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The purpose of this paper is to explore the topic of using a play based pedagogy when teaching young students. As a 24 year veteran in teaching Pre-K and Kindergarten, I have had a front row seat to the decline of play as a daily component in my class schedule. I believe this has had a negative effect on student academic performance as well as in student social emotional wellness.
As part of my research, I examined the three types of play that children engage in at school and how all of those types of play affect academic and social emotional outcomes both in the short term and in the long term.
The three types of play are; free play, teacher-directed play and guided play. During free play, play (e.g. Newbury, Wooldridge, Peet & Bertelsen, 2015) children are free to make their own rules (e.g. Fleer, 2011b). They interact with peers and play with items that they choose without teacher interference.
In guided play, the teacher sets up play materials to address a topic she would like to encourage exploration in. She proposes a problem to be solved and she gives ideas for how she would like the children to interact with the materials. Then she lets the children set the course of play that is mixed with learning from there. (Ash & Wells, 2006; Berk & Winsler, 1995; Callanan & Braswell, 2006; Callanan & Oakes, 1992; Copple, Sigel, & Saunders, 1979; Rogoff, 2003). At that point, the teacher takes the role of playmate rather than instructor.
She may participate in the play or guide the children toward making their own discoveries through questioning or modeling. In teacher directed play (e.g. Newbury, Wooldridge, Peet & Bertelsen, 2015) the teacher retains the role of instruction she plans and presents an activity and makes sure it is carried out to her specifications (Weisberg, Hirsh‐Pasek & Golinkoff, 2013; Wood & Attfield, 2005)..
Is one type of play more conducive to a good learning outcome than another?
It seems that different types of play elicit different outcomes. Free play has been found to stimulate social and emotional development (Pagani, L. S., Fitzpatrick, C., Archambault, I., & Janosz, M. (2010). School readiness and later achievement: A French Canadian replication and extension. Developmental Psychology, 46, 984–994. When playing with blocks, children learn to cooperate with a group to achieve a common goal. They develop a linguistic discourse for playing in the block area and they build a sense of community (Andrews, 2015; Hansel, 2015; McNamee, 2005). When children engage in dramatic play, they share their experiences with social norms and interactions (McNamee, 2005).
Teacher Directed play is best in a used in a setting when physical activity is involved. (Liu et al., 2010). The teacher can act as coach to develop sportsmanship skills such as cooperation, respect, and sharing.
However, numerous studies have been done to show that the best play to build the academic as well as social emotional skills for young children is guided play. (see also Bellin & Singer, 2006; Christie & Enz, 1992; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Pellegrini & Galda, 1990; Roskos, Tabors, & Lenhart, 2009). These findings hold true in older children as well as younger children. (e.g., Chi, 2009; DeVries, Zan, Hildebrandt, Edmiaston, & Sales, 2002; Honomichl & Chen, 2012; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991).
Children who have guided play as part of their instruction outperform those who are exposed to traditional teacher-led instruction. (Han, Moore, Vukelich, and Buell (2010) found that children who received 30 minutes of teacher directed traditional lessons in vocabulary did not do as well as children who received 20 minutes of teacher directed lessons followed by 10 minutes of guided play focused on vocabulary learned in the lesson. Bellin & Singer, 2006; Christie & Enz, 1992; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Pellegrini & Galda, 1990; Roskos, Tabors, & Lenhart, 2009 This is remarkable because in essence the children who were exposed to 10 minutes of guided play per lesson spent less time in direct instruction than the children who spent the whole 30 minutes of class in direct instruction and also because the children studied were considered to be “at risk” students.
Furthermore, children perform better when guided play is incorporated into lessons instead of teacher directed play or free play. In a study done by Erica Zippert, three groups of students were given shape cards and popsicle sticks. One group was taught in the traditional way where the teacher showed the cards to the class, and described the attributes of the shapes. Then the teacher constructed shapes from the popsicle sticks. One group was taught using the guided play pedagogy. The students were given detective hats and worked together with the guidance of the teacher to discover “the secrets of the shapes”. The final group was given seven minutes of free time to explore the shape cards and the popsicle sticks with no instruction at all. The results of the study showed that the children who were taught using guided play, came away with the most complete understanding of shapes vs. non-shapes as well as typical shapes vs. atypical shapes. The children also retained these advanced concepts for at least a week (Zippert 2011).
There is also evidence to show the advantages of guided play on the development of healthy social and emotional skills. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to implement guided play for our young children because it has such far reaching implications for their stress management skills, self-regulation skills, and overall mental health (Burts et al., 1992). (Marcon, 1994, 1999, 2003)
Specifically,(Ogan & Berk, 2009). Studied the effects of teaching children how to play using guided play vs. using didactic instruction. Children in the didactic group were directed in pretend play scenarios and using a script and prescribed questions along with direct feedback as to what they should do in given situations. In the guided play model, children were given a set of toys and the teacher suggested a theme for the play. Then the teacher watched the children play and only interrupted when a teachable moment presented itself. For instance, the teacher would intervene if play became too rough and help children resolve the problem and give strategies for how to keep the problem from happening again. The study found that children who were instructed using the guided play model were more engaged in the “lessons” than the children in the didactic model. Also, the children who were exposed to the guided play approach to teaching play skills showed improvement in planning and fine motor skills beyond what the children in the didactic pedagogy acquired. Furthermore, the girls who were in the guided play instruction group also showed improvement in self-regulation and initiation of play. This is especially important to note because self –regulation scores from children aged 3-5 predict academic success from Kindergarten to graduation ((Blair & Razza, 2007; Duncan et al., 2007; Gathercole, Tiffany, Briscoe, & Thorn, 2005)!
Beyond having positive implications for children’s social and emotional growth as well as indications that guided play pedagogy results in better academic outcomes, children who learn in a playful environment, are found to be more creative and to be better problem solvers (Fisher, Glazek et al.,. Once again, in this experiment, students were placed in 3 groups. The free play group was given some materials and a play mat with a river and a forest pictured on it. They were told to explore them as they wish without any further instruction. The guided play group was asked open ended questions about the materials and then asked how they could use them to help a bear cross the river pictured on the mat to see his friend. The third group was instructed as to what they materials were and how they could be used to help the bear cross the river. Next, all three groups were given a similar problem to solve with different materials and this time they would have to get a turtle to cross the forest. Children who were in the supported play group gave far more creative and flexible ideas for how to help the turtle in his quest using the materials given than either the free play group or the didactic instruction group.
If guided play is such a great indicator of later success in so many areas, what happens to children who are never exposed to it?
Many studies over the years propose that children who are exposed to developmentally inappropriate practices of strict didactic instruction in their early years of schooling do suffer both academically and behaviorally. Specifically, they struggle more with hyperactivity, distractibility and impulse control. They lack confidence and do not enjoy being challenged academically. Not only do they struggle in their present classrooms but evidence shows that they will continue to struggle throughout their school career. Older students who were educated in preschool and kindergarten classes with only traditional teacher directed instruction tend to have poorer study skills and. as a result, poorer grades (e.g., Burts et al., 1992; Hart et al., 1998; Hirsh‐Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003; Singer & Singer, 2005).
How can teachers tailor the ideas from play pedagogy to help older students?
The same ideas used in guided play in which a teacher establishes a problem and helps students come up with their own solutions to that problem is really no different from a constructivist approach to instruction that can be used in older grades. (E. Baker) Made possible by strides in technology and internet access in public schools, constructivism is gaining ground as a preferred approach to teaching. The only difference constructivist model has from the play based model of instruction is the emphasis on student reflection and metacognition. Students who are instructed using the constructivist approach share many of the same benefits that younger children who are instructed using the guided play pedagogy.
What are the barriers keeping play based learning from being accepted in more primary classrooms?
One of the biggest barriers to the acceptance of play based learning is lack of training(e.g. Howard, 2010; Pui‐Wah & Stimpson, 2004), in the subject as well as lack of instructional support at the school level, such as curriculum guides, materials, or personnel (Hu et al., 2014). Another is teacher buy in. Teachers simply do not trust that students can learn more through play than through direct instruction. Therefore they see play as a distraction from learning. Some teachers only see value in play pedagogy as it relates to social and emotional development and therefore they only implement time for free choice play and they don’t implement guided play into their lessons. Teachers also report that play based approaches are difficult to implement into their classroom routines for many reasons. They say the teacher to student ratio is too large (e.g. Lynch, 2014; Martlew et al., 2011), and they don’t have materials, time, or space to make play based learning feasible (e.g. Hegde & Cassidy, 2009; Rogers & Evans, 2007). They say they are under great pressure from parents (e.g. Fung & Cheng,2012) and administrators to provide a rigorous traditional curriculum that produces greater and greater academic results (e.g. Baker, 2014b; Leggett & Ford, 2013).
Through all of the research I have read, it has become more and more imperative to me that we must overcome the barriers to using a play or constructive pedagogy with our students. The academic benefits would be appealing enough on their own, but the social emotional benefits are even more compelling.
Play based curriculum can be implemented in any classroom including a reading lab. Here are just a few ideas for implementing play into early elementary reading instruction:
Taking the role of repairmen or doctors and repairing:
Taking the role of secret agents who are given clues to find:
Play has been an important part of my teaching style for many years. No matter what position I hold or grade I may teach it will remain so. Through the research I have done for this paper, perhaps I can convince others accept play as the powerful tool for academic learning and developmental growth that it truly is.
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