Welcome back to our Mythbuster series

This week we invite Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama to talk about the fourth myth: Children don’t need adult guidance in play (or learning). Let's keep reading and find out why this is a myth and why combining guided free play with intentional, guided-discovery teaching is important. 

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About the Authors
Douglas H. Clements's headshot Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

Julie Sarama's headshotJulie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math"). 

Myth #4: Children don’t need adult guidance in play (or learning)

“I believe that children learn through play.”

“My philosophy is to let children play. If adults interfere it destroys children’s learning through play.”

Fact: Claiming that “children don’t need adult, including early childhood and early childhood special education practitioners, guidance in play” is a myth is not to say we don’t believe in play. We love play. And we believe children learn through play. However, we also believe it is a false dichotomy that there are but two choices: Unguided free play versus “adult interference” (or “direct instruction”).  Such a false dichotomy makes nuanced use of a variety of developmentally appropriate teaching strategies, such as NAEYC promotes, almost impossible.

Let’s start with free play…and let’s start with something on which we hope everyone can agree: Child-directed play is a rich context for learning and adults can interfere with its benefits if they enter it without observing and without carefully considering what the children are doing.

But should adults always stay away? No. Research is clear that guided play is better for children. For example, teaching strategies that optimize make-believe play have been proven successful in improving young children’s self-regulation competencies and academic achievement1,2,3. This approach imbues dramatic, make-believe play with supports that strengthen the development of self-regulation. Adults guide children on the development of imagination, the ability to sustain and create pretend scenarios, a set of roles and the use of language to plan and organize play ahead of time.

This is why we have educated, expert practitioners–not just to set up and get out of the way—but to observe, interpret, interact, and then change the environment and interactions when that would benefit children.

How about STEM?  Do children “do” STEM in their play–and what should adults do about STEM and play?

Perhaps surprisingly, in their free play, Children engage in substantial amounts of foundational STEM skills as they explore patterns, shapes, and spatial relations; compare magnitudes; engineer with various materials; and explore scientific phenomena and concepts.4,5,6  Let’s use mathematical play as an example. Observations of preschoolers show that when they play, they engage in mathematical thinking at least once in almost half of each minute of play. Almost 9/10 of children engage in at one or more math activities during free play episodes.6

This mathematical play reveals intuitive knowledge of many concepts that most people think young children cannot understand, from arithmetic to parallelism and right angles. Unfortunately, these same children may not understand these concepts when they arrive in middle school. If they are not helped to mathematize (reflect on, give language to—more later) their early “theorems in action”,7 the ideas do not become theorems in thought. Adults need to help children learn the language of mathematics. Similarly, while children innately explore the world around them, and take pleasure in building with different materials, and making patterns, adults also need to help them learn engineering habits of mind, the language of coding, and scientific practices.

Many adults believe that such scaffolding will harm children’s play. These concerns are misplaced. Content-rich teaching increases the quality of young children's play. For example, children in classrooms with stronger emphasis on literacy or math are more likely to engage at a higher quality of social-dramatic play.8 The new ideas energize high-level play activity. Thus, high-quality instruction in STEM and high-quality free play do not have to “compete” for time in the classroom. Doing both makes each richer. Unfortunately, many adults believe that "open-ended free play" is good and "lessons" in STEM are not.9,10 They do not believe that preschoolers need specific teaching.11 They do not realize that they are depriving their children both of the joy and fascination of STEM, but higher-quality free play as well.12

Combining guided free play with intentional, guided-discovery teaching13 and promoting play with STEM objects and STEM ideas is pedagogically powerful play.12,14,15


  1. Barnett, W. S., Yarosz, D. J., Thomas, J., & Hornbeck, A. (2006). Educational effectiveness of a Vygotskian approach to preschool education: A randomized trial: National Institute of Early Education Research.
  2. Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2005). Self-Regulation as a key to school readiness: How can early childhood teachers promote this critical competency? In M. Zaslow & I. Martinez-Beck (Eds.), Critical issues in early childhood professional development (pp. 203–224). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
  3. Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., Norford, J., & Paynter, D. (2003). It only looks like child’s play. Journal of Staff Development, 24(2), 47–51.
  4. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2016). Math, science, and technology in the early grades. The Future of Children, 26(2), 75–94.
  5. Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2018). Promoting positive transitions through coherent instruction, assessment, and professional development: The TRIAD scale-up model. In A. J. Mashburn, J. LoCasale-Crouch & K. Pears (Eds.), Kindergarten readiness (pp. 327-348). New York, NY: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-90200-5_15
  6. Seo, K.-H., & Ginsburg, H. P. (2004). What is developmentally appropriate in early childhood mathematics education? In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 91–104). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  7. Vergnaud, G. (1978). The acquisition of arithmetical concepts. In E. Cohors-Fresenborg & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 344–355). Osnabruck, Germany.
  8. Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005, June 5-8). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.
  9. Sarama, J. (2002). Listening to teachers: Planning for professional development. Teaching Children Mathematics, 9(1), 36–39.
  10. Sarama, J., & DiBiase, A.-M. (2004). The professional development challenge in preschool mathematics. In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 415–446). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  11. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2009). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. New York, NY: Routledge.
  12. Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Building blocks and cognitive building blocks: Playing to know the world mathematically. American Journal of Play, 1(3), 313–337.
  13. Baroody, A. J., Purpura, D. J., Eiland, M. D., & Reid, E. E. (2015). The impact of highly and minimally guided discovery instruction on promoting the learning of reasoning strategies for basic add-1 and doubles combinations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 30, Part A(0), 93–105. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.09.003
  14. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005a). Math play. Parent & Child, 12(4), 36–45.
  15. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005b). Math play: How young children approach math. Early Childhood Today, 19(4), 50–57.
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