4-year-olds Learn More Through Teacher Interaction Than in Free Play, Study Shows

Filed under: Preschoolers, In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers


Your child spends his hours at preschool happily building giant towns with colorless wooden blocks or sitting quietly in a corner, mesmerized by the pages of the book he's flipping through. This is how kids learn, right?

Actually, maybe not. A new study shows that 4-year-olds make more significant gains in early language and math skills when being guided by a teacher.

Researchers looked at more than 2,700 children in public pre-K programs in 11 states, and broke down their learning time into four categories: free play, individual instruction, group instruction and scaffolded learning (where a more capable adult or child engages the learner).

Some of the children spent most of their time choosing from a variety of educational materials they could play with, and others spent more time learning through teacher-directed activities that focused more on fine motor and early literacy skills. Some programs consisted largely in small- and whole-group instruction while, in others, teachers worked across a range of individual and group settings, according to a report in the journal Child Development.

Researchers assessed the children's academic skills in the fall, and then again in the spring.

Those who spent most of their time in free choice play with limited instruction -- the model used in more than half of the children's classrooms -- made smaller gains in language and math than children in other types of programs. Kids in free play programs spent little time on academic activities, the report notes.

"If early childhood education is to level the playing field by stimulating children's academic development, more quality instructional time spent with teachers and less free play time without teacher guidance may prepare children better for starting kindergarten," says the study's lead author, Nina Chien, a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego. Chien conducted the study while at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Related: Well-funded Preschool Programs Reduce Crime, Report Says

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.