The learning benefits of guided play

Deena Weisberg describes how guided play differs from free play, and how it can help children learn better
Deena Weisberg

Meeri Kim: What is guided play, and how does it differ from free play? Could you give some examples to illustrate the differences?

Deena Weisberg: Guided play is a form of play where children explore within an environment that has been prepared by adults and/or with guidance from adults. In guided play, adults choose play materials that encourage a certain kind of exploration, or ask open-ended questions at key moments to help shape children’s choices or push children to think about what they are doing. Crucially, the adults in guided play must follow the children’s lead so that children genuinely have the autonomy to explore as they like. The adults’ roles are in support of children’s choices, gently shaping children’s behavior without taking over.

For example, imagine a group of children building a block tower. In free play, children just use the blocks however they want, without any role for an adult. But in guided play, the adult will work with the children, perhaps asking open-ended questions at key moments (e.g., “What do you think would happen if you tried putting that one on top?” or “Why did you pick that block?”), or putting out only blocks of a certain shape to help children notice their similarities and differences.

On the surface, guided play often looks like free play, so it can be difficult to tell them apart just by watching what children are doing. To tell the difference, it’s necessary to look at the role of the adults.

MK: What are some interesting studies/findings related to guided play and learning in children? Could you describe study populations, interventions, and overall results?

DW: The work on guided play that I find the most interesting shows that it’s better for children’s learning than other forms of play and even than direct instruction. A study taught preschoolers about shapes using either guided play, free play, or direct instruction with a set of shape cards and bendable sticks. Children who engaged in guided play or direct instruction learned more about shapes than children who engaged in free play. Further, children who engaged in guided play learned more about atypical shapes (e.g., that triangles with one very wide internal angle are still triangles) than children who engaged in direct instruction.

“This experiment highlights how crucial it is to allow children to truly have autonomy in their actions, even when an adult is present to help.”

Similarly, another study tasked preschoolers with figuring out how a novel machine worked. It compared explore-first (more like guided play) to observe-first (more like direct instruction) methods). Children who got to explore the machine before watching an experimenter press the buttons did much better than children who explored after watching the experimenter. This experiment highlights how crucial it is to allow children to truly have autonomy in their actions, even when an adult is present to help.

MK: What is the importance of imagination in children? Please describe some of your work/findings on imaginative cognition.

DW: Imagination is the ability to think about situations that aren’t real or don’t currently exist. So it’s used in pretending, daydreaming, and thinking about stories, but it’s also used when planning for the future and thinking of solutions to problems. Imagination is important throughout our lives, but it’s particularly important in childhood, since children are just learning about how the world works and can use their imagination to think of many possible ways that the world could be.

In one study, my colleagues and I found a strong relationship between children’s performance on a pretending task and their performance on a task that involved counterfactual reasoning. This demonstrates that there’s a link between what children do naturally in their play and serious reasoning.

“Most of the work right now is on preschoolers, but the principles of guided play could be applied at all levels, even to adults.”

A more recent study found that children learned new words better from books with fantastical elements than from books that were more realistic. Stretching children’s imaginations with these fantasy stories seems to be good for their learning.

Current work in my lab is investigating this claim more carefully. We’re reading either realistic or fantastical stories to preschool-aged children and measuring how well they learn various science concepts (e.g., that offspring don’t inherit acquired traits, so that a mama bird who broke her wing in an accident will not have babies with broken wings). We wrote the stories ourselves, so that we can control exactly how much fantasy they have in them, and what kind. That will help us to tell under what circumstances fantasy can help learning.

MK: Lastly, what are some areas of future research related to learning in children?

DW: There are so many! The fields of developmental and learning sciences have really just begun to scratch the surface of this topic. We’d like to know more about exactly how guided play benefits children’s learning, and which elements of it are most effective: environmental preparation, or open-ended questions, or adult engagement, or some combination of these and other factors. We’d also like to know more about how to implement guided play at various ages. Most of the work right now is on preschoolers, but the principles of guided play could be applied at all levels, even to adults.

“We want to know how to take our best science of learning and use it to make curricula that will work for teachers and their students.”

One exciting direction for the future is to merge the work that’s going on in labs, with one child at a time under very controlled conditions, with the work that’s going on in classrooms and all the messiness that entails. We want to know how to take our best science of learning and use it to make curricula that will work for teachers and their students.

Deena Skolnick Weisberg is a senior fellow in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Cognition & Development Lab. Her research interests include the development of imaginative cognition, the role that the imagination plays in learning, and scientific thinking and reasoning in children and adults.