Why Play?

Monkeys play. Dogs play. Rats play. Even octopuses play. And without any instruction, children of all races and genders, in all cultures of the world, invent and reinvent play in every generation. Something this ubiquitous must provide evolutionary advantages to both animals and humans. Decades of research suggest just that. In particular, free play and guided play—together known as playful learning—are pedagogical tools through which children can learn in joyful and conceptually rich ways, as is evident in the opening vignette. Brain science research in animals has left clues along a path that may begin to reveal play’s human biological underpinnings, but more research is needed to investigate why play promotes learning and development.

From Animal Brains to Children’s Behavior

Perhaps the most striking finding about play comes from research with animals in which play—specifically, rough and tumble play—has been shown to promote early brain development. When young rats play, their brains become primed to be more adaptable in later life, especially with social skills and executive functions (e.g., attention, memory, and planning). Indeed, findings suggest that playful rats act more appropriately in social situations than rats that do not play. These findings offer a potential model of how play may help develop children’s social functioning and brain architecture.

A growing body of behavioral research establishes relationships between children’s play and development in several areas, including language, executive functions, mathematics and spatial skills, scientific thinking, and social and emotional development. One reason that play might be such a valuable pedagogical tool is that it features the precise contexts that facilitate learning. An amalgamated research field called the science of learning has identified four key ingredients of successful learning: learning occurs best when children are mentally active (not passive), engaged (not distracted), socially interactive (with peers or adults), and building meaningful connections to their lives.

These kinds of playful interactions between children and adults may be essential for creating the kind of supportive social environments necessary for healthy social and emotional development. Guided play in particular features this type of social interaction and has demonstrated promising outcomes for learning and development.

What is Guided Play?

Today, most researchers agree that play is fun, flexible, voluntary, and intrinsically motivated; it involves active engagement and often incorporates make-believe. Guided play maintains the joyful child-directed aspects of free play but adds an additional focus on learning goals through light adult scaffolding. It offers an opportunity for exploration in a context specifically designed to foster a learning goal. As such, it features two crucial elements: child agency (the child directs the learning) and gentle adult guidance to ensure that the child progresses toward the learning goal. Research suggests that guided play is a successful pedagogical tool for educators in a variety of areas. Here, we outline some examples of how guided play can work in the classroom to build specific language, mathematics, and spatial skills.

Language Development

Guided play is a model setting for language learning. For example, infusing vocabulary instruction in guided play fosters word learning for preschoolers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. One study tested the effectiveness of word learning through guided play against a more teacher-directed learning activity. All children participated in shared book reading and then reviewed half of the vocabulary words through guided play and the other half through a picture card word-recall activity. The guided play resembled the learning taking place in the opening vignette. After play-based word learning, children defined the target words more readily than they did after picture card-based word learning.

Mathematics and Spatial Skills

Guided play is also effective for fostering spatial skills—important in and of themselves and also tied to later mathematics success. For example, a study with preschoolers compared children’s ability to learn about geometry and shapes through guided play, free play, and direct instruction. In the guided play condition, the adult followed the children’s lead and scaffolded the interaction. Children learned more about geometry and shapes than those participating in either the direct instruction condition, where the children listened passively while the adult delivered the content in a fun way, or the free play condition, where children interacted with the shapes in whatever way they wished.

Why Does Guided Play Work? Fledgling Evidence From Brain Science

Guided play represents an enhanced discovery approach to learning that increases children’s knowledge through opportunities to receive immediate, meaningful adult feedback. It is also an ideal example of an active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning context. Consider, for instance, children playing with a shape sorter. The children discuss how to insert the shapes so that the sorter lights up. They keep inserting shapes and notice that sometimes the sorter lights up and sometimes it doesn’t, but they can’t figure out why. Their teacher joins in and makes some gentle guiding suggestions to help them by asking what the children have already tried and what they could try next. As children incorporate this feedback while continuing to experiment, they generate hypotheses and draw causal connections, becoming little scientists. Play helps children discover causal relationships through this type of informal experimentation. And light scaffolding, when needed, prevents frustration and enables the children to engage in longer periods of playful experimentation.

Adult-scaffolded play experiences might be particularly important because they help children develop what scientists call proactive control: neural mechanisms in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that use clues from the environment to help the brain figure out what might happen next. Guided play might support the development of proactive control by fostering a mise en place—a term (derived from the culinary world meaning “everything in its place”) suggested by the famed psychology professor Jerome Bruner:

Think about preparing to make a pizza. You gather the dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings. You also get out the required tools: rolling pin, pizza stone, and pizza cutter. In this way, you have prepared yourself and your workspace for the task at hand.

Similarly, a psychological mise en place—a readiness to anticipate events and explore an activity—helps children prepare their minds to embrace learning experiences in a positive way. Ms. Elena cultivated such a mise en place through her inclusion of farm-focused play activities. By preparing the play environment in service of her pedagogical goal—the children learning the focus words—Ms. Elena allowed children to work toward this goal in their own playful way. This type of gently scaffolded, playful learning fosters children’s desire to seek out similar meaningful learning opportunities.

Looking Forward

The bottom line is that play is ubiquitous across species, and it likely has a significant role in many aspects of human development. Though behavioral research is still unfolding, evidence is mounting that guided play scaffolds young children’s development and that it might prime critical neural mechanisms to make healthy adaptations. It also helps children develop an understanding of how the world works. To deepen our understanding, research investigating play’s biological foundation in children is urgently needed. This research could prove particularly important for developing interventions to assist children from vulnerable populations, such as those from low socioeconomic-status backgrounds, children with disabilities, or children experiencing stress or trauma.

As we await new discoveries from brain science, one finding is already clear: Play is a wonderful metaphor for active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning. And play prepares children to become social, caring, thinking, and creative citizens. In fact, many researchers and teachers now concur that the “child-driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.”

Adapted from The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story By Brenna Hassinger-Das, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, © 2017 National Association for the Education of Young Children.