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Posts Tagged ‘preschool models

“Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind. So avoid compulsion, and let your children’s lessons take the form of play” –Plato (The Republic, vii, 536, in Cornford, 1945).

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In this month’s Child Development issue, researchers examined how classroom activities promote learning on certain school readiness measures, like  vocabulary, letter-naming, and number-naming. In a study of over 2,700 pre-Kindergarten children, the res earchers compared kids that were mostly engaged in free play (the teacher didn’t direct or engage with the children), individual instruction (the teacher instructed an individual child who then worked on projects independently), group instruction (the teacher directly instructed a group of students), and scaffolded learning (the teacher interacted directly with children and helped them to go slightly beyond the level of play that they were able to achieve on their own).

So—what did they find? Children who spent most of their time engaged in free play showed the smallest gains over the course of the year while children in instructional activities exhibited the greatest gains. This is consistent with other studies— and it is not surprising—if a child has no one pointing them in the right direction and children’s activities/toys are not assembled in a way that promotes discovery, it will be difficult to impossible to make the same academic gains as children who have help. Having said that, direct instruction is NOT the only alternative….
Guided play: The middle ground.

Guided play represents the midpoint between free play and direct instructional methods—blending curricular goals and play. How is this accomplished? A teacher embeds materials into play environments and then helps guide children’s discovery and exploration of new information. Teachers guide learning in a variety of ways—including modeling, co-playing, asking questions during play, and creating games/play activities. When we look closer at this study, we see that the scaffolded learning group is similar to guided play. In fact, the scaffolded group had similar learning outcomes to those receiving instruction! This coincides with the growing body of research that shows guided play is stronger than other direct instruction methods!

Here are some take-home messages to think about:

(1) “Guided play” – an instructional method. Guided play is a great method to engage children in a fun, exciting way while fostering learning goals and key skills! Create fun games and activities  that help children learn new things and practice their new skills!!

(2) Not all “academic readiness skills” are equal. Studies show free play and guided play activities promote a variety of social, physical, and ‘thinking’ skills, while direct instruction narrowly promotes curricular content. Remember the 6 C’s you saw at the Ultimate Block Party? As children played with partners and adults—they fostered collaboration, communication, creative innovation, content knowledge, confidence, and critical thinking! The combination of these skills is just as important as learning ABC’s and numbers for later success! So free- and guided-play are key (and one should not be emphasized over another)!

(3) Look at the BIG picture. Over the last fifty years, researchers have compared preschool models and found play-based practices have long-term, positive impacts on children’s health, social skills, motivation to learn, and academic achievement. While direct instruction models have sometimes shown short-term academic gains over play-based practices, these findings often fade over time, and sometimes result in  negative social outcomes (e.g., emotional issues, attention problems, etc). Children must be able to focus, concentrate, converse and respect others, and self-regulate their behaviors/emotions— all of which are developed through free- and guided-play.

(4) Learning does not start/stop with school. Your children only spend about 14% of their day in school, so YOU have an active role in helping your child learn. Try some guided play techniques at home! Here are some examples: 

  • “I Spy Shapes!” – Ask your child to find all of the different types of rectangles are in the room. Help her ‘discover’ the shape properties—How are they different? How are they similar?
  • “Grocery Store Challenge” – On your next trip to the grocery store, ask your child math-related questions like “If I eat an apple, how many do I have left?”, “How many letter A’s do you see on this box of cereal?,” “How many pieces of gum can I get with a dollar?”
  • “Sing-A-long” – Make up funny songs with your children using new vocabulary words or math concepts. Here are some examples.
  • “Story-board learning” – Ask children to create a story board using their new knowledge. For example, if the children learned about different seasons, ask your child to draw four pictures of him playing during those seasons. He can then act out the story for you!
  • Check out a children’s museum in your area. You will see playful learning materialize before your eyes! Not sure where one is? Find one here!

Featured Article:

Chien, N. C., Howes, C., Burchinal, M., Pianta, R. C., Ritchie, S., Bryant, D. M., et al. (2010). Children’s classroom engagement and school readiness gains in prekindergarten. Child Development, 81, 1534-1549.

Interested in Learning More?

Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., Berk, L., & Singer, D. (2010, in press). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. In A. Pellegrini (Ed), Handbook of the Development of Play. Oxford University Press.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., Berk, L., & Singer, D. (2008). A Manifesto for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the scientific evidence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Marcon, R. (1999). Differential impact of preschool models on development and early learning of inner-city children: A three cohort study. Developmental Psychology, 35, 358-375.

Stipek, D., Daniels, D., Galluzzo, D., Millburn, S., & Salmon, J. M. (1998). Good beginnings: What difference does the program make in preparing young children for school. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 41-66.

Golbeck, S.L. (2001). Instructional models for early childhood: In search of a child regulated/teacher-guided pedagogy. In S.L. Golbeck (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on early childhood education: Reframing dilemmas in research and practice (pp. 3 – 29). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pellegrini, A. (2005). Recess: Its role in education and development. Mahwah, NJ: Psychology Press.

This blog was written by Dr. Kelly Fisher, Postdoctoral Fellow at Temple University, and Dr. Jennifer Zosh, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine



  • Amanda Gambill: Playworks is so happy to have the Ultimate Block party here in Baltimore! The event is going to be amazing! We are also looked forward to being the mo
  • Shaping Youth » AHA & Nintendo: Tag-Teaming Innovation To Get Kids Moving (Pt2): [...] “fun and games” started taking on an electronic, screen-based focus and child’s play shifted from the ramp-n-rev of the recess bell to bra
  • Beth Kimberly: Absolutely! Recess is an invaluable part of the school day. I love that, as you point out, "there were NO negative impacts of recess." I find it awful
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