Early Years: Guided Play or Direct Instruction?

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Does ‘guided play’ support early development and learning?

It is difficult to draw robust conclusions about the overall benefit of ‘guided play’ due to the diffuse nature of the literature. This is partly because the term “guided play” is not always ascribed to playful learning experiences that include its characteristic…

Guided PlayLast week, there was an interesting systematic review and meta-analysis published by Skene et al (2022): Can guidance during play enhance children’s learning and development in an educational context?

Recent policy developments in the USA and UK have moved towards a greater academic focus which has triggered a debate about the role of play-based learning in early years and primary school settings.

This research will be reassuring to those working in early years settings. It will likely create some furore for those who advocate ‘direct instruction’ in the classroom; a research study that compares direct instruction against guided play to support ‘free play’ in children’s learning and development.

The paper is open access and 19 pages in length…


This research was a randomised control trial in which participants were assigned randomly to either an intervention or control group; and non-randomised (children exposed to both conditions) control trials.

Thirty-nine studies were reviewed and participants were children (n= 3,893) with the main age of 1 to 8 years regardless of gender ethnicity ability or social-economic status. 49.8% were girls, 41% were White, African American/Black 28%, Hispanic 19%.

After data extraction, findings were examined quantitatively and qualitatively.

Research findings

Recent conceptualisation suggests guided play has three fundamental characteristics to provide an optimal learning experience (Weisberg et al, 2013).

  1. The adult providing guidance should have a clear learning goal in mind when setting up a play for activity
  2. The activity or interaction should allow children some degree of choice and agency over their play
  3. The adult should be flexible in their use of guidance techniques (e.g. using open-ended questions, hence, prompts)

“The meta-analyses identified significant evidence for guided play having a greater positive effect than direct instruction on early maths skills, shape knowledge, and task switching, and a great a positive effect on free play on spatial vocabulary.”

Guided Play

Note, differences are not identified for other numeracy, executive function, literacy or socio-emotional outcomes. Interestingly, in single studies, guided play when compared to direct instruction in all outcome domains, identify guided play to have a greater positive effect than free play.

This will be reassuring to all teachers working in early years and primary school settings and provide food for thought for policymakers considering we baseline tests will be used in reception class – likely to measure progress and judge school performance.

Questions for teachers

  1. Guidance techniques like open-ended questions or prompts may guide children towards the next logical step during a maths-based task, but how do you develop more nuanced approaches to support learning and development in other areas?
  2. Guided play may have a more direct effect on outcomes that underpin children’s learning. How can we use these explicitly to develop early attitudes and approaches to learning?
  3. There was no clear evidence that the number of sessions in an intervention or the adult involved moderated the effectiveness of guided play interventions. Given the nature of school life, how can schools engineer guided play into their curriculum time?

As with all research, there is bias and limitations with the findings. ‘What works, under what conditions’ is a question all teachers must ask when accessing research recommendations…

An understanding of the state of the evidence regarding the effectiveness of play-based learning is needed to inform decisions about teacher education and professional development…

Download the paper.

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