Direct instruction has been the go to teaching strategy for generations. It’s an efficient and often effective way to communicate information, focus attention, and guide learning. Direct instruction can be especially useful when students come with little or no background knowledge to apply to new learning.
Of course, direct instruction is not the only way to teach. It’s also not the best instructional strategy for all students or in all areas of learning. For many students, more experience-based approaches or a combination of strategies will be more effective. Experience-based learning appears to be especially effective for younger learners, but also offers important benefits to learners of all ages.
We might think of play as important to child development, but we may not be as likely to see play as an effective way to build academic concepts and skills. However, a review of seventeen studies, published in the journal Child Development, documented some surprising and important learning gains through a particular type of play called guided play. Guided play is designed around a learning goal and an activity featuring limited adult direction and interaction. For example, students may practice addition and subtraction using an oversized number line on which students move forward and backward as they randomly draw slips of paper with addition and subtraction numbers on them.
The collection of studies pointed to progress in literacy, numeracy, and executive functioning skills. Importantly, the progress students demonstrated was equal to or greater than progress typically demonstrated in response to direct instruction.
The researchers pointed to several aspects of guided play that offer important learning support:
- New learning becomes more concrete as students experience content and skills rather than listening while someone explains them.
- Learning is active.
- New learning is immediately applied within the context of interesting and fun activities.
- Mistakes can be quickly corrected within the context of play.
- Collaboration and social skills are nurtured within the activity.
There are also some guidelines and cautions for educators when designing and supporting guided play:
- Establish a clear and accomplishable learning goal.
- Design for a combination of fun and learning.
- Avoid over structuring the activity to the point where students may not engage.
- Resist over-guiding students during the activity to the extent that they lose ownership and interest.
The cluster of studies reviewed in this research focused on young learners. However, many of the elements of guided play hold promise for older learners, too. The activities may need to be adjusted to match the physical, emotional, and learning development of students, but experiencing learning within the context of application, fun, and social interaction can be attractive and effective at any age.