In early childhood education, the term guided play is a relative newcomer on the scene. Researchers use guided play to refer to “learning experiences that combine the child-directed nature of free play with a focus on learning outcomes and adult mentorship.” Studies have shown that through play, children experience not only pleasure but also community and autonomy.
With educators’ direction shaping their experiences, guided play can be the perfect modality for our youngest students to learn and thrive.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve led drama programming in early childhood classrooms and seen how the scaffolding of theater games supports both young learners and their teachers. Dramatic improvisation, with its simple rules and inherent flexibility, gives educators the means to put guided play into practice. Students’ imaginations, mixed with proposed real-world scenarios, create a kind of magical realism leading to an ideal atmosphere for learning.
According to recent research, teachers can maximize the benefits of guided play by making sure the following are in place:
- Set up the activity with a concrete learning objective in mind. Do you want the students to use certain vocabulary, explain a scientific concept, name characters from a book, etc.?
- Offer the students elements of free choice in the game.
- Be flexible and responsive, using open-ended questions and prompts.
Below are several improvisation scenarios that I recommend for guided play and some suggestions on how to incorporate them into your classroom.
3 Ways to Use Improv Exercises as Guided Play
1. Pet Vet: In this game, your classroom transforms into a veterinarian’s office. Draw inspiration from any animal study you might be teaching to have the kids “become” a talking creature with a specific ailment. The animal-student shows off their injury and tells the backstory of how it came to pass. Then you, as the vet, along with a group of students work together to find a solution. The improvisation ends victoriously with the cure complete and a magical payment rendered.
Encourage the students to use words specific to your unit of study, such as an animal’s anatomy, habitat, food, life cycle, etc.
I’ve played this in a classroom working on an ocean study. A student visited the vet as if they were a whale who was missing baleen so that they couldn’t trap krill. To help, the vet-teacher and the students put (pretend) barnacles in their mouth. As the vet, you can actively reinforce the vocabulary you’d like your students to use but leave space for their imagination as well.
2. Silly Shop: In this improvisation, children get to be the “expert” and articulate the functions of certain items, expanding both their vocabulary and their mental flexibility. You play the role of a befuddled store owner with items for sale in your shop. These can be tools in the classroom (ruler, highlighter, calculator), household objects (light bulb, shoelace, thermometer), or whatever is appropriate for your unit of study.
As the store owner, you misname the item they want to buy and give it the wrong use as well (for example, you call a whisk a “shmorgosh” and say it is used as a cat toy). The customer-student corrects you and explains its proper use (“No! This is a whisk, and we use it to stir around ingredients for baking!”).
Flipping the script and teaching you—even in a pretend scenario—is invigorating for the students. Ultimately, their turn ends once they label the item correctly and purchase it, using a magical exchange of currency.
I’ve played this with first graders doing a community study. They brought in items that related to different professions they saw in their neighborhood. The shop owner (teacher) named the items something silly in gibberish, and the students were able to correct them, sharing what they knew about the tools and their function.
3. Magic Elevator: In this game, students adventure to different destinations in a magical elevator. They enter the elevator (a simple square marked out on the floor); the “doors” close; and they press the pretend buttons, making it whoosh (up, down, even sideways!) wherever it is directed to go.
Make the “floors” relevant to your curriculum: travel to different biomes, settings in a book, even outer space, or back in time. When you land on a floor, have a dramatic task you need to accomplish (like sneaking into Ms. Trunchbull’s office or transforming from a butterfly to a caterpillar).
Underscore the adventure using soundtracks to inspire bravery and creative movement. Visit a few floors, use a countdown timer to set a clear limit, and have students participate in small groups to get more kids playing at a time.
More Suggestions for Guided Play
- Use painter’s tape or chairs to mark the boundary of a world. Otherwise, rely on very few props, trusting your students’ imaginations.
- Establish a clear beginning and end to the improv, which will help with their executive function skill of turn-taking. Is there a doorbell chime when they enter the pet vet? Do they exchange a “payment” at the end of their turn in the silly shop? Does a countdown clock help them know when to get back in the elevator?
- Be intentional about creating opportunities for kids to explore through play. Allow them the space to transform into a character, scout a location, be silly, and improvise. The best way to do this is to keep your prompts open-ended and to utilize the improv rule “yes… and.”
- Be transparent about what you want them to bring in from your curriculum, and commend them when they do it.
- Use group work whenever possible. Elevator can be played in a small group. Pet Vet can use a team of physician assistants. Silly Shop can have multiple customers at a time.
Students will better retain information and feel its relevance when their imaginations are involved. Improvisation games give educators a template by which to use guided play to elevate their students’ learning and have fun alongside them. If we harness kids’ creativity and playfulness, we can deepen their knowledge and make our curriculum more vibrant.