How guided play promotes early learning | Encyclopedia of early childhood development (2023)

1Deena Skolnick Weisberg, PhD,2Dra. Jennifer M. Zosh
1University of Pennsylvania, USA
2Pennsylvania State University, USA

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Parents, teachers, educators and policy makers are committed to children's learning. Members of all these groups struggle with the important question of what is the best pedagogical approach to support learning, both generally and in specific domains such as mathematics, reading and critical thinking. While direct instruction can be effective for early childhood learning, recent research suggests that discovery-based methods can be even more effective. Given the widespread consensus in the educational and research literature that play is one of the most natural pathways to early childhood discovery and learning,1a game-based pedagogy can be a particularly powerful mechanism for learning. While it is not yet known exactly how playful experiences can support the learning of new content or skills, recent research suggests that guided play (a form of play directed by children with adult support) may be an approach that harnesses pleasure. experienced during free play while providing opportunities to learn content and skills.


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Play improves young children's health and well-being and also provides opportunities to explore social roles and develop cooperative and self-regulatory skills.2,3Ongoing research is exploring the role of play in more traditional forms of learning (eg math, reading, critical thinking), and it is becoming increasingly clear that guided play can be an effective teaching strategy.


While there is widespread agreement that play is good for children's development in general, the research base is less certain about the role of play in children's learning specifically. As noted in a recent review,4Many have concluded that play offers great benefits for learning, but current science has yet to catch up with this claim, especially when it comes to improving specific skills such as problem solving and teaching knowledge.

search context

It is undeniable that children enjoy the game and derive some benefits from it. But when children are expected to achieve a particular learning goal, research suggests that it may also be necessary to provide them with a more structured instructional environment to enable them to learn. Resolving the paradox between children's natural abilities to learn through play and the need to learn essential content and skills involves realizing that there are different types of play, each of which can serve different purposes.

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Main research questions

What types of learning experiences (eg, free play, guided play, direct instruction) best support young children's content and skill learning? Also, how can we use what researchers find in studies to improve children's academic and personal outcomes in classrooms and at home?

Recent search results

When educators and parents talk about children's play, they often mean free play: unstructured time when children are free to choose their actions with a variety of objects or activities. This type of play can confer some benefits, such as improving children's attention by allowing them to release excess energy. However, because it is unstructured, free play may not be especially beneficial for children learning certain types of content knowledge.5In one study, for example, children were asked to learn about properties of shape criteria (eg, triangles always have three sides and three angles). Children were able to learn this information when it was taught to them directly, using picture cards and flexible sticks for visual support, but not when they were simply given the cards and sticks to play with.6Therefore, free play may not be ideal when a particular curriculum goal is in mind.

Fortunately, there is another type of game that benefits children's content learning: guided play. This is a form of play in which the children's activities are guided by an informed adult, allowing the children's actions to lead them towards the learning goal.7-9Adults can provide this scaffolding by structuring the environment in advance (e.g., providing certain types of toys, as in Montessori education) or by responding sensitively to children's actions in a play session and offering open suggestions (e.g., encouraging children exploring materials). haven't explored yet: "What do you think would happen if you...?").

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One of the most important features of guided play is that children's actions within the play session must be freely chosen. This is the hallmark of the game - that the children themselves are in charge and can choose what to do at any time. Both free play and guided play share this feature. However, guided play also includes an important role for adults. In guided play, adults must allow children to maintain locus of control, but they must also provide subtle guidance that allows them to explore the correct aspects of the environment to achieve the learning objective.

Studies show that guided play is really effective in enabling children to learn. Specifically, research has found that children who participate in guided play activities are more likely to learn certain information than children who participate in free play and, in some cases, more likely than children who receive direct instruction. For example, an intervention to teach new vocabulary words through book reading activities found little learning when children played freely with toys related to the new words. However, giving children adult guidance in their play significantly increased the number of new words children learned.10Likewise, several studies have shown that children can learn about new causal structures when they freely explore in highly constrained environments.11,12In support of these studies, a meta-analysis found that learning in guided game environments was comparable, if not better, to learning through direct instruction, which was superior to learning through commercially available unstructured environments.5

research gaps

Just as not all games are created equal, it is likely that not all types of playful learning are created equal when it comes to supporting different outcomes. For example, free play can be especially beneficial for early childhood collaboration and communication development, but guided play can become increasingly important for learning content knowledge throughout elementary school. There is still much work to be done to determine which pedagogical approaches are best for different outcomes and at what ages and stages they are most beneficial. Future work should also focus on exactly which types of guidance are most useful for different learning objectives and for children from different backgrounds, as some objective learning outcomes may benefit from more or less adult presence in the play situation.


(Video) Learning Through Play - Educational Experts - Series 1

Many educators and researchers have opposing perspectives on play, believing that all play leads to learning or that play and learning are entirely separate processes. In an attempt to fill this gap, recent research has begun to examine the ways in which different types of games can support different types of learning objectives. In particular, research has shown that guided play, a form of adult-supported play experience, can be particularly beneficial for children's learning. We believe that the secret to the success of guided play lies in the combination of adult support and child independence. Having an adult organize the situation and provide hints along the way ensures that children's exploration is properly restricted. But allowing autonomy to be with children keeps the situation fun and interesting for them, exploits their natural propensity to learn and explore, and allows their own interests to guide their actions, which leads to more learning.

Implications for parents, services, and policies

All parents, educators and policy makers want to ensure that the children of today are the successful adults of tomorrow. This desire often creates tensions between children's desire to play and adults' desire to impart specific content knowledge (eg, math or reading) or skills (eg, communication, creativity, or collaboration). Time in childhood is limited and expectations are high. This combination can lead to decisions that promote direct instruction (eg, flash cards, repetitive lessons) about exploration and discovery. Research suggests that this stress can be misplaced. Guided play, in which adults help structure a play activity but allow children to take the lead and lead the session, is not only more fun for the child, but can also be particularly effective for learning. While research continues to be determined to determine the best pedagogical approaches for teaching different types of knowledge and skills throughout development, research to date has found that having a more nuanced understanding of play that includes guided play can provide the results everyone wants. it's about children's learning. Finally, in studying this question, it is crucial that researchers investigating how children learn collaborate with the teachers and parents who are actually teaching children to develop evidence-based curricula and experiences that best support children's learning.


  1. Ginsburg KR. The importance of play in promoting the healthy development of children and maintaining strong bonds between parents and children.Pediatrics. 2007;119(1):182-191. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697.
  2. Singer DG, Golinkoff RM, Hirsh-Pasek K, eds.Play = learn: how play motivates and enhances children's cognitive and socio-emotional growthH. Nueva York: Oxford University Press; 2006.
  3. Pellegrini AD, Smith PK. Physical activity play: the nature and function of a neglected aspect of play.Child development. 1998;69(3):577-598.
  4. Lillard AS, Lerner MD, Hopkins EJ, Dore RA, Smith ED, Palmquist CM. The impact of pretend play on child development: a review of the evidence.Psychological Bulletin. 2013;139(1):1-34.
  5. Alfieri L, Brooks PJ, Aldrich NJ, Tenenbaum HR. Does discovery-based instruction improve learning?Journal of Educational Psychology. 2011;103(1):1-18.
  6. Fisher KR, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe NS, Golinkoff RM. Taking shape: supporting preschool children's acquisition of geometric knowledge through guided play. Child development. 2013;84(6):1872-1878.
  7. Weisberg DS, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff RM, Kittredge AK, Klahr D. Guided play: principles and practices.Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2016;25(3):177-182.
  8. Weisberg DS, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff RM. Guided play: where curricular objectives find a ludic pedagogy.Mind, brain and education. 2013;7(2):104-112.
  9. Weisberg DS, Zosh JM, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff RM. Speaking: playing, language and the role of the supportive adult.american gambling magazine. 2013;6(1):39-54.
  10. Toub TS, Hassinger-Das B, Nesbitt KT, et al. The language of the game: development of preschool vocabulary through the game after shared reading of books. 2017. Manuscript under review.
  11. Cook C, Goodman ND, Schulz LE. Where Science Begins: Spontaneous Experiments in Exploratory Play for Preschoolers.Knowledge. 2011;120(3):341-349.
  12. Sim ZL, Xu F. Learning higher-order generalizations through free play: evidence from 2- and 3-year-olds.developmental psychology. 2017;53(4):642-651.

How to cite this article:

Weisberg DS, Zosh JM. How guided play promotes early childhood learning. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Pyle A, thematic edition.Encyclopedia on early childhood development[in line].🇧🇷 Published: February 2018. Accessed December 12, 2022.

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(Video) How to get into Play-Based Learning: Part 1 - What is Play?


How does guided play promote early childhood learning? ›

Guided play takes advantage of children's natural abilities to learn through play by allowing them to express their autonomy within a prepared environment and with adult scaffolding.

What are the benefits of guided play? ›

Through guided play in school, students learn important skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication – skills which are better learned beyond the classroom. When students are given the opportunity to engage in such activities, they are able to learn new skills more effectively.

What is guided learning approach in early childhood? ›

Guided play and learning occurs when adults are involved in children's play and learning, following children's interests and responding to spontaneous learning opportunities as they arise.

Why is play important to early childhood learning and development? ›

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.

What is the purpose of guided learning? ›

Guided learning is an instructional sequence for small groups which is integrated into lessons to provide a bridge between whole-class teaching and independent work. It is direct teaching and works best when pupils are acquiring and developing concepts or skills in a subject.

What is the purpose of guided practice? ›

Guided Practice provides an opportunity to work through several examples of the newly taught skill or concept together, as a class. Teachers should aim for a high success rate prior to releasing students who are ready to practise skills and tasks independently, to ensure that they will not practise errors.

How does guided play work? ›

Guided play, unlike free play, means there is a learning goal set by an adult and children are 'gently steered' to explore. The study found children also learned slightly more in some areas of numeracy, like knowledge of shapes, and showed a greater mastery of some behavioral skills, like being able to switch tasks.

What is guided learning strategy? ›

In a guided learning strategy, the teacher will help students at each step but will not actually complete any of the steps themselves. The teacher provides structure, guidance and advice only. Guided learning can be thought of as 'teacher-as-scribe' in a worked example scenario.

What is a guided learning activity? ›

Guided learning is a term that refers to a process in which learners initiate and advance their learning guided by more experienced partners and socially derived sources, such as tools, text, and/or other artifacts.

What does Guided learning mean? ›

'Guided Learning (GL): learning activity under the immediate guidance or supervision of a lecturer, supervisor, tutor or other appropriate provider of education or training.

What is the importance of play in child development essay? ›

Play is one of the most important means by which children learn. Through natural activity they create roles that imitate adult behavior. Children think, create, imagine, communicate, make choices, solve problems, take risks, build physical skills and take on a variety of roles as they interact socially.

How does playing encourage the development of a child's language skills? ›

While playing, children can learn nouns (the names of things), verbs (what objects do or action words) and how to describe. They learn to explore objects and see how they feel, where you can put them and how big or small they are. Parents play a very important role in giving their child the words they need.

What is an example of guided learning? ›

Everyone has sat in a math class and watched a teacher model how to solve a problem. Students ask questions until they are able to understand. Then, the teacher turns over the task to the students. This is an example of guided practice.

What are the benefits of guided discovery learning? ›

The guided discovery increases student participation during courses. It also fosters collaboration between learners. Learners who engage in guided discover are more likely to feel empowered, autonomous, and self-reliant. All of these behaviors are related to increased retention of information.

Why do children need to be guided? ›

Guidance provides children with appropriate and positive models of behaviour and helps them to develop respect, self-regulation, self-confidence and sensitivity as they learn and grow. Guidance is needed while appropriate behaviour is happening, as well as before, during, and after inappropriate behaviour is displayed.

What is the value of guided practice? ›

Guided practice within explicit instruction has been shown to be an effective method for teaching academic and behavioral skills to students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). The support provided through guided practice allows students to acquire new skills confidently and successfully.

What is the importance of teacher guided activities? ›

It allows students to explore new concepts and ideas with guidance from a teacher. It gives opportunities for students to work together in a group setting, which develops social skills and cooperation. Guided learning is an effective method of teaching, especially in the initial stages of learning a new topic.

What is an example of guided participation? ›

Helping parents learn to feed a preterm or medically vulnerable infant who is learning to nipple feed is an example of guided participation in highly regulated conditions to maintain the infant's safety.

How effective is play method of learning? ›

Play-Way Method is Repetitive

Because play-way learning is competitive, it will make children find ways to improve themselves. As they repeat the activities, they develop creative thinking skills which can be helpful in the long run.

What are 2 examples of guided activities? ›

Guided practice examples include reading aloud, using graphic organizers, doing experiments, and working through math problems together. Guided practice activities are listed below: Graphic organizers-When teaching a lesson on how a bill becomes a law, the teacher could explain the new concept with direct instruction.

How effective is play-way method of teaching? ›

It is a great motivating force for a child. Play-way activities are based on the needs of the children. It follows learning by doing and practice, which is very much effective than orals. Play-way assures maximum freedom for the child with the result that he/she develops creativity and imagination skills.

What are the benefits of teacher guided activities? ›

It allows students to explore new concepts and ideas with guidance from a teacher. It gives opportunities for students to work together in a group setting, which develops social skills and cooperation. Guided learning is an effective method of teaching, especially in the initial stages of learning a new topic.

What does play-based learning promote? ›

Play-based learning is important to a child's development of social and emotional skills, such as the ability to develop positive relationships with peers. As children play together, they learn to get along with one another, cooperate, communicate effectively, problem solve and resolve conflicts.

How does play-based learning experiences help a child? ›

Play-based learning helps children develop social skills, motivation to learn, and even language and numeracy skills. Taking initiative, focused attention, and curiosity about the world are all a part of play. Children are naturally wired to do the very thing that will help them learn and grow.


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