Dr Karyn Allee discusses guided play among children and if it can encourage the uptake of learning and increase educational equity

How play and learning can increase educational equity for children


Children from families with low or insecure incomes are at greater odds of hindered language development and cognitive growth, with gaps in ability between poor and secure families evident as early as preschool.


Dr. Karyn Allee, assistant professor of Elementary Education at Mercer University asks if guided play could encourage the uptake of language, learning and behaviour among disadvantaged children.


Read the original article: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-020-01141-6


Image credit: ViewStock/Shutterstock





Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening, and joining us today.


There’s something rewarding about the sound of young children playing. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that even if it sounds like they’re just enjoying themselves, they’re actually taking part in a critical component of their cognitive, social-emotional and behavioural growth. Research in child development agrees on the importance of play, especially in young children, but differs on its place at school. Some research says play can be an essential part of classroom learning, other research says the classroom is best suited for more structured, instructional – or ‘didactic’ – learning, and that play is best reserved for downtime. This commonly, but not exclusively, American phenomena is particularly true in circumstances where educators believe children to be more at risk academically.


But there’s growing evidence that a sweet spot may lie somewhere in between – something called ‘guided or purposeful play’. While free play is completely child-directed and without extrinsic goals, and very structured didactic learning is completely educator-directed with very specific goals, guided play falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. The goal of guided play is for the teacher to facilitate opportunities for children to play in ways that can help achieve specific learning outcomes while also allowing children to maintain a larger degree of control over how they approach their learning. In short: guided play can encourage discovery-based learning, investigation, social collaboration and negotiation, problem-solving, and language and concept development. Depending on your perspective of early childhood learning, that may sound either logical or fanciful. But it could also be vital to correcting a social injustice.

In the United States, like elsewhere in the world, children born into families experiencing chronic income insecurity are more likely to display decreased language abilities and cognitive growth by the time they get to kindergarten which is often the first year of formal schooling for children. These disadvantages can be exacerbated if their time in kindergarten and other primary grades is devoid of a supportive and structured learning environment, setting these children on a distinctly and increasingly disparate education path.


But what if such children were encouraged by guided play? Would it make any difference? Could it bridge the gaps in behaviors, language, and cognitive development like executive functions and academic outcomes? These are the questions behind my study. My name is Dr. Karyn Allee, and I am an assistant professor of Elementary Education at Mercer University. I did this research for my dissertation with the support of my colleagues at the College of Community Innovation and Education at the University of Central Florida.


The focus of this research was a group of 30 kindergarten students in an elementary school in Central Florida with a high percentage of learners that qualified for a federally-assisted meal program – a measure of income insecurity. The learners were in one of two classes – either a class with a teacher who self-identified as play-based, or a more structured didactic class with a teacher who followed a more standard, contemporary approach to kindergarten education. Both teachers followed the school district testing calendar, engaged in direct and small group instruction, and planned instruction aligned to Florida’s state standards and the expectations of the school district authorities. That was important for the study.


In other ways, the classes differed markedly. The play classroom was bright and colourful, with flexible seating options. The teacher’s daily instructional schedule allowed 30 minutes dedicated to the learners’ free choice, which they could spend in so-called “play centres” within the classroom. These play centres housed puzzles, housekeeping supplies, and various forms of art. The learners were also allowed 30 minutes of their own time in “learning centres”. These included the classroom library and places equipped with writing supplies, iPad games, and teacher-created literacy and math skill games in line with instructional standards and learning targets. Children also played outside for 30 minutes of daily recess.


The didactic classroom, on the other hand, was noticeably starker and less adorned with artwork. While seating allowed some different configurations, it was usually structured around whole group learning, with the teacher at the focus. The teacher used a more structured, instructional skills approach, emphasising drill and practice. Importantly, outside of engaging in iPad-based learning games, the learners were only allowed to play during outdoor recess. And in case you’re thinking this sounds a little harsh, remember that this is the standard approach to instruction in most American kindergarten schools…at least in our current hyper-assessment-focused culture. This has only gotten worse since the COVID pandemic disrupted schooling.


To measure the possible benefits of the ‘guided play’ class, both sets of learners were assessed for language, literacy, and math knowledge as well as executive function health, once at the start of the academic year and again at the end. One test measured their receptive vocabulary – the words they understand and respond to even if they don’t use the words themselves. Other tests measured their academic achievement in reading and math literacy. Teachers and parents also reported on children’s executive function health which encompasses skills like working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. The results were illuminating.


While students in both classroom conditions demonstrated a significant increase in receptive vocabulary over the academic year, the growth rate was greater for students in the didactic classroom, despite its rather austere aesthetic and rigid teacher-centred instruction. While this may sound discouraging for proponents of play-based education, it does make sense. The children in the ‘guided play’ class had higher mean receptive vocabulary scores at pre-test than children in the didactic classroom, and simply being exposed to language and literacy in school likely expedited receptive vocabulary growth for the children in the didactic classroom. This class also had one student participant who spoke no English at the beginning of the school year, and her rapid rate of English acquisition skewed the mean slightly compared to the play-based class.


Despite this unexpected finding, however, receptive vocabulary was strongly correlated to reading achievement gains which were more significant in the play-based classroom. Such improvement was probably because literacy learning happened not only during direct whole-group and small guided reading group instruction, but also in more informal storytelling and in both the play and learning centres.


There were also statistically significant differences in math growth between classrooms where the children in the ‘guided play’ class more often made greater gains. By contrast, on teacher report measures of executive function health, children in the play-based classroom were more likely to show no significant change from pre-test to post-test, although maintaining or improving cognitive health (reflected in declining scores) is more desirable on this measure. In other words, the more vocabulary a student knew, the higher their literacy and math gains were likely to be, and the lower the degree of concern teachers had about their executive function health. Parent reports of executive function were not significantly related to any of the other variables we explored, but parents’ scores indicated executive function improvement for children in both classrooms.


In brief: learners presented with more opportunities to play chose to engage in activities that promoted reading, writing, language, and math – whether directly through academic-based games or indirectly by strengthening other skills like self-regulation, communication, and persistence. For many educators, policy-makers, and families, that sounds counterintuitive; but it is also reassuring.


The research, while academic, was motivated by social responsibility – a commitment to the belief that no child should be destined to be educationally disadvantaged. The research set out to test whether play-based education could help children from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds who risk falling behind educationally before they’ve really started. We admit that the findings are limited – the study’s sample size was small and subject to multiple design challenges precisely because of how difficult it is to find public school kindergarten classrooms using play. While the instructional approaches are likely to have had an effect, so would the classroom spaces, the teachers’ characters and relationships with the learners, and even the interaction between the learners themselves. We were unable to explore these potential influences in this study. However, this work has given us a cause to pause and reflect.


In the United States, as in many other countries, there is growing pressure within education for rigorous academic standards on ever-younger learners. Even kindergarten classrooms in elementary schools, historically the bridge between preschool and formal schooling, face fierce accountability for the instruction and learning of their charges. This has prompted more didactic learning and fewer play opportunities. Proponents of such structured instruction will argue this is best for the children. But are we ignoring the fact that they’re still children? Children like to play – outside their age, it’s what defines them as children. And if, guided with proper opportunities within the right environment, that play encourages discoveries in academic and social learning as well as improved cognitive health, surely that’s a good thing?


What is even more alarming to me is that the children who perhaps need this type of supportive, engaging learning environment the most typically get it the least. Children who are under-served, vulnerable, and marginalized – for example by family income status, language proficiency, racial and cultural minority status, etc. – most frequently experience the most didactic, teacher-driven instruction in an attempt to ‘close learning gaps.’ If children are struggling academically, socially, and behaviourally, they are more often asked to sit and attend for even longer periods of time during a school day when they are the least prepared to do this successfully. Play-based learning would help address these children’s needs much more productively, but it is usually the children who are already considered to be successful that experience this type of learning. The sense is that these children can afford to play in school, and we believe all children need to play in school to meet the developmental and academic objectives we have for them as educators. And because of the current hyper-standardized culture, newer teachers may not know how to plan for meaningful guided play even if they were actually given the opportunity to go off-script and do so.


Perhaps this research should encourage us to re-evaluate the value of play in learning. Educating young children must be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean it must be serious. If play, guided under the right conditions, encourages learning, should it not be incorporated more into classrooms? Would we not get more of the outcomes we are striving for? And if educators are called by duty to give extra effort to help children facing adverse conditions or circumstances, and current educational approaches fail to do so, don’t we owe it to those children to try something else?


That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. Links to the some of the research covered in this episode can be found in the show notes for this episode, and be sure to stay subscribed to ResearchPod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.

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