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Learning Through Guided Play

Learn the benefits of guided play and how to incorporate it into your preschool program.

Learning Through Guided Play

Learning Through Guided Play

Direct instruction gets educational content across quickly and may be effective for certain areas of learning. However, children are primarily passive during direct instruction, and studies show that children learn best when they’re active and engaged. Therefore, real learning happens through play.

Guided play is purposeful as the teacher intentionally sets up activities with learning goals and guides the child to achieve them. Learning goals can include social, cognitive, literacy, and early math skills.  

This article discusses the benefits of guided play, how it differs from free play, and examples you can use in your classroom. 

Three children sitting at a table playing with colorful blocks, an adult woman wearing glasses smiling and touching one of them on the shoulder.

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What is guided play?

Guided play is when an adult gets involved in a child’s play activities to help them learn new skills. It’s a form of play-based learning that falls between free play and direct instruction as it combines child autonomy and adult guidance. While children thrive with free play, which is voluntary, flexible, and fun, sometimes teacher support is necessary to reach specific learning goals. Guided play is also fun and engaging, but unlike free play, it focuses on a specific learning objective. With guided play, the teacher can design a setting focused on a specific learning goal and have the children explore and discover within that context. Alternatively, the teacher will watch the children play, make comments, ask questions, and encourage children to ask questions too.

Guided play vs free play

At a glance, guided play looks similar to free play, so it might be difficult to tell them apart by simply watching the children’s activities. To tell them apart, it’s essential to look at the teacher’s role, which is more active in guided play than free play.

In guided play, the teacher intentionally plans the learning setting with specific learning goals. For example, to help children learn shapes or colors, the teacher may use building blocks in specific shapes or colors to help reinforce the concept. There are no specific learning goals for free play, so the teacher may use blocks just for the child's sake of building a structure.

During guided play, the teacher will observe the child’s play and must ask questions to extend their learning. For example, “What shape is that?” or “What color is that?” or “What do you think will happen if you put it at the top?” During free play, the teacher should observe the child’s activity and can ask open-ended questions too. However, they may not interact with the child unless necessary, for example, if the child asks a question or seems frustrated with the activity. 

During free play and guided play, the teacher can document their findings about the child’s learning by taking photographs, videos, and asking children to talk about the activity. While documentation is a “nice-to-have” for free play, guided play needs evidence of a child mastering a skill or achieving a goal.

Adult male standing in front of multiple children with their arms stretched and thumbs up dancing on a blue carpet adult female standing on the side

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Benefits of guided play

Research indicates that guided play is a powerful vehicle for early learning. Here are some benefits of guided play:

Builds active listening skills

Children learn to pay attention and listen as they engage in guided play. Although the child controls the activity in guided play, the teacher also has a hand in directing it, so the child will need to listen to answer questions or follow instructions. 

Develops a love for learning

When children are in control of their learning experience, they’re not under pressure and gain confidence. In addition, they have a teacher’s guidance and support, so they feel safe. This helps them develop a love for learning.

Builds problem-solving and critical thinking skills

When the teacher asks open-ended questions during the activity, the child gets to think deeper about the activity and develop ways to solve problems they might be experiencing. For example, a teacher might ask about a fallen block tower: “If we build it again, how can we change the structure so that it won’t fall next time?” As a result, children will start looking at problems as challenges they can face, which will help them solve problems throughout school and life.

Builds cognitive skills

Guided play improves a child’s ability to think and use reason. When children are immersed in an activity, they discover answers to questions like  “What happens when I do this?” or “Does this piece go here?” Cognitive skills also help children follow instructions, use new vocabulary, name colors and shapes, and read and write. 

Builds communication and social skills

Children learn to express themselves when asking the teacher questions or answering open-ended questions. They also learn to communicate and collaborate with peers as they work and navigate challenges together and make suggestions for solutions.

Adult woman with long curly hair holding an orange block smiling sitting next to a young child with curly hair building a structure with colorful blocks

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Teacher-guided play examples

As a teacher, you can guide play by creating an environment or learning station based on a learning goal. For example, if the goal is identifying shapes, the area should have manipulatives, pictures, and activities relating to shapes. Then, when the child is in that environment, they'll lead the activity but will eventually achieve the learning goal.

Follow the child’s lead, giving them autonomy to explore and allowing them to use their imagination. Control over the activity will provide them with a confidence boost, and they’ll develop a love for learning. Avoid taking over or imposing suggestions.

You can also guide play by asking open-ended questions and making encouraging comments. For example, “If we mix blue with yellow, what do you think will happen?Active observation is also essential to guiding play. It involves taking note of what fascinates the child, the skills they’re learning, and their challenges. Documenting these observations with photos, videos, and children’s thoughts or ideas informs your plans for future activities.

While planning guided play activities for your preschool schedule, ensure that they’re quick, so that children aren’t relying on you for an extended period. They should also be appropriate for each child’s development level (not too easy and not too difficult). Finally, remember to include indoor and outdoor activities.

Examples of guided play activities include:

  • Molding playdough into different letters or numbers
  • Sticking numbers on a magnetic board in order from one to ten
  • Playing with foam or wooden shapes
  • Memory tray games (let children choose the objects for the tray) 
  • Nature walks outside
  • Simple jigsaw puzzles
  • Activities that combine music and movement
  • Pretend play such as restaurant, hair salon, or doctor’s visit
  • Sensory play activities that stimulate children’s senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, body awareness, and balance

Play with a purpose

Guided play can support each child's individual needs and help them develop critical skills. By creating intentional opportunities for children to play, you can help them achieve specific learning goals in a hands-on setting.

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