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Guided Play can Unlock Mathematical Understanding

Last week the University of Cambridge Department of Education released findings from a study that analyzed the learning impact of guided play on children aged 3-8. The researchers assessed data from 39 different studies documenting the learning impact of guided play on 3800 children. 

The study found that guided play was at least as effective as traditional teaching methods in developing key skills in literacy, social development, and executive function, and was more effective for a number of skills, most notably numeracy and math learning.  

The researchers suggest that the hands-on learning offered by guided play might be especially helpful for understanding math. “Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” notes study co-author Dr. Elizabeth Byrne. “They become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context. One reason play matters may be because it supports mental visualization.”

The researchers defined guided play as playful education activities, which, although gently steered by an adult using open-ended questions and prompts, give children the freedom to explore a learning goal in their own way.

The research also provided evidence that guided play supports the development of children’s cognitive ability to switch between tasks. The study’s authors suggested that play may influence additional characteristics that have a positive effect on learning such as children’s motivation, persistence, creativity and confidence. 

Particularly interesting is the fact that this study included children who were in pre-k and in elementary grades. It is broadly understood that playful learning is fundamental to early learning development, but this study indicates that guided play is effective for older children, too.

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