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Up to the age of eight, learning via ‘directed’ play may be just as successful as adult-led teaching


In comparison to conventional, direct teaching, play-based learning may have a more favorable influence on the development of crucial early numeracy abilities in younger children.

A new study indicates that teaching younger children via ‘directed’ play improves important areas of their learning and development at least as well as – and perhaps better than – the typical direct instruction they get at school. Guided play refers to educational activities that provide children the flexibility to explore a learning objective in their own manner while being gently guided by an adult using open-ended questions and suggestions. The new research looked at the effects of this technique on 3,800 youngsters aged three to eight. It was discovered that directed play may be just as successful in the development of important literacy, numeracy, and social skills – as well as the learning of executive functions – as more conventional classroom education (a cluster of essential thinking skills). The results also imply that directed play may help youngsters grasp specific abilities more efficiently than other ways, particularly in arithmetic.

According to a recent study, teaching younger children via ‘directed’ play may assist crucial areas of their learning and development at least as well, if not better, than conventional, direct instruction.

Academics from the University of Cambridge acquired and analyzed data from a variety of studies and information sources, which combined demonstrated the influence of directed play on the learning of about 3,800 children aged three to eight. Guided play is a wide term that refers to educational activities that provide children the flexibility to explore a learning objective in their own manner while being gently guided by an adult.

Overall, the research discovered that this playful approach to learning may be equally as successful as more conventional, teacher-led techniques in developing important abilities such as literacy, numeracy, social skills, and executive functions, which are critical thinking skills. The results also imply that directed play may help youngsters grasp specific abilities more efficiently than other ways, particularly in arithmetic.

The relative benefits of play-based learning against more formal types of teaching has long been a point of contention in education, although the majority of the argument has centered on ‘free’ open-ended play.

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The current research is the first to look at the impacts of guided play, which is unusual in that it employs games or entertaining tactics to assist children toward particular learning objectives with the use of open-ended questions and suggestions from a teacher or another adult.

This might include things like making imaginative games that require kids to read, write, or do arithmetic, or integrating fundamental early learning skills like counting into play. Such strategies are widespread in pre-school education, but they are less frequent in primary education, a flaw that some scholars have pointed out.

Academics from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education’s Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre conducted the research.

A co-author, Dr. Elizabeth Byrne, said: “Researchers have only lately begun to conceptualize learning via play as a continuum. On one hand, there is free play, in which children determine what they want to do with little adult participation, and on the other hand, there is conventional, direct teaching, in which an adult instructs a child what to do and directs the learning activity.”

“Guided play is somewhere in the middle. It refers to engaging activities that are structured around a learning objective yet enable youngsters to experiment on their own. Allowing youngsters to explore with some moderate direction may be beneficial to their education — possibly even better than direct teaching in certain situations.”

Professor of Play in Education, Development, and Learning at the University of Cambridge, Paul Ramchandani, said: “Play, although helpful, is often argued to contribute little to children’s education. In reality, there is intriguing evidence that directed play actively increases learning and development, despite the fact that there are still some major uncertainties regarding how we should employ it in classrooms.”

The researchers discovered 39 studies, conducted between 1977 and 2020, that had recorded some evidence regarding guided play’s benefit as compared to free play or direct teaching, generally as part of a larger study.

The researchers were able to calculate how much of an overall positive or negative effect guided play has on different aspects of numeracy, literacy, executive functions, or socioemotional skills when compared to other approaches by combining the results of studies that looked at similar types of learning outcomes. The effect sizes were calculated using Hedge’s g, a commonly used statistical approach in which a score of 0 indicates no comparative advantage while scores of 0.2, 0.5, and 0.8 indicate moderate, medium, and large impacts, respectively.

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The findings show that directed play has a larger beneficial influence on children’s numeracy than direct teaching in several areas. Guided play, for example, had a comparable impact size of 0.24 on early arithmetic abilities and 0.63 on shape knowledge. There was additional evidence that directed play helps youngsters improve their cognitive capacity to transition between activities.

There was no statistically significant evidence that directed play is less successful than direct teaching on any of the learning outcomes investigated, in addition to other favorable results. In summary, guided fun activities yield nearly the same learning advantages as more conventional, teacher-led techniques, at the very least.

The researchers provide a number of theories to explain why directed play may help with numeracy in particular. One theory is that guided play’s gentle urging is a particularly effective means of teaching youngsters to go through the logical processes that math-based activities often require.

It’s also possible that the fact that directed play often incorporates hands-on learning is significant. “Mathematical ideas are frequently difficult for children to grasp because they are abstract,” Byrne said. “When you use them in an imaginative game or a fun situation, they become simpler to grasp. Play may be important since it encourages mental visualization.”

More generally, the authors speculate that directed play may affect other traits that have a favorable impact on school outcomes, such as children’s drive, perseverance, inventiveness, and confidence.

According to Dr. Christine O’Farrelly, a Senior Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, “Playful activities are likely to have the beneficial effects we identified in our research in part because they affect on other abilities and processes that support learning. We will be able to determine more precisely how guided play may be utilized to make a significant impact in schools once we have a better understanding of how it influences learning in this manner.”

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