The value of guided play

A Q+A with early childhood development expert Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Play comes naturally to us as children, but a growing number of adults may be losing sight of its virtues. Instead of letting children simply explore, discover and create, child development experts say parents are increasingly packing their kids’ calendars with rote test prep and “drill and kill” instruction.

“People don’t know how to play anymore. They think everything has to be so rigid,” says Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

I think, in general, people don’t understand play. And it’s such a shame.

Over the past two-plus decades, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek’s research has uncovered the connections between play and learning, leading to 14 books and more than 200 publications. But she’s also succeeded in bringing her research to life, through puzzles on bus stop benches, life-size board games and other unexpected urban installations.

Her vision? A world that invites the young—and the young at heart—to experience the wonder of play anytime, anywhere. Here, the best-selling author offers her insights on the empowering nature of play and the many ways it can prepare girls and boys for a fast-changing future.

Q: In your research, you distinguish between free play and guided play. How do they each contribute to child development?

A: Monkeys play and octopuses play and goats play…and humans play. There’s something really important about free play in all of its beauty. But as we come to think about the outcomes from playful learning, what we realize is that in free play, while we learn a lot, it’s not as focused. In my lab, we came up with something like a play spectrum. Free play is at one end of the spectrum—it’s fun and it’s voluntary and it’s meaningful to the child. It’s a safe space and if you make a mistake, it doesn’t really matter. It basically gives full freedom to the child.

When a child engages in guided play, it’s still fun, it’s still voluntary, it’s still driven by the child.  But we have added a goal, a learning goal. Our bet has been—and the research bears us out—that we can have good, playful, active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive environments that also have a learning goal.

Q: What’s an example of guided play?

A: When I’m playing with blocks and I ask the child to put those blocks together to make some sort of a hangar for an airplane, I’m not saying exactly what it has to look like. I’m not directing where each block needs to go, but I’m helping the child conceive of a certain goal at the end. We could call it constrained tinkering. By constraining the learning space just a little bit, we enable the kid to focus more on the sort of stuff that we think is valuable.

Q: Given how quickly the world is changing—and how we expect it to continue to change—what kinds of qualities and skills are most valuable now?

A: My colleague Roberta Golinkoff and I charted out what we think the science tells us about the suite of skills that really prepare a whole child for a 21st century change in the world. The first one is learning how to get along with other people—collaboration. Nothing today is done without teams. What builds on collaboration is communication—how do you deliver the message? How do you hear the message? The next is content or the kind of skills that are learning-to-learn skills—attention, memory, flexibility, or executive function skills. Those are the kinds of skills that help kids not only master what’s here today, but what’ll come down the pike tomorrow. The fourth “C” is critical thinking—how do you shift through the information you get to make sense of it? Creative innovation is number five, or making new things out of old parts. And the last is confidence. Knowing that it’s okay to step out there and give it a try.

You put these all together—because they each rely on one another—and you get a profile of these skills that I think will define how we move towards happy, healthy, thinking, caring people in the future, who are also creative innovators and critical thinkers.

Q: What is the connection between confidence and guided play?

A: I think for all of these skills, you find them in the sandbox. Somehow, in the sandbox, we have the confidence to try to build a whole sandcastle. And then we don’t even care if somebody comes in and puts their foot in it. We sit and build it again…because it’s a safe space. And even if the tower that we want to build doesn’t work, it’s okay. When you have that ability to try and fail, you build the confidence to move on.

Q: Given the state of women today, what kinds of guided play could be especially beneficial for girls?

A: I think it’s a place where we could relax some of the gender norms. If I asked you to think about a mathematician, you would immediately think of a boy. And we need that to change. We need you to think about a girl. Or at least think about a girl as readily as you think about a boy. If I say “president,” you go, “him.” How do we create the opportunity for constrained tinkering and guided play in the very environments where currently we don’t see a lot of women? We need to provide tools that encourage the play that will help create entryways into those fields.

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