Let Me Play

As many of you know for the last year, I have had the privilege of working with preschool-aged children on a weekly basis, watching them, interacting with them, and listening to them as they engaged in mathematical and other content daily.  As I reflect on my year spent with seventy-seven little ones, I am overcome with pride (and I am not their teacher) with how much they have grown and the knowledge (mathematical, language, science, and literacy) they have acquired throughout the past nine months.

As I reflect on the instances that may have contributed to their mathematical growth, I believe a lot of it may connect to the activities in which “play” was at the center of their learning.  Research has stated that children can learn an incredible amount through play. Play allows a context for children to discover what interests them, helps them develop self-regulation skills, and promotes active exploration. I believe the activities we designed or presented to them through guided play helped to promote their curiosity, allowed them to engage in complex thinking and problem solving, and enhanced their understanding of their world.

Guided play lies between free play and direct instruction, as it is the adult who initiates the learning process, constrains the learning goals, and is responsible for maintaining focus on these goals as the child guides his or her discovery. The child directs her learning within the play context and teachers enhance children’s exploration and learning by making comments, asking questions, playing alongside, and exploring with the materials in ways that children might not think about (Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, and Golinkoff, 2013).

There has been an ever-increasing emphasis on academics in early learning classrooms, specifically in the areas of reading and mathematics. Hence, in many instances, there has been a decrease in time students spend playing. For example, in the last two decades, children have lost 8 hours of free play per week (Golinkoff, 2016). However, guided play might provide another avenue in which to maximize children’s learning while cultivating their interests and learning in all content areas.

According to NAEYC (2006) “… play provides the context for children to practice newly acquired skills and also to function at the edge of their developing capacities, to take on new social roles, attempt novel or challenging tasks, and solve complex problems that they would (or could not) otherwise do” (p.1).

Additionally, from dramatic play to board games, to playing with blocks (building and pattern), play fosters mathematics, literacy skills, language, and self-regulatory and social skills. Guided play promotes mathematical knowledge as students are afforded opportunities to engage in more talk related to mathematical concepts. Children enjoy exploring concepts such as shapes through manipulation, drawing, and building.

Not everyone thinks or learns in the same way. Thus we would be hard-pressed to limit children’s learning to one method. Let’s give children time to play and explore. As we do, they’ll engage in their best thinking to discover and learn about those things that interest them

Resources and Further Reading

Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K .,Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D., & Berk, L. E. (2010). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy.  In A. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of play. NY: Oxford University Press, 341-363.


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