In this Kappan article, Deena Skolnick Weisberg (University of Pennsylvania), Audrey Kittredge and David Klahr (Carnegie Mellon University), Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University), and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (University of Delaware/Newark) draw a distinction among four kinds of interaction in preschool classrooms:
- Adult-initiated and adult-directed – Direct instruction
- Child-initiated and adult-directed – Co-opted play
- Child-initiated and child-directed – Free play
- Adult-initiated and child-directed – Guided play
Each of the four modes has different characteristics. There’s definitely a place for direct instruction, but children’s involvement and autonomy is limited, producing suboptimal learning. With co-opted play, “Children start out in charge,” say the authors, “but adults take over and begin to set the agenda for the scenario, without providing space for children’s autonomy.” Again, the learning results aren’t what they could be.
Free play, where children can do anything they want with any materials, “is highly beneficial for various aspects of children’s development,” say Weisberg et al. Children who play more have better social skills, demonstrate better self-regulation, and are more creative thinkers.” However, free play may not be the best way to achieve educational outcomes. “Although children engaged in unfettered exploration could potentially stumble on the information that the teacher is trying to impart, it would lead to haphazard success at best.”
Guided play is the sweet spot, say the authors. Research shows that “direct teaching can work; if you tell them, children will learn. But guided play works better; if you guide them, children are more likely to actively explore and learn more.” This combination of adult initiation and child direction “crucially incorporates an element of adult structuring of the play environment, but the child maintains control within that environment… Children do not just perceive that they are in control… they truly can decide what to do next and how to respond… Giving children a nudge in the right direction and letting them choose their actions from there can be a productive strategy for teaching.”
This mix of an adult agenda and children’s autonomy has been called “chocolate-covered broccoli.” Teachers may carefully prepare the environment beforehand (which toys and materials are available) or scaffold children’s actions as play progresses (asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think would happen if…”) while remaining relatively unobtrusive and respecting children’s choices.
Weisberg and her colleagues conclude by suggesting that the guided play model might be equally effective beyond the preschool classroom – even with adults in the workplace creatively exploring within a structured environment.