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Guided play can be as effective as classroom instruction for kids, study finds

Children can develop several key skills through educational games and activities

Kids playing with model house
Photo (c) Tom Werner - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge explored different ways of engaging young kids to help them learn and develop. According to their findings, guided learning activities can be just as beneficial to kids’ growth and education as traditional classroom instruction. 

“It’s only recently that researchers have started to conceptualize learning through play as something that exists on a spectrum,” said researcher Dr. Elizabeth Byrne. “At one end you have free play, where children decide what to do with minimal adult involvement; at the other is traditional, direct instruction, where an adult tells a child what to do and controls the learning activity. 

“Guided play falls somewhere in between,” she said. “It describes playful activities which are scaffolded around a learning goal, but allow children to try things out for themselves. If children are given the freedom to explore, but with some gentle guidance, it can be very good for their education – perhaps in some cases better than direct instruction.” 

Guiding children can help them learn

The researchers analyzed nearly 40 studies conducted between 1977 and 2020 to understand how different teaching methods can impact children’s ability to learn. They calculated the positive and negative effects that guided play had versus direct instruction in several key areas: literacy, math, socioemotional skills, and executive functions. 

The researchers learned that guided play was an effective method for engaging children and helping them learn, though some areas showed greater improvements with this method than others. For example, the study showed that guided play helped children adopt the cognitive skills necessary to switch between tasks, while it also strengthened their ability to learn shapes and general math skills. 

“Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” Dr. Byrne said. “They become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context. One reason play matters may be because it supports mental visualization.” 

While guided play was particularly strong in some areas of learning, the researchers found that it wasn’t harmful to children’s learning in any of the other content areas. The team says this means guided play can be equally as effective as direct, face-to-face instruction.

“The argument is sometimes made that play, while beneficial, adds little to children’s education,” said researcher Paul Ramchandani. “In fact, although there are still some big questions about how we should use guided play in classrooms, there is promising evidence that it actively enhances learning and development.” 

The researchers hope more work is done in this area to better understand the cognitive and academic benefits associated with guided play and the ways that it can enrich children’s education. 

“It’s likely that playful activities have the sort of positive impact we saw in our analysis partly because they are acting on other skills and processes which underpin learning,” said researcher Dr. Christine O’Farrelly. “If we can understand more about how guided play shapes learning in this way, we will be able to identify more precisely how it could be used to make a really meaningful difference in schools.” 

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