When it comes to educating young children, we’ve all heard that play is an important part of learning. And yet, when we gather toddlers or preschoolers into groups, we often divide their time into structured learning activities and opportunities for free play. This dichotomy overlooks a third option, guided play, which encourages children’s autonomous exploration of something within a structure facilitated by a teacher..
Guided play has two basic forms. In one version, adults provide a space and materials that encourage discoveries related to a specific topic and then let children freely explore. Facilitators might set up a mindfulness area that includes LED tea lights, mirrors, a sound machine, squishy balls, and small rugs with posters on the wall showing children engaged in mindfulness activities. They then give children time to explore the space and try out the mindfulness props in their own ways. Through the visual cues and observing other children’s interactions, they learn about mindfulness practices.
In a second version, adults observe child-directed activities and pose questions to guide children in extended learning. Facilitators might pose a general question: How can you quiet your body using anything in the room (or nothing at all)? They then observe what children do and ask questions related to the children’s actions: Why did you choose to sit on a pillow? How does closing your eyes help you become quiet? What are you doing with your hands? Such questions help children better understand their decision-making process and how various actions contribute to quieting the body.
In both versions, adults create a scaffold upon which children can build a spiritual concept. They help children discover how various materials and choices can enhance spiritual practices without quashing children’s autonomy. At the same time, they don’t expect children to simply stumble upon spiritual practices without guidance; they prepare a space or offer a series of questions to guide children’s play.
Adults also provide language for talking about children’s self-directed spiritual discoveries. Through labels placed on materials or images, they help children build a spiritual vocabulary: sitting on a rug with a tea light is called ‘meditating’ or a squishy ball is for ‘relaxing’. When a child responds that closing their eyes makes things around them disappear, an adult can explain that people who meditate call this ‘blocking out distractions’.
Guided play is an aspect of several early childhood education models, such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia, that blend the two versions. Religious educators may also recognize the approach in Godly Play curricula. Part of guided play’s appeal is its emphasis on child-directed learning, which studies have shown is more effective in early childhood than methods that depend on external rewards or following adult directions.
Why does guided play work? Because young children are curious about the world around them and want to learn. When they discover something for themselves, they feel proud of their ability to recognize possibilities or solve a problem. Their motivation for learning and their sense of competence as a learner both increase, which means they will remain open to spiritual exploration in the future.