Monday, February 23, 2015

Playful Learning in the Montessori Environment: Guided Play

If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 4.

In her recent webinar, “The Power of Playful Learning: How guided play sparks social and academic outcomes,” Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek stated that, according to her research, “…adult directed play was better than free play when there is a learning goal.” (Hirsh-Pasek, 2014)

Why the Montessori Environment uses Guided Play to Foster Learning

In the Montessori environment, there are specific learning goals assigned to each area of the classroom as well as to each material. If we look at the Pink Tower, we see that it looks like a set of basic stacking blocks. And if we were to allow the children to freely play with them, they would learn to build a tower, knock it over, and start again. But through guided play, the adult chooses how the interaction will occur. Yes, we stack them, but as we do so we deliberately compare each block to the others, strengthening our perception of size and order. Through the Montessori three-period lesson, we teach vocabulary associated with the material: larger, larger, largest; small, smaller, smallest. We use words of proximity: on top of; beside; next to; below; adjacent. Through guided play, we are teaching both spatial and mathematical concepts and building the foundation for future learning.

Montessori Area Learning Goal
Practical Life Independence; body control; coordination of movement; concentration; sense of order; healthy work habits; character development; grace and courtesy
Sensorial Refinement of senses – size, dimension, form, color, texture, temperature, weight, sound, taste, scent; constructing relationships based on sensory information and perception; gross and find motor development; language skills; visual and auditory discrimination; developing hand-eye coordination; increasing attention span;
Culture and Science Find patterns in nature; understanding the truth in the natural world; learning their place in human culture; gaining appreciating for all living things
Math Counting; sorting; patterning; matching; basic operations
Language Vocabulary development; classification; writing; reading; oral language skills; grammar

Hirsh-Pasek used preschool geometry to research the importance guided play had on future STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills. Using materials similar to Montessori’s Constructive Triangles and Geometric Cabinet, her study used three conditions:


Guided play

Children were taught rule-based classification for shapes in a playful, exploratory manner. (They were the “detectives” discovering the secret of the shapes.)

Direct instruction

Children were taught rule-based classification for shapes in a passive learning manner. (They watched while the experimenter acted as a detective discovering the secret of the shapes).

Exploratory, free play

Children played with shape cut-outs and wax stick for approximately the same time as the above training conditions. (Hirsh-Pasek, 2014)

The results proved overwhelmingly that children who discover and explore through guided play achieved a higher rate of success and learned skills needed far beyond their preschool years.

(Hirsh-Pasek, 2014)
Angeline Lilliard’s research on play and direct instruction has found that “Developmental science does not support young children sitting in desks while teachers lecture at them. … Compared with free play programs, more structured classrooms with carefully designed, challenging, hands-on activities that confer learning appear to help children’s development the most.” (Lillard et al., 2012)

When we consider the needs of children, we can see that neither free play, which has no adult intervention, nor direct instruction, which does not allow for child exploration, serve educational requirements. And whether we, as Montessorians, call it work or play, the answer as Lillard concludes, is this: “The hands-on, child-driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.” (Lillard, et al., 2012)

Works Cited
Hirsh-Pasek, Kathryn. “The power of playful learning: How guided play sparks social and academic outcomes.” Early childhood investigations.
Lillard, Angeline S., Matthew D. Lerner, Emily J. Hopkins, Rebecca A. Dore, Eric D. Smith, and Carolyn M. Palmquist. “The impact of pretend play on children's development: A review of the evidence.” Psychological Bulletin. August 20, 2012.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Monday, February 23, 2015.


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