Skip to main content

Guided Learning and Play at CTD

By Margeaux McReynolds, updated by Adam Schalke and Beth Dirkes


Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning"—Fred Rogers. 

Psychologist, Lev S. Vygotsky, studied the development and use of play by young children for years. He looked not only at how children engaged in play, but how they made sense of things through play. He observed that children mimic those things they know to be true, while investigating and acting out the unfamiliar to gain new knowledge (Vygotsky, 2004). It is this idea that play helps construct new ways of thinking for young children, which has helped to support its role in early childhood programs. 

Play-based learning is an essential part of the learning experience in many early childhood classrooms as it directly reflects children’s natural mode of engaging with the world around them. Through play, children are able to explore, investigate, inquire, and problem solve actively when faced with new content and ideas. While the Center for Talent Development incorporates the benefits of play-based learning wherever possible, courses in the Online Family Program (OFP) particularly embrace the belief that play inspires learning and provides challenge for advanced learners. This is why all of our early childhood classes offer an element of age-appropriate play and hands-on learning. 

Parents often have questions about the amount of play present in CTD early childhood classrooms and inquire about its value. As the work of Vygotsky and many other researchers indicates, play does not equate to less rigor or teacher-student engagement. Both free-play, which is child initiated and directed, and guided play, which is child-directed but actively influenced by an adult, such as a parent or teacher, promote opportunities for learning, including social-emotional learning. Guided play, which is intentional, allows instructors to strategically plan the materials and concepts to which students will be exposed. The instructor also creates challenges for the student, allowing for questioning, exploration, and discovery. OFP parents are provided with support so they  participate in guiding play at home as students carry out course activities.  By being engaged in the process of guided play, our students are able to enjoy a sense of autonomy as they take the lead in their prepared environment and interact with meaningful content and experiences, which spark their interest and help them build upon their curiosity. 

CTD courses for younger students are intentionally created and planned to engage students in inquiry-based learning activities. Courses involve essential questions which serve as anchors to help lay a foundation for guided play and exploration. Teachers are able to provide students with knowledge of a given subject by way of playful activities so as to encourage stimulating thought. For example, in OFP’s course Coding with ScratchJr and Hopscotch for gifted learners in kindergarten and grade 1, students use special applications to learn how to code, but this is complemented with activities such as drawing and writing to give students a point of reference to their new skills.  As students take part in hands-on learning activities and experiments, teachers pose questions to encourage students to make predictions and problem solve. Students get an opportunity to talk through their ideas, try out new ways of thinking, and gain a sense of accomplishment as they become agents in their own learning.  

To learn more about play-based learning and its place at CTD, please visit our Online Family Program

Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and Creativity in Childhood. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 42(1), 7–97. 

2021 © Northwestern University Center for Talent Development