Preschool children learn through play (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2011; Weisberg et al., 2016; Weisberg et al., 2015). Guided play advances cognitive skills like language (Pelligrini & Galda, 1990, and Golinkoff et al., 2013 for reviews), reading (Bergen & Maurer, 2000; Belin & Singer, 2006), as well as social skills like emotion regulation (Berk et al., 2006). Despite evidence linking play to development (Zigler et al., 2004; Falk, 2012), parents, educators and policy makers worry that playtime takes children away from precious academic activities. Playtime has dropped precipitously from 40% in 1981 to 25% in 1997. In the last two decades children have lost 8 hours of free play-time per week. Research in our laboratory is trying to better understand the link between play and learning by looking not only at free play, but also at guided play (Weisberg et al., 2013; Toub et al., 2016). In guided play, or playful learning, children take the lead, but adults support their exploration through props and by interacting in ways that scaffold interest and learning. Our work in this area suggests that children need more time both for free play and for guided play and that guided play might offer a promising new pedagogy that helps children thrive academically. Our books Einstein Never Used Flashcards (Rodale, 2004) and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool (Oxford, 2008) make this case as do several articles showing the promise of spatial and math play (Fisher et al., 2012), playing learning in reading (Weisberg et al., 2015) and playful learning through the arts (Reed et al., 2012).
We are working hard to better understand the mechanisms that support playful learning (Weisberg et al., 2014).
Our work on playful learning continues through our Harvard University Frontiers of Innovation Working Group and in our work on the Steering Committee for the Network on Learning through Play sponsored by the LEGO Foundation.
Cognitive behavioral science behind the value of play: Leveraging everyday experiences to promote play, learning, and positive interactions
Participating in play affords physical, social, and cognitive benefits. Here, we review the cognitive behavioral science literature highlighting the value of play and describe the different types of play along with the evidence linking play to positive outcomes for children in areas such as social-emotional, cognitive, academic, and social-emotional development. Several case studies demonstrate how educators, caregivers, and community members can integrate low-cost, evidenced-based playful learning interventions into community settings to impact children where they live.
Block-building skills at age 3 are related to spatial skills at age 5 and spatial skills in grade school are linked to later success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Though studies have focused on block-building behaviors and design complexity, few have examined these variables in relation to future spatial and mathematical skills or have considered how children go about copying the model in detail. This study coded 3-year- olds’ (N = 102) block-building behaviors and structural complexity on 3-D trials of the Test of Spatial Assembly (TOSA). It explored whether individual differences in children’s building behaviors and the complexity of their designs related to accuracy in copying the model block structures or their spatial and mathematical skills at ages 4 and 5. Our findings reveal that block-building behaviors were associated with concurrent and later spatial skills while structural complexity was associated with concurrent and later spatial skills as well as concurrent mathematics skills. Future work might teach children to engage in the apparently successful block-building strategies exam- ined in this research to evaluate a potential causal mechanism.
Defining play has plagued researchers and philosophers for years. From describing play as an inaccessible concept due to its complexity, to providing checklists of features, the field has struggled with how to conceptualize and operationalize “play.” This theoretical piece reviews the literature about both play and learning and suggests that by viewing play as a spectrum – that ranges from free play (no guidance or support) to guided play and games (including purposeful adult support while maintaining playful elements), we better capture the true essence of play and explain its relationship to learning.
Competing trends in early childhood education emphasize the need for strong curricular approaches and for unfettered exploration. We propose an approach to early learning that avoids this false dichotomy: guided play. Guided play takes advantage of children’s natural abilities to learn through play by allowing them to express their autonomy within a prepared environment and with adult scaffolding. We provide examples of how guided-play situations have been implemented in past work, as well as evidence that guided play is successful for education across a range of content— perhaps even more successful than other pedagogical approaches.
What does it mean for a child to be creative, and how can we best foster creativity in children?
Our recent work aims to answer these questions by surveying the childhood creativity literature and testing a new measure to assess creativity in preschool children. The creative problem-solving task asks children to figure out how to remove a small ball from a jar using everyday objects such as pipe cleaners, spoons, and chopsticks. This task allows us to analyze the creative processes a child engages in when trying to solve problem. Using this measure, we have found that some children spend a lot of time exploring the properties of objects and try to understand how the objects can be adapted or combined together in ways that help remove that ball – those children tend to be more successful at getting the ball out than children who spend less time exploring the properties of objects.
We also investigate how different types of play and exploration behaviors may be more or less conducive to fostering creativity in certain circumstances, and if some children are naturally more creative or if creativity is a malleable set of behavior.
Playing with blocks helps STEM learning
Guided play helps spatial learning: People have speculated that play with construction toys might offer rich language and learning environments that would support later learning in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In one of our first studies, we investigated how the quality of parent-child interaction in play with blocks support early STEM language. With the help of MegaBloks, we brought families into the lab and placed them in one of three groups: the free play group, the guided play group, and the preassembled group. The guided play group was asked to build a heliport; the preassembled group received a preassembled heliport; and the free play group could do whatever they wished with the blocks. In phase 2 of the study, the families were given exactly the same blocks and asked to build a garage. Interestingly, in phase 1, the guided play condition elicited far more spatial language than is apparent in the other two groups. In the follow-up phase, everyone was now in guided play and everyone used rich spatial language (Ferrara et al., 2011).
Guided play and baby geometry: Similar findings emerged when we studied how children learn geometric shapes like squares and circles (Fisher et al., 2013). We even know that children learn more about these shapes using good old-fashioned shape sorters rather than electronic shape sorters (Zosh et al., in press)
Block play and math learning: Our continuing work shows that the spatial learning we develop in block play relates not only to spatial outcomes, but also to early mathematical learning (Verdine et al., 2014; Verdine et al., 2015).
Schlesinger, M. A., Hassinger-Das, B., Zosh, J. M., Sawyer, J., Evans, N., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2020). Cognitive behavioral science behind the value of play: Leveraging everyday experiences to promote play, learning, and positive interactions. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19(2), 202-216.
Bower, C., Odean, R., Verdine, B. N., Medford, J. R., Marzouk, M., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2020). Associations of 3-year-olds’ block-building complexity with later spatial and mathematical skills. Journal of Cognition and Development. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2020.1741363
Bustamante, A. S., Schlesinger, M., Begolli, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Shahidi, N., Zonji, S., Riesen, C., Evans, N., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2020). More than Just a Game: Transforming Social Interaction and STEM play with Parkopolis. Developmental Psychology, 56(6), 1041–1056. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000923
Hassinger-Das, B. Hassinger-Das, B., Hansen, N., Zosh, J. M., Talarowski, M., Zmich, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2020). Play-and-Learn spaces: Leveraging library spaces to promote play and learning. Library & Information Science Research, 42(1).
Hassinger-Das, B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2020). The balancing act of guided play. NAECY Each and Every Child: Teaching Preschool with an Equity Lens, 33-36.
Toub, T. S., Verdine, B. N., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019). Shapes, blocks, puzzles and origami: From spatial play to STEM learning. In P. K. Kuhl, S.-S. Lim, S. Guerriero, & D. van Damme (Eds.), Developing minds in the digital age: Towards a science of learning for 21st century education (pp. 177–186). doi: 10.1787/562a8659-en.
Hassinger, B., Hirsh-Pasek., K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2019). Brain science and guided play. In M. Masterson & H. Bohart (Eds.), Serious Fun: How Guided play extends children’ learning (pp. 11-21). Washington, D.C.: NAEYC Press.
Bustamante, A. S., Hassinger‐Das, B., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2019). Learning Landscapes: Where the Science of Learning Meets Architectural Design. Child Development Perspectives, 13(1), 34-40.
Verdine, B., Zimmermann, L., Foster, L., Marzouk, M., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., &Newcombe, N. (2019). Effects of geometric toy design on parent-child interactions andspatial language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 126-141.
Schlesinger, M. A., Hassinger-Das, B., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019). “When I was little, I loved to play” Describing play experiences using a community-based lens. Scottish Educational Review, 51(2), 90-107.
Hassinger-Das, B., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). Playing to learn mathematics. In R. E. Tremblay, M. Boivin, & R. D. Peters (Eds.), A. Pyle topic ed., Encyclopedia on early childhood development [online].
Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M., & the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and the Council on Communications and Media. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing skills in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3), 1-16.
Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hopkins, E, Jensen, H. Liu, C., Neale, D., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2018). Accessing the inaccessible: Redefining play as a spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01124.
Hassinger-Das, B., Toub T.S., Zosh, J., Michnick, J., Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2017). More than just fun: A place for games in playful learning. Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 191-218.
Hassinger-Das, B., Zosh, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2017). Toys. In K. Peppler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of out-of-school learning (pp. 781-783). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Toub, T. S., Rajan, V., Golinkoff, R., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2016). Playful learning: A solution to the play versus learning dichotomy. In D. Berch & D. Geary (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on education and child development. New York, NY: Springer. 117-145.
Weisberg, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. G., Kittredge, A., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions, 177-182.
Zosh, J. M., Hassinger-Das, B., Toub, T. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2016). Playing with mathematics: How play supports learning and the Common Core state standards. Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College, 7(1), 45–49.
Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2016). Guided play. In D. L. Couchenour & K. Chrisman (Eds.), Encyclopedia of contemporary early childhood education (pp. 645-646). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Zosh, J.M, Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Dore, R.A. (2016). Where learning meets creativity: The promise of guided play. In. Beghetto, R. & Sriraman, B. (Eds.). Creative contradictions in education: Creative theory and action in education, volume 1. (pp. 165-180). New York, NY: Springer International Publishing.
Weisberg, D. S., Kittredge, A. K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Klahr, D. (2015). Making play work for education. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(8), 8-13.
Verdine, B. N., Lucca, K. R., Golinkoff, R. M., Newcombe, N. S., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2015). The shape of things: The origin of young children’s knowledge of the names and properties of geometric forms. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12, 315-331.
Zosh, J.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2015). Guided play. In D. L. Couchenour & K. Chrisman (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Early Childhood Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference.
Weisberg, D. S., Ilgaz, H., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Nicolopoulou, A. (2015). Shovels and swords: How realistic and fantastical themes affect children’s word learning. Cognitive Development, 35, 1-14.
Zosh, J., Reed, J., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2014). Play and its role in language development. In P. Brooks, V. Kempe, & G. J. Golson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language development, (pp. 467-471). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Verdine, B., Irwin, C., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2014). Contributions of Executive Function and a New Test of Spatial-Geometric Skill to Preschool Mathematics Achievement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 126, 37-51.
Verdine, B., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Newcombe, N. (2014). Finding the missing piece: Blocks, puzzles, and shapes fuel school readiness. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 7-13.
Weisberg, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., McCandliss, B. (2014). Mis en place: Setting the stage for thought and action. Trends in Cognition, 276-278.
Verdine, B., Golinkoff, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K, Newcombe, N., Filipowicz, A., & Chang, A. (2014). Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Development, 1062-1076.
Weisberg, D., Hirsh-Pasek. K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain and Education, 7(2), 104-112.
Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Russ, S. W., & Lillard, A. S. (2013). Guest editors’ foreword. Probing playtime: What does the research show? American Journal of Play, 6.
Weisberg, D., Zosh, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). “Talking it up:” Play, language development and the role of adult support. American Journal of Play: Special issue, 6, 39-54.
Lillard, A. S., Russ, S. W., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guest editors’ afterword. Probing pretend play: The research we need. American Journal of Play, 6.
Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013). Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers’ acquisition of geometric knowledge. Child Development, 1872-1878.
Gardner, M., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Heiney-Gonzalez, D. (2012). Marketing toys without playing around. Young Consumers, 13(4), 381-391.
Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek., K., & Golinkoff, R. (2012). Drawing on the arts: Less-traveled paths towards a science of learning? In A. Pinkham, T. Kaefer, & S. Neuman (Eds.), Knowledge Development in Early Childhood: How Young Children Build Knowledge and Why It Matters (pp. 71-90).
Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2012). A tale of two schools: The promise of playful learning. In B. Falk (Ed.), In Defense of childhood (pp. 24-48). NY: Teacher’s College.
Ferrara, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R. (2011). Block talk: Spatial language during block play. Mind, Brain & Education, 5(3), 143-151.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2011). The Ultimate Block Party: Putting our science in the hands of families. SRCD Developments Newsletter, 64(1), 5.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2011). The great balancing act: Optimizing core curricula through playful learning. In E. Zigler & W. Gilliam (Eds.), The preschool education debates (pp. 110-116).
Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D., & Berk, L. E. (2011). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. In A. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of play (pp. 341-363). NY: Oxford University Press.
Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (April, 2009). The bicultural scientist: traveling in the twin worlds of basic and translational science. American Psychological Science Observer.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2008). Brains in a box: Do new age toys deliver on the promise? In R. Harwood & S. Miller (Eds.), Child development in a changing society (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Press.
Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., & Glick, R. (2008). Conceptual split? Parents and experts’ perception of play in the 21st century. Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 305-316.
Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Singer, D. (2006). Play=Learning: A Challenge for parents and educators. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2007). How to choose toys for your baby. In S. Ettus (Ed.), The experts’ guide to the baby years. New York, NY: Random House.