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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.

"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," according to Nina C. Chien, a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego, who led the study.
Chien points out that it's not a matter of play versus instruction. She notes that teachers can impact children during play by asking thought-provoking questions or using new words to describe what the children are doing. It appears that play without such teacher input doesn't support learning to the same extent.

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.

The study also found that low-income children who were guided by teachers in individual instruction made greater gains than children who spent their time primarily in other activity settings. This finding lends support to the idea that low-income children do better in a program that's focused on learning, with more time spent in individualized instruction.

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.


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