Child-Teacher Interaction Improves Academic Performance
A new study appearing in the September/October 2010 issue of Child Development finds that pre-kindergartners who spend much of their day in unstructured free-choice play make smaller gains in language and math skills than children who receive input from teachers in a range of different activity settings.
The study also determined that low-income children benefit particularly when a higher proportion of their time is spent in individual instruction settings.
In the study, researchers looked at more than 2,700 children enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs in 11 U.S. states; more than half the children were poor. Based on their observations, they categorized the children according to the types of settings in which they spent the bulk of their time: Some spent most of their time freely choosing from a wide variety of educational materials to play with and less time engaging in pre-academic activities. Some spent a lot of time learning individually through teacher-directed activities, focusing more on fine motor and early literacy activities. Some spent much of their time in small- and whole-group instructional activities. And some were taught by teachers who worked across a range of individual and group settings.
The researchers found that children who were engaged in free-choice play made smaller gains in language and math than the other children. The free-choice play model involving limited teacher intentional instruction is popular in many early childhood classrooms -- more than half the children in this study had free-choice play as their primary pattern of activities.
While it has been shown that unstructured, outdoor play has many physical and mental benefits, the need for "instructional input" in classroom settings shouldn't come as a great surprise. As the researchers point out, talking to the children, using new words, asking them questions - all of this causes the children to think and learn - and to do better as they move through the school system.