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December 15, 2022 / Blog

Guided Play in Early Childhood Curriculum

During any given day in a pre-K classroom, guided play can take many different forms. Some guided play examples include rough-and-tumble outdoor play, exploratory play, or pretend play. More importantly, when guided play activities are supported and facilitated by the teacher, guided play has the potential to enhance children’s cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development. Without this type of adult guidance, children’s play can deteriorate into arguments, lead to temper tantrums, or become too rough and no longer safe. Hence, a more accurate way to frame play that occurs in a preschool setting is through the lens of guided play.  

What Is Guided Play?

In early childhood education, guided play is an intentional effort on the part of the teacher to acknowledge and honor children’s interests that emerge in play and link them to learning outcomes and objectives. For example, the teacher may observe how a child arranges blocks and points out how they are arranged symmetrically. While the child may not have intended to make the blocks symmetrical, the teacher nonetheless leverages this opportunity to help the child reflect on what he or she is doing and how it relates to an important mathematical objective. 

To be clear, guided play is not synonymous with teacher-directed instruction. Rather, in guided play, teachers carefully decide how to incorporate child-initiated exploration and play into the curriculum or state learning standards. This decision-making is driven by the context of the child’s play and the content of the relevant subject matter (e.g., science, social studies, literacy, math). Including guided play as part of a pre-K curriculum is a catalyst for teachers to keep classroom play moving toward learning goals with purpose, structure, and direction. 

Imagination Builds Skills for Life

Pre-K children whose days are not entirely regulated by the teacher and who have plenty of time for guided play will be well-adjusted and ready for school—and more successful in life.

Why? When children learn through play, they gain the skills to focus and plan and develop the stamina needed for real-world problem-solving. 

All dimensions of guided play—sensory, constructive, tinkering, exploratory—are beneficial, especially as young learners grow, and their play becomes more sophisticated with rules, roles, scenarios, and negotiations.  

When the teacher fails to allocate sufficient time for free play, children miss the opportunity to self-regulate, manage tasks, or handle choices, freedom, and responsibility. In short, children who have grown accustomed to having their entire day planned for them are ill-prepared for real-world tasks that involve problem-solving, negotiation, delayed gratification, and persistence. 

An Indicator of Future Success

Do you remember back when you were a child, losing all sense of time as you became totally immersed in play? Compare this experience to daydreaming in school and being so bored you constantly checked the clock to see how much time was left before the bell rang. Children who play well and can get lost in their play are well set for future success. 

There are many benefits of guided play that lead to success in the future. Children who can spend time completely absorbed in their play are more likely to become self-motivated, goal-oriented, and able to apply time management skills to complete projects on their own.

Guided play in early childhood education is important for the transition to middle school and adulthood—as academics and careers can be heavily project-based. Those who gained skills through guided play as young learners will be more capable of pursuing a topic of study, focusing their attention, planning tasks, and immersing themselves in projects.

Play With Purpose

Guided play in the pre-K classroom allows children to freely explore an environment that has been designed with learning objectives in mind. As part of their preschool and pre-K curriculum, teachers can stay on track while allowing children to flourish by letting them do what they do best: play!