). Imagination and play in the
electronic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weisberg, D.S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013).
Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy.
Mind, Brain, and Education, 7 (2), 104-112.
Weisberg, D.S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., &
McCandliss, B.D. (2014). Mise en place: Setting the stage
for thought and action. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18 (6),
276-278.
Weisberg, D.S., Zosh, J.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff,
R.M. (2013). Talking it up: Play, language, and the role of adult
support. American Journal of Play, 6 (1), 39-54.
Zosh, J.M., Brinster, M., & Halberda, J.P. (2013). Inference
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Boston, MA.
games and learner activity leads to both short- and
long-term learning and transfer.
Despite these current limits to our knowledge,
the evidence reviewed here strongly suggests that
guided play is a powerful tool for enhancing young
children’s learning and is a key component of suc-
cessful early education curricula. We thus applaud
New York City’s endorsement of guided play as a
teaching strategy. Using this developmentally ap-
propriate pedagogy can support a strong curricu-
lum. As Lillard et al. note, “hands-on, child-driven
educational methods . . . are the most positive means
yet known to help young children’s development”
(2013, p. 27).
K
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Το παιχνίδι θεωρείται «κυρίαρχη δραστηριότητα για κάθε πλευρά της ανάπτυξης και της μάθησης των παιδιών» (Ινστιτούτο Εκπαιδευτικής Πολιτικής, Υπουργείο Παιδείας και Θρησκευμάτων, 2014α: 29) και έχει αποτελέσει αντικείμενο μελέτης πολλών ερευνητών (Johnson & Wu, 2019, Σακελλαρίου, 2016, Σακελλαρίου & Ρέντζου, 2012, Wood, 2014). Ωστόσο, παρά τη σπουδαιότητα του θέματος τα ερευνητικά δεδομένα στην ελληνική βιβλιογραφία καταδεικνύουν πως η διδασκαλία δεν στηρίζεται όσο θα έπρεπε στο παιχνίδι. Η παρούσα μελέτη διεξήχθη το ακαδημαϊκό έτος 2016-2017 και διερευνά τις απόψεις νηπιαγωγών (Ν:66) της Περιφέρειας Ηπείρου και τεταρτοετών προπτυχιακών φοιτητών (Ν:64) του Παιδαγωγικού Τμήματος Νηπιαγωγών του Πανεπιστημίου Ιωαννίνων α) για το σχεδιασμό και την αξιολόγηση της διδακτικής του παιχνιδιού σε προσχολικά περιβάλλοντα μάθησης και β) για τη σημασία του παιχνιδιού στην εκπαιδευτική διαδικασία. Τα ευρήματα της έρευνας ανέδειξαν τη σπουδαιότητα του παιχνιδιού στην εκπαιδευτική διαδικασία του Νηπιαγωγείου. Ωστόσο, οι νηπιαγωγοί δεν αναγνωρίζουν τη σημασία της συνεργασίας τους με τα παιδιά αναφορικά με τον σχεδιασμό των δραστηριοτήτων παιχνιδιού στο σχολικό περιβάλλον, σε αντίθεση με τους μελλοντικούς νηπιαγωγούς που τη θεωρούν σημαντική. Εκπαιδευτικοί και φοιτητές ενθαρρύνουν τα παιδιά να σχεδιάζουν τις δικές τους δραστηριότητες παιχνιδιού, ωστόσο, οι φοιτητές αδυνατούν να συνειδητοποιήσουν το βαθμό δυσκολίας του παιδαγωγικού σχεδιασμού, λόγω ελλιπούς διδακτικής εμπειρίας. Οι νηπιαγωγοί και οι φοιτητές που έχουν επιμορφωθεί για την παιδαγωγική αξία του παιχνιδιού αξιολογούν τη μάθηση των παιδιών μέσα από το παιχνίδι σε μεγαλύτερο ποσοστό από τους νηπιαγωγούς και τους φοιτητές που δεν έχουν επιμορφωθεί. Τέλος, η έρευνα καταδεικνύει την παιδαγωγική κατάρτιση των εκπαιδευτικών για την καλύτερη αξιοποίηση του παιχνιδιού στην εκπαιδευτική διαδικασία.
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In this chapter, we explore early childhood educators’ experiences and perceptions of young children’s play and learning at dioramas, portrayals of frozen moments in time depicting three-dimensional scenes of the natural world. In this study, we interviewed ten early childhood educators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Through teachers’ perspectives and experiences, we explore examples of play-based, diorama-based science learning activities. Findings suggest that play and learning at or inspired by dioramas looks different across classes and contexts but is perceived as vital in sparking imagination and creativity for young children when integrated into experiences, and affords unique opportunities for role play, games, and discovery. We provide examples of teachers’ perceptions of the affordances of dioramas for play and learning, as well as a variety of pedagogical approaches and strategies teachers’ use to bring to life dioramas and the science concepts represented within them. This study highlights how dioramas can be integral in play-based science learning—making museums that are not traditionally designed for children into places for play.
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