As an essential part of children’s daily life, play has long been regarded as an antithesis of learning in early education. In fact, play is very beneficial to learning, but how to “play” is a trick. In this article, we will introduce and compare two types of play: Free Play and Guided Play. Then, we will discuss how play is more conducive to children’s learning and growth.

Free Play


Free Play refers to the growing experiences that are actively controlled, created, discussed, explored, and improvised by children without adult intervention and the pursuit of external goals (O’Brien, 2002).


Many researchers have identified the following five characteristics of free play (Mandryk, 2001):

  1. Voluntary: people can enter and leave at will
  2. Spontaneous: play can be changed by the players
  3. Involves pretend elements: play is different from everyday experience
  4. Engaging: separated from the surrounding activity
  5. Fun and Pleasurable: enjoyed by all of the players


Free play is different from toys, games or play. For example, even though playing football and live-action role-playing are both play activities, football as a form of play does not involve flexibility or pretend elements; therefore, football is not free play in the same way as live-action role-playing (Mandryk,2001).

(Source: unsplash)

The development of free play stems from the constructivist view of Cognitive Development, a notion that children’s perception of the world is constructed as a result of their active interaction and experimentation with their surroundings, emphasizing children’s active engagement in learning, development, and cognition (Sim,2017). Numerous studies have shown that children are actively engaged in exploring their environment, spontaneously asking questions, seeking explanations, and learning from self-generated evidences from an early age (Sim,2017).


Advantages of Free Play


  1. Allowing unrestricted freedom of exploration (Weisberg, 2016)

In free play, children can voluntarily, actively, flexibly, joyfully, and unrestrictedly explore every aspect of play, such as the different functions and ways of playing with toys, in an unprescribed time and environment.


  1. Promoting physical development (Mandryk, 2001)

Free play not only helps children develop motor skills, but also promotes the growth of brain cells and synapses and improves neurotransmission and integration in the brain. The reason why free play is beneficial to the cortical development is because children need to coordinate all parts of their body to perform various activities, such as running, jumping, sitting, and walking.


  1. Promoting cognitive development (Mandryk, 2001)

Free play helps promote a range of cognitive development, including language skills, symbolic thought, creative thinking, the abilities to focus, control behavior, and problem solving skills. In free play, children are able to play without risk, boosting their confidence of being capable learners.


  1. Promoting socio-emotional development (Mandryk, 2001)

Through free play, children can express joyful emotions while dealing with underlying psychological fears and traumatic past experiences. In addition, role-playing is particularly important in developing children’s sense of control over their environment, emotional awareness, and social sensitivity. It also helps to enrich children’s emotional expression and develop emotional stability. For older children, it can help them to enhance their sense of humour as well as spontaneity, and maintain a good sense of self.


Disadvantages of free play


  1. Lowing learning efficiency

Since free play involves no adult intervention, and is all based on children’s spontaneous exploration, it can be inefficient and ineffective for targeted learning objectives (Bonawitz, 2011).


  1. Restricting the level of knowledge being acquired

In fact, adult guidance is crucial for children’s learning of complex knowledge, as the demands of some learning content may exceed children’s ability to comprehend and store relevant information; therefore, in some cases where adult guidance is lacking, children may not be able to achieve learning on their own (Weisberg, 2016). In addition, conceptual cognition is less likely to develop when children are playing freely (Fisher, 2013). For example, children are unlikely to discover the biological classification of animals when they play with animal toys without adult guidance.

(Source: yiling)

Guided Play


Guided Play is a learning experience that integrates children’s autonomy in free play with adult guidance and learning goals (Weisberg, 2016).


Guided play utilizes the instinct that children can learn through play, allowing children to express their autonomy with adult support under a set-up environment (Weisberg, 2016).


Guided play can unfold in two forms. Firstly, ensuring that children explore their autonomy in an environment designed by adults, and with learning objectives highlighted; for example, in a high-quality pre-constructed museum exhibition, children can freely explore and learn (Weisberg, 2016). The second one involves adults observing children’s activities, encouraging, asking questions, making additional comments, and developing interest; for example, asking open-ended questions, engaging in conversational inquiry, or inserting relevant learning concepts when the child’s attention is appropriate (Weisberg, 2016).

(Source: 2019 summer camp)

Guided play was inspired by the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) developed by a renowned psychologist Vygotsky. The Zone of Proximal Development refers to the distance between a child’s actual developmental level when he or she can solve problems independently and his or her potential developmental level when solving problems with adult guidance (Chaiklin, 2003). In short, providing adult guidance in this developmental zone could be most helpful in skills development for children. The key to the success of guided play in facilitating children’s learning is whether children’s self-discovery and adult guidance  could strike a balance (Weisberg, 2016).


Advantages of Guided Play


  1. Promoting children’s academic development (Weisberg, 2013)

Guided play provides a targeted approach to learning for children. Many studies have shown that child-centered playful instruction promotes academic development that leads to improved reading, math, and spatial thinking skills, and these benefits will continue through the first grade.


  1. Enhancing learning outcomes (Weisberg, 2013)

Guided play allows children to explore and ask questions while feeling comfortable and spontaneous enough to do so. It limits children’s choices in the service of learning goals, and takes advantages of children’s natural tendency to respond in ways that successfully assist children in framing their learning. By prioritizing children’s interests and needs in the learning process, asking explorational questions, giving corresponding feedback, and providing learning materials that are meaningful to children, guided play can maintain children’s learning engagement and ensure the outcomes of playful learning.


  1. Promoting classroom efficiency

Guided play increases motivation, reduces problem behaviors, and helps children regulate emotions as well as reducing stress, increasing the efficiency in the classroom (Weisberg, 2013).

(Source: 2020 art camp)

  1. Promoting individual development (Weisberg, 2013)

Guided play helps children develop executive function skills, such as inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. It helps children develop social and problem-solving skills in inquiry-based conversations with adults. It also helps children explore their interests and strengths, enhancing their sense of proud and self-confidence.


Disadvantages of guided play


  1. Limiting the breadth of children’s exploration

When playing with novel toys or facing new problems, adult guidance in guided play may reduce children’s likelihood to explore the aspects that are not relevant to the cues provided by adults; hence, less likely to gain new discoveries (Bonawitz, 2011).


  1. The complexity of practical applications (Weisberg, 2016)

There are still many challenges in practical applications of guided play. For example, how to provide a good balance of child autonomy and adult guidance for different children? How often should guided play be taken place in teaching? What is the optimal number of children being involved in play that could ensure high quality instruction?


Free play v.s. guided play. Which one is better?


While both free play and guided play allow children to learn something new through play, guided play can be more focused and goal-oriented; whereas, free play places more emphasis on the experiences that children naturally gain through play.


So how can we use free play and guided play to provide a better educational experience for children?

Combining children’s self-directed engagement with adult instruction can create powerful pedagogies for children’s learning (Weisberg, 2016). Research by Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, and Golinkoff found that children are more able to comprehend important features of shapes when they are actively exploring, coupled with appropriate guidance from adults (Fisher, 2013, Weisberg, 2016). This experiment examined the learning effects of preschool children in recognizing the properties of various shapes, such as triangles, under three conditions: free play, didactic-instruction, and guided play.


The results of the experiment showed that:

In terms of learning outcomes:

Guided Play & Didactic Instruction > Free Play

In terms of the ability to transfer knowledge:

Guided Play > Free Play




Both free play and guided play can facilitate children’s learning to some extent. However, play like guided play can help children learn in a targeted way and develop conceptual knowledge.

Guided play, an educational approach that integrates free play and didactic instruction, can also be effective in promoting children’s learning while respecting their autonomy, allowing children to have a good play and learning experience.

(Chuying Wu, Siyu Zha)



Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition, 120(3), 322-330.

Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context, 1, 39-64.

Fisher, K. R., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers’ acquisition of geometric knowledge through guided play. Child development, 84(6), 1872-1878.

Mandryk, R. L., & Inkpen, K. M. (2001). Supporting free play in ubiquitous computer games. Paper presented at the Workshop on designing ubiquitous computing games, UbiComp.

O’Brien, J., & Smith, J. (2002). Childhood transformed? Risk perceptions and the decline of free play. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(3), 123-128.

Sim, Z. L., & Xu, F. (2017). Learning higher-order generalizations through free play: Evidence from 2-and 3-year-old children. Developmental psychology, 53(4), 642.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Kittredge, A. K., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(3), 177-182.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(2), 104-112.