The Benefits of Early Learning Through Guided Play

November 23, 2022

As parents, we have a lot to feel responsible for. One of those weights is often our children’s early education. But finding time to teach counting, ABCs, and colors can be challenging when you’re simply trying to keep everyone safe and fed from one day to the next.

Luckily, guided play can help. This term may sound simple at first, but it’s surprisingly powerful. Guided play is the act of offering tools or toys to your child with a specific educational purpose in mind. And it’s actually been proven to be more successful than direct lessons in early childhood education.

Below, we’ll look into the science behind guided play, as well as offer up some ideas for parents to use this incredible learning tool at home,

What is Guided Play?

Guided play can be thought of as play with a specific purpose. It offers the free form of traditional play, which children benefit from greatly, while also giving adults opportunities to include small tidbits of information.

For example, let’s say you want to help your child learn their colors. You may offer them two differently-colored cups and a selection of popsicle sticks that match the two shades. Your child begins playing, making structures or creating rhythms with the combination. You walk by between loads of laundry and say “Hmmm… that red stick really matches well with the red cup!” By the time you get back, your child has started placing the red sticks in the red cup, and the blue sticks in the blue cup. They chose to perform this task on their own, and they remember the word “red,” and the context in which you used it as you passed their play station. This very well may be the time they remember the name of the color red!

As you can see from the example above, guided play should be simple. It should be inviting. And it should have a concrete purpose created by an adult. However, you can also see that this purpose didn’t take much effort. You didn’t have to sit down with your child for an hour, begging them to practice their colors with you. You gave them a gentle opportunity to learn, and they grabbed on gladly.

Why does guided play work? Because it holds the same values as play-based learning. It gives children the opportunity to explore on their own at levels they’re comfortable with. It also provides adults with a small amount of control over the learning outcome. 

Some of the main characteristics of guided play to keep in mind include:

  • Children are given complete autonomy over their actions.
  • It’s engaging for children.
  • It’s easy for adults to commit to.
  • It offers opportunities for creative learning that adults may not have thought to include in direct education.
  • It was created for preschoolers, but it can be successful for all age groups.

Guided Play vs Play-Based Learning

Guided play offers many of the same benefits of play-based learning. It allows children to explore at their own pace and include their own interests. The way it differs relates to how the adults in the room interact.

In play-based learning, grown-ups typically do not set any specific expectations of what is going to develop. In guided play, adults offer those small learning tidbits that we mentioned above. These could include:

  • Offering toys that relate directly to a topic that you want your children to learn about.
  • Mentioning new vocabulary words that you’d like your kids to master while they play with related items.
  • Asking children, “What would happen if you did (A, B, or C)?” while they play to encourage specific learning outcomes.

In short, guided play is play-based learning, but it adds a direction that is purposely chosen by an adult.

Guided Play Different vs Direct Instruction

Guided play includes instruction, but it’s not as black and white as direct teaching. Children are not told exactly what they need to do. They may be asked to play with blocks, and only provided with cubes, in lessons that relate to cube geometry or vocabulary. They aren’t told to learn the name or the shape, however. They are simply encouraged through the toys offered and vocabulary suggested throughout the play session.

Learning Through Guided Play Examples

When choosing guided play to offer at home, first focus on what you’d like your child to learn. Then consider their interests and how you can relate the two. Below are a few ideas to help you get started.

Alphabet Play

If you want your child to start learning letter sounds, offer a collection of toys that start with “A” in a sensory bin. Include toys and household items, such as apples, alligators, ambulances, astronauts, and more. Let your child play freely, and when you ask them about their play, mention the “a-a-apple,” or “a-a-alligator.” Leave the bin out for a few days so you have more opportunities to introduce the sound. Once they’ve played for a while, you could ask, “Did you notice that all of these items start with the “a-” sound?”

Farm Time

Offer a barn and toy animals for your child to play with. Include a few animals that your child isn’t familiar with, if possible. Then, as they play, introduce a word or two. If your child knows all of their animals, you could expand their vocabulary with words that relate to the barn, such as “loft” or “stable.”

Learn More About Guided Play With Wonderschool

Overall, guided play is an incredible tool to teach various subjects to your child in a no-pressure fashion. We encourage you to put it to use in your own home today!

Image: Liana's Los Feliz Wonderschool

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