0 - 12 Months

Learning through play: Is free or guided play better?

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“It’s this idea of trying to strike a balance between a structured learning experience and a play experience, so that you try to keep the learning benefits of play, which is motivating and fun and engaging and led by the child, while also having some of the benefits of a structured learning experience, where there’s some kind of learning introduced.”

Dave Neale, Dave Neale, researcher at The University of Cambridge

Play has so much to teach us, children and parents alike. Sometimes parents can get a little too involved in their child’s play, particularly with the extra cool toys. When does our guidance become interference? And what amount of direction is appropriate?

Dave Neale joins Jessica Rolph in this episode to help us strike the right balance. Dave is a researcher in the psychology of play at the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge.

Key Takeaways:

[1:13] Dave explains the ‘sweet spot’ when a parent can provide support while not being too involved in a child’s play.

[3:20] Playing and its link with structured learning.

[5:30] How to find the balance between helping children achieve the goal of a game or letting them just explore the materials.

[8:18] Two important factors: Engagement and becoming an entertained play partner.

[9:23] Potential outcomes when a parent is not sufficiently involved.

[12:23] What is Dave’s favorite activity to do with 0-12 months old babies?

Mentioned in this episode:

Learn more about Dave Neale

Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning (PEDAL)


What is guided play?

Jessica: So Dave, you’ve spent a lot of time studying play, and when you talk about this kind of sweet spot in your research, you talk about the sweet spot of support that a parent can provide while not being too involved. Can you kinda walk me through an example of a parent you’ve observed that strikes that right balance?

Dave: Yeah, I think there are two ways of looking at it. Some play experiences and other kinds of interaction involve some sort of problem-solving or attempting to achieve some kind of goal. And so, in some of my research, I looked at parents and infants playing with a ring stacking toy and so some of the parents would, for example, if their child just looked at the toy and maybe picked up and mouthed the rings, but didn’t really do anything else with them, then the parent would put a ring on themself and show that that was something you could do and then the baby might try and do that, but they might struggle to properly get it on, so perhaps the adult would kind of demonstrate again. And then if, they’ll point at the top of the stacking tower and if the infant was still struggling, then they might sort of slightly help them by nudging it towards the top and letting it fall on.

And then the infant at that point might just pick up another ring independently and might try again and might even succeed or get close to succeeding. And so, the parents would then gradually withdraw their help and kind of only introduce as much help as felt like it was necessary. Some parents might, as soon as the infant appeared to be struggling with the ring, just basically put it on for them, which then removes the learning opportunity for the infant to experience the failure, and to understand the particular ability and the sort of agency, the feeling that they’ve succeeded at something rather than having it taken over for them. So that’s one kind of view. 

There’s also this idea of playing with your child in a way that keeps it as a very playful experience, but introduces learning opportunities, which is what has been termed a guided play, and has become something that’s been researched and looked into more and more over the past few years. And it’s this idea of trying to strike a balance between a structured learning experience and a play experience, so that you try to keep the learning benefits of play, which is motivating and fun and engaging and led by the child, while also having some of the benefits of a structured learning experience, where there’s some kind of learning introduced, because what can often happen is, a parent can see their child playing with something, decide that they are going to interact with the child and what they can do is turn that into a sort of teaching situation, instead of a play situation, where they’re explicitly trying to get their child to do something by directing them particularly to a particular sort of objective.

Jessica: Oh, Dave, I’ve been there, I’ve been there.

Dave: Yeah.

Jessica: Complete the puzzle. Complete it.

Letting them lead the interaction

Dave: Yeah, so there’s more… If your child is aiming for a particular objective, then the best thing is potentially the kind of thing I just described where you’re sort of offering them some assistance that is needed and otherwise you can kind of, instead of them… Instead of directing them towards an objective that you think is important, see what they’re interested in, what they’re doing and kind of let them continuously lead the interaction, but just look for opportunities to insert moments of learning into that interaction. So, if they’re playing with a particular toy, you could ask them a question about that toy or point to a feature of that toy they might not have otherwise noticed. Ask them questions about what it can do and what they like about it, try to sort of engage with what they are already interested in and what they’re doing at a sort of equal level rather than taking over the experience and directing them.

Balancing exploration and demonstration

Jessica: So this is such a nuanced balance, and it’s so important to hear about. We have a ball drop box at home, and I have, let’s imagine my baby was 10 months old, he’s now a little bit older than that but, what are some signs that I was being too prescriptive or too overbearing. So for example, I really wanted my baby to drop that ball in the hole, the box. That is how the toy works, in my mind. In my mind, that is the success. And I knew it was right to let him explore, but I just, I couldn’t help myself say, “Okay. No. Try to put the ball in the hole… In the right… In the hole.” So, can you just help me just a little bit more for the parents that are listening of how to strike this balance between helping them put the ring on the ring stacker or the ball in the hole versus letting them just explore the material, we call them materials in the Montessori world. Explore the materials completely naturally with no… With no demonstration or no understanding of how the toy “works.” So the ball does go in the hole, the rings do go on the stacker.

Dave: Yeah. Well, I mean, one way of doing it is to kind of just try to gradually increase what you are doing, slowly. And so for first of all, you just put the toy in front of them, let them play with it and explore it and maybe they’ll pick up the ball and just put it straight in and that’s kind of it. And if they don’t do that, and they’re playing with it for a while, as long as they’re interested in that toy and you see the problem can be is if they just don’t seem to have any interest in it, and want to do something else. In which case… Demonstration I think is the first thing, taking the ball and putting it in and showing them that is possible and that might then mean, oh, they’re interested in it and they want to engage with it.

But I think if they just completely seem uninterested and want to do something else, then it starts to become better to maybe see what they are interested in and focus on that instead, but presuming they do seem interested in it, then I would gradually do demonstration, then hand them the ball and then kind of wait and then maybe demonstrate again if they still don’t act on it, and then maybe point at the hole if they’re still not doing it and sort of graduating, and then you can kind of direct their hand to the hole and then put the ball in, but you kinda don’t do those things like directing the hand until you’ve seen if they can do it with the demonstration, seen if they can do it just with the pointing. So, you’re just gradually increasing, so It’s basically not going too fast in terms of how much you direct them, try to think, well, what’s the minimal way I can direct them? Okay, that’s not worked. What’s a better, a one step up of how I could direct them, how to do this and always make sure that they’re still kind of engaged and interested and seem to be enjoying themselves.

‘Cause as soon as that stops, you have… The experience you’re doing with them might still be beneficial in some ways but the benefits of a sort of play interaction will have disappeared because it’s no longer play if they’re feeling forced into doing something and aren’t really enjoying it.

Jessica: That is so wise. And so helpful for us to hear, it sounds like patience is really the key. We have to just slow down, everything moves so fast these days and it’s so hard to just take a minute to just be slow with your child. But it sounds like observing them, taking these kind of micro-observations and taking them one step further if they are interested is the key.

Dave: Yeah, I think that’s a good general principle. And I think also sometimes a lot of good things can happen if you just engage in playing with your child and make sure that you’re actually engaging in playing. And just think of it in those terms, just sit down and play as well as an equal with your child, make sure you’re having fun and enjoying it, try things with the toys, do different stuff. And so you don’t become someone who’s kind of in any way leading or taking over, you just become completely a play partner, and in that kind of experience you might just naturally introduce some learning opportunities, because your child will see you do certain things, they’ll hear the language you use to describe stuff. And in that sense, you’re kind of capturing potentially some learning benefits through play, and you don’t have to do a lot of work yourself planning that or thinking about, all you have to do is kind of let yourself go and actually play.

Lack of involvement and missed learning opportunities 

Jessica: That’s great. And what does it look like with a parent that is not as engaged? So we’ve talked about kind of the tendency for some of us to be over-engaged. I think there’s also a tendency, I’ve been there, where I just… Distracted, right, by our phones and by everything that’s in our world. And so what does it look like for a parent who’s not involved enough? 

Dave: What I think can happen in that situation is that the child will, if you think of the ring toy, they might try to put the ring on the toy, and if the… And they might not be able to. And if the parent does nothing at all, maybe they’ll try again another couple of times, they still can’t do it, and they’ll drop it and they’ll give up. And at that point, they haven’t really learnt much, they’ve just learnt I can’t do this thing and they’ll move on to something else. But so they haven’t had a learning opportunity about how to think about something, how to do something manually, and they haven’t experienced any sense of sort of agency and personal achievement. So there is a danger that experiences are reduced in that kind of way if there is no interaction, and we do… There have been some studies looking at when parents are distracted by a phone call or something on their phone while interacting with their child that seem to suggest that if you compare parents who get distracted in that way, if you put parents and children into a learning… Into an environment and ask the parent to kind of teach or show the child something, then if you distract some of them with something like that, and the others you don’t, then you find that the ones who were distracted, their children seem to have learnt less from the experience than the other ones.

Concentration and the Montessori method

Jessica: So, in the Montessori world, there is this focus on really investing in your child’s concentration. And there’s a… There’s… So they… So, parents want their children to be able to concentrate, and so there’s… I almost feel like sometimes I’m suppressing some wanting to, you know, kind of be excited or be engaged or be verbally engaged with my baby when I’m trying to follow the Montessori path of letting them really concentrate, ’cause it is hard to concentrate when somebody’s talking at you… Talking to you. You know? 

Dave: I mean, if a child is focused on something very intently and you talk to them, one of the important things I think is, as I was saying earlier, is not to redirect your child’s attention elsewhere but follow their interests. So if they were particularly focused on a particular toy, then if you are going to talk, then maybe point to part of it and ask them about it, or do move a little part of it or something. But at that point you kind of, I guess, shift what’s happening into them potentially learning something from you and then potentially having a bonding experience with you or whatever, whereas if they’re intently engaged with the object on their own and doing their own thinking about it or exploration of it, then that would be a different type of potential learning experience. So, I think you would want them to have the opportunity to do both of those kinds of things and not always do one or the other.

A-not-B task

Jessica: So we have a final, a question that we love to ask our guests. What’s your favorite learning activity to do with a baby? A baby somewhere between zero and one.

Dave: I think there are some things, some tests in psychology that have been done that are very interesting to do, that are kind of playful, but also just sort of amusing and very interesting for parents and adults, like the A-not-B task, that is very well-known, which can be done with children under one. And there’s a particular… There’s a few different variants of it which you could find online if you search for A-not-B task. But the basic principle is you will put two cloths down, small cloths, like handkerchief kind of size. And you will take a little toy or some object that’s interesting to the baby and you will show it them and then you’ll just quickly hide it under the cloth on the left and then you’ll just let them look for it, and they’ll pick up the cloth and they’ll get it and they’ll normally be all happy and laugh. And then you repeat that again, and they’ll find it again and take it out and laugh. And you normally do that maybe three times and then you just put it under the other one. And what they will almost always do is go for the same cloth they went for the previous times. They’ll watch you. They’ll look at the object and they’ll watch you put it under the one on their left and they’ll pick up the cloth on their right, which is the one they’ve been picking up all the time. [chuckle]

Jessica: Fascinating.

Dave: And it’s very interesting to see that actually happen. And as I said, it’s quite different. It varies with their age and it varies by each infant individually, the extent to which they do it, and… But you can also get variants of it that work with slightly older or slightly younger children. But it’s entertaining, I think, both for the baby and the adult to see that and engage with that task. And the explanations for it are diverse, and it’s still debated about exactly why that happens.

Jessica: Yeah, all sorts of things come to mind as to why… [chuckle] why the baby would do either one. So, oh, I can’t wait to try that. Thank you. Well, it’s been so wonderful talking to you, Dave. Thank you so much for taking time out of your research and your… All the important work that you do to connect with us today.

Dave: That’s okay. Thank you.

Episode takeaways

Let’s review some ways in which you can help your baby get the most out of their playtime:

Give opportunities for exploration

Give opportunities to explore… and don’t try to run the show. Let’s say you are playing with the ring stacker and your baby is mouthing the rings and not trying to put them on the stacker. You can demonstrate for your baby how to slide the rings onto the post. When your baby tries and struggles, help them with a little nudge, and then withdraw your help and see what happens.

One toy at a time

Give your infant just one toy at a time to allow them to explore each in depth. 

Try the A-not-B task

Exploring how your baby’s brain works can be fun! Try the A-not-B test by switching up the location of a favorite toy hidden under two identical cloths. The first couple of times, place the hidden object under cloth A, and then hide the object under cloth B. Your baby will almost always go for cloth A again — even though they saw you make the switch!

Lovevery’s stage-based toys are designed to facilitate the kind of guided play we discussed on this episode. Learn more at Lovevery’s blog, “Here With You.”


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Posted in: 0 - 12 Months, Real World Play, Free Play, Montessori, Playtime & Activities

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