Allowing the freedom to play is one of the most important things parents and educators can do to support a child’s development. However, due to an increased emphasis on standardized testing and the desire from policy-makers to consistently monitor the performance of students, the time to play and explore is sometimes cut short.
This is an unfortunate development, as researchers have long promoted the many benefits the act of play offers to children. According to Alison Gopnik, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, playing teaches us how to deal with the unexpected. When children play pretend, for example, it allows them to imagine unique situations, and explore how they would act when and if confronted with a similar event in real life. This same behavior can be seen in young animals, who play as a means to develop crucial survival skills.
Though traditional classroom instruction is often prioritized over play, it is important to remember that these two approaches to learning are not mutually exclusive. In fact, educators can apply guided play techniques in their classrooms to offer their students the best of both approaches.
Bringing Guided Play Into the Classroom
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), guided play gives children the opportunity to explore in a context that is intentionally designed to guide them toward specific learning goals. This practice can help educators to meet traditional objectives without sacrificing the fun and benefits of play.
Guided play can incorporate a wide range of learning objectives and subject areas, from language development to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts. For instance, students may be encouraged to engage in play in a thoughtfully designed environment or with specific objects meant to reflect a book that has been read in the classroom. This gives them the opportunity to build stronger connections to that book’s vocabulary and narrative concepts through play.
As NAEYC points out, this approach features two critical elements: “child agency (the child directs the learning) and gentle adult guidance to ensure that the child progresses toward the learning goal.”
Playful interaction between students and instructors not only helps students to apply the hard skills relevant to the instructors’ lesson plans, but it encourages their natural curiosity and fosters their development of critical “soft skills,” like creativity, persistence and problem solving.
By bringing guided play into the classroom, educators can provide their students with the joy and freedom of child-directed play while focusing their learning by offering immediate, meaningful feedback on the students’ actions and ideas.
Prioritizing Guided Play in Out-of-School Time
While guided play can make an impact for students throughout the school year, this approach may be applied in out-of-school time programs as well. At the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, the curriculum for each of our education programs is built on the advantages of guided play. We believe in taking a high-energy, hands-on approach to learning.
Our flagship Camp Invention® program features engaging activities that allow children to take the lead as they collaborate, design and innovate, building their interest and competency in STEM. For example, in Farm Tech™, one of this summer’s Supercharged™ Camp Invention activities, children are put in charge of their own farm. While they have fun designing the farm of the future and programming their very own robot, they learn fundamental coding techniques, as well as the basics of running a business.
In every challenge presented at Camp Invention, participants’ play is guided by the certified local teachers who serve as Camp Invention Instructors, as well as the older students who provide assistance as Leadership Interns and Leaders-in-Training. This dynamic team environment offers the benefits of both direct instruction and free play, all through the power of guided play.
To discover more about the guided play offered at Camp Invention, read our blog on the lasting effects of our program on participants’ academic performance. You can also learn more about each of our education programs, from PreK through Professional Development, by visiting our website.