Children learn more through ‘guided play’ than from teacher-led instruction, according to a new study by experts at Cambridge University.
A play-focused approach to learning, where children are allowed to explore at their own pace, was found to be just as effective as traditional teacher-led methods in teaching literacy, numeracy and thinking skill.
And when it came to some maths skills, guided play was actually more effective than other approaches, at least up to the age of eight.
The research examined data from a number of studies that had looked at the effectiveness of guided play, where an adult steers activities but allows children the freedom to explore in their own way.
This may involve imagination-based games or incorporating skills such as counting into play.
While these approaches are common in pre-school education, they are less widely used in schools.
“It’s only recently that researchers have started to conceptualise learning through play as something that exists on a spectrum,” said Dr Elizabeth Byrne, of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge and a co-author of the study, published in the journal Child Development.
“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. 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.”
Researchers looked at 39 studies that documented the impact of guided play on children aged three to eight.
The results were then combined with studies looking at the effect of other approaches, including traditional teacher-led direct instruction.
Guided play was found to be at least as effective as direct instruction in all of the learning outcomes measured but was particularly effective in some areas of numeracy, where it produced a greater positive impact than direct instruction.
Children developed a significantly better knowledge of shapes, for example, through guided play than through direct instruction.
“The argument is sometimes made that play, while beneficial, adds little to children’s education,” said Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge.
“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.”
One explanation for the positive impact of guided play on numeracy skills is that the gentle prompting that it involves helps children work through the logical steps involved in maths.
Another possibility is that hands-on learning makes it easier for children to grasp some of the concepts involved in maths.
“Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” added Byrne.
“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 visualisation.”
Guided play may also enhance characteristics that help shape educational progress, such as motivation, persistence, creativity and confidence.
“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 Dr Christine O’Farrelly, a senior research associate at the Faculty of Education and co-author of the study.
“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.”