The fine (and important) points of guided play


By Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff

In a November 2015 article in Phi Delta Kappan. Fuson et al. propose a variety of strategies for involving young students in math education, merging our best current understanding of what children need to succeed in school with our knowledge of how children learn best — when they are joyfully engaged in meaningful activities.

We wholeheartedly agree with Fuson and colleagues’ approach and applaud these authors for embracing an educational strategy that avoids the false dichotomy of didactic instruction and free play. Because their proposals fit so naturally with our own work (e.g., Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Kittredge & Klahr, in press, Current Directions in Psychological Science; Toub, Rajan, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2016, Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education; Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2013, Mind, Brain, and Education), we were puzzled to have our position so mischaracterized in their paper.

Writing about our own Kappan piece on guided play (May 2015), Fuson et al. claim that we use “strong and limiting language about other types of activities in the preK classroom,” saying that we “characterize most adult interactions with children who are playing as exerting harmful control that interferes with children’s autonomy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The original intent of our article was precisely to delineate ways in which adults could interact with children in order to respect their autonomy and most fruitfully encourage them to discover important learning goals. We wrote,

In guided play, it’s crucial that children direct the action because it gives them the autonomy to make decisions about what to do in any given moment. They are in control of what happens next and in what they wish to explore and how…Guided play crucially incorporates an element of adult structuring of the play environment, but the child maintains control within that environment.

The remainder of our article describes in detail many ways in which adult interactions with children can help learning while respecting children’s autonomy. We believe the Fuson article misunderstood our criticisms of didactic teaching as being general criticisms of any kind of adult involvement in children’s play.

The extent of this misunderstanding is evident in their claims that we “ignore research that indicates that children are inherently driven to learn because of the feelings of competence that result” and that we “seem to imply that children will only learn if the learning is at least disguised as play.” Again, our characterization of guided play is driven precisely by the observation that children must be inherently driven to learn and that adults must respect that autonomy; we wrote: “the adult should be relatively unobtrusive and respectful of children’s choices . . . guided play leaves the locus of control with the child, making room for self-directed exploration.”

In brief, we are in deep agreement with Fuson et al.’s proposed pedagogical approach and believe that their mischaracterization of our views unfortunately recapitulates precisely the kind of destructive false dichotomy they wish to avoid.


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