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Research Review: How Guided Play Can Build Math Skills


Read the following Research Review by Erica Zippert and use the bolded sentences as developmental tips for parents! If you’d like to react to this article, feel free to leave a comment or respond to the questions below.

“Taking Shape: Supporting Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Geometric Knowledge Through Guided Play” by Kelly R. Fisher, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Nora Newcombe, and Roberta M. Golinkoff compares the effects of different learning experiences, all of which have previously recognized as beneficial for children’s learning, on children’s shape knowledge.

It is more important than ever that we promote preschool children’s school readiness skills before they enter kindergarten to ensure that they have a smooth transition into school, and a successful educational career ahead of them.  Mathematics (which includes skills such as number knowledge as well as geometry) may be an especially important academic area for development. In fact, early math readiness skills have been shown to be especially strongly linked to children’s academic success later in school (e.g., Duncan et al., 2007). This means that the math skills children bring with them to kindergarten may help them throughout their schooling in a range of  subjects. This is of course not to suggest that literacy skills are less valuable for children, but brings to mind the importance of examining the academic development of the child more broadly!

It has been long debated how best to support the development of these skills, both mathematics and otherwise (Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2012). Some researchers suggest that the most effective way is through didactic instruction, in which the child is considered merely a passive recipient of information delivered by a more knowledgeable other, such as a teacher (Stockard & Engelmann, 2008). Other theorists, including the founding fathers of the field of child development research (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978 and Piaget, 1962), argued that children can play active roles in their learning.   These theorists support the notion that children’s learning occurs during their free play, or “self-directed activities that are fun, engaging, voluntary, and flexible, have no extrinsic goals, and often contain an element of make-believe (Sutton-Smith, 2001).” They also suggest that children may benefit from scaffolding or assistance from a more knowledgeable other, which has been more recently recognized as guided play (Golbeck, 2001).  In guided play, more knowledgeable others (e.g., teachers) act as “collaborative partners who create flexible, interest-driven experiences that encourage children’ s natural curiosity, active engagement, and “sense-making” processes (e.g., Fisher et al., 2012)”. The difference between guided play, free play, and didactic instruction ultimately lies in the role of the child.  While the child plays no role in didactic instruction, and is the sole actor in free play, teachers and children work together in didactic play to further children’s learning.

These approaches have never been directly compared, so it is unclear whether one is more effective than the other.  Early learning programs with playful components, which are becoming increasingly more popular with young children, have shown better outcomes for children’s academic development than traditional instructional approaches that focus solely on didactic instruction (e.g., Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007; Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006; Marcon, 2002).  Yet , the comparisons between guided play, free play, and didactic instruction are slightly misleading.  No two play-based early childhood programs are the same, and many likely include varying degrees of both free play and guided play approaches (Chein et al., 2010; Wood, 2009).

It is especially unclear which learning experiences are best for children’s math development. Classroom observations of preschoolers from a range of financial and ethnic backgrounds provide evidence that children explore math on their own during free play  (Seo & Ginsburg, 2004).  Some researchers are skeptical, however, about the extent to which free play might lead to math learning (Sarama & Clements, 2009), suggesting that children may not be able to grasp math concepts without the help of an adult.

To date, there is not much  research examining math learning from play. In two published studies, the math skills of preschool children playing a number-related board game with peers with guidance from an adult improved significantly as a result of only an hour’s worth of this playful experience (Ramani & Siegler, 2008; Ramani, Siegler, & Hitti, 2011). However,  it is unclear if children would have improved their understanding of numbers without help from an adult.

To answer the question of which instructional approach would best lead to children’s math learning, the researchers conducted a study of 70 4- and 5-year-old children from a suburban region of Philadelphia (note that 10 children could not be included in the study for various reasons, and most children were Caucasian and from middle- to upper-income backgrounds). The researchers randomly assigned children to receive one type of learning experience, either didactic instruction, free play, or guided play to learn to classify a range of shapes (i.e., triangles, rectangles, pentagons, and hexagons) in typical or familiar forms (e.g., equilateral triangle), atypical yet still classifiable forms (e.g., isosceles or scalene triangles), and non-valid forms (e.g., shapes with incomplete sides). For examples of shapes, see the figure image below of triangles and non-triangles.

 Shape examples image 

In the guided play condition, each child and the experimenter engaged in exploration of pictures of shapes on cards in an exploratory and playful way, acting as detectives, wearing detective hats discovering “the secret of the shapes,” or what makes a shape a shape (i.e., the number of complete sides). The experimenter guided the children to explore and compare both typical and atypical forms of the same shapes, citing that “all the shapes were real shapes although they looked different” with questions and encouragement to touch and trace the shapes. Children then used construction sticks to create atypical shapes and explain why they were similar to typical shapes.

In the didactic instruction condition, the experimenter used the same language as in the guided play condition, but did not involve the child. Instead, children were passive observers, or simply watched the experimenter explain differences between familiar and non-familiar shapes.

In the free play condition, children were shown pictures of shapes on cards grouped together by shapes. They were allowed to play with the cards for 7 minutes and the construction sticks for 6 minutes in any way they wished.

Immediate test of learning: To test children’s learning of shapes, children were asked to classify cards in terms of whether they showed pictures of real shapes or non-real shapes in the form of a game. Leelu the Ladybug, “a very picky bug who loves shapes, but only real shapes” wanted the child to place all real shapes in a box and all fake shapes in a trashcan. Children were shown new pictures of shapes or non-shapes one card at a time, asked to identify it as a real shape or a fake shape, explain their answers, and place the cards in the correct place (box or trashcan).

Delayed test of learning: A sample of the original children (85%) were assessed a week later on the same shape classification test to see if their shape knowledge sustained over a longer period of time.

Results.  Findings showed that children in the guided play condition were better able to correctly classify typical and atypical shapes than children in the didactic instruction and free play conditions, though most children regardless of condition were able to correctly classify non-shapes. Children in the didactic condition were better able to recognize atypical shapes as shapes than children in the free play condition, but children in both of these conditions did not differ in their abilities to categorize familiar shapes as real shapes. Further, children did not differ in their performance on the shape classification test 1 week later.

Discussion. This study shows the benefits of guided play above simply demonstrating things for children, and simply letting them explore on their own, at least for especially challenging concepts. Most children in the guided play condition were able to correctly classify shapes with which they may have already been familiar, and learned to correctly classify shapes that perhaps looked different from what they were originally used to. Children in the didactic condition were more limited in their learning. They knew to reject non-shapes as shapes, but often were unable to recognize atypical yet classifiable shapes correctly. The children in the free play condition did explore the shape properties with which they were familiar. They often told stories about the shapes, likely putting their prior shape knowledge to use, but did not move beyond that to classify the shapes in more advanced ways. Lastly, those who did receive instruction in shape knowledge learned a great deal, as their knowledge persisted several days afterwards.

Take away message. These results are important in thinking about how we guide children to learn, and how to guide families to support their children’s learning. It is imperative that we give children opportunities to apply what they know to solve new problems during free play, but to help them gain new understandings of more challenging concepts, they benefit from guidance from a more knowledgeable other, like a parent or teacher. Most importantly, children learn best from guidance when the experience is fun, motivating, hands-on, centered around the child, and involves collaborative back-and-forth question-and-answering with the adult, rather than a mere demonstration of new information. Note that this study only helps us understand children’s learning of one particular math concept (i.e., shapes). More research is needed to demonstrate how these approaches promote learning other math concepts and acquiring skills in other domains.

 Tell us what you think!

Did these results surprise you?

Share your experiences with direct instruction, guided play and free play!  

What has worked best for you as a learner, a teacher, a parent, or a caregiver?  Why?

What would the results look like for other domains such as literacy, social skills, science, social studies?

What if the children studied had been from a different neighborhood/state/country?  Would you still expect to see the same results?

Click on the following links to access the article directly and to see a bibliography of all resources cited in this research review.

link to the article