The Difference Between Free Play & Smart Play


Parents of gifted toddlers and preschoolers hear this phrase a lot:   “They’re little,  Just let them play, play, play!”  Time enough for academics later, because don’t you know that children learn best through play?

Sometimes we’re accused of pushing our kids instead of letting them be kids.  We’re told to relax, calm down, that by the time they’re in kindergarten it won’t make a difference because everyone catches up, right?  They’re often well-meaning and very nice about it, but they fail to realize that for our kids, life is a bit different.  They want to learn.  They want to be cognitively challenged.  They want to play, yes, but they want to learn too.


I’ve seen this, and experienced it enough, that I’m starting to realize there’s a disconnect about the precise use of “play” in educational terms.  When most people say “children learn best through play,” they  mean unstructured, free play that the child initiates and controls.  When an educator says “learning through play,” they’re probably talking about guided play – where the children initiate and control it, but an adult sometimes steps in and gives a very light guidance and focus.  It’s still play – it’s still child-led, but it has an educational focus that free play does not.  It’s playing smart.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an educator by trade.  I’m a mom.  I’m a homeschool mom.  But I understand that there is a difference between the kids dragging out the blocks and building something and me saying “I bet we could build a pyramid with these!” and watching them go to town.  It’s a subtle distinction.  And to be perfectly honest, BOTH kinds of play are incredibly important for the kids: for learning, for social interactions, for problem solving … the list goes on.

So when a new homeschooler or a parent of a gifted toddler asks about how to incorporate academics into their day, what they’re really asking is “how do I do guided play with my child?”  They’re not saying “I will never let my child play!” at all, they’re just trying to accommodate the thirst for learning that naturally curious and inquisitive kids have.  They don’t want to sit down and do worksheets or flashcards because they don’t want to make their child miserable.  They do want to introduce concepts and ideas through play and sometimes they’re not sure how to do that without being heavy-handed about it.


I admit, some of our early work when we first started homeschooling was too academic for the Engineer.  I had to learn how he learned – and learn how to accommodate that in our guided play.  Let me be perfectly clear: our guided play is a very small portion of our day, and my kids have plenty of time for the free and unstructured play too.  In fact, sometimes our guided play happens when I see what they’re doing and step in to move it to the next level.  Like the Destroyer with the gears in the image.

He wanted to play with them, so we did.  I showed him the Driver Gear with the handle, and he went to town seeing how fast he could spin it.  He built sequences and tested them with the Driver Gear, because I subtly pointed him in the right direction.  Without me pointing it out he would have struggled trying to turn the gears by hand and quickly lost interest.

Was I telling him what to do and actively directing him?  Nope.  Was he involved in unstructured free play?  For most of it, yes.  For a very small portion of his time there, I guided him.  I helped him, and then I let him go explore and experiment toddler style.  That’s smart play.  That’s helping him to learn.


The difference between Free Play and Guided Play is a very subtle distinction that often results in hurt feelings and misunderstanding.  Parents who ask often feel as if they’re accused of harming their children.  Those who respond to the question feel as if the parents are forcing their children to advance faster than they’re able to.  It’s a recipe for problems.

If none of us are saying the same thing, then we’re bound to have miscommunications.  I hate that.  I want to help – I want to share what works for us.  So when I see these questions posted in various groups, I tend to answer a little bit more in detail than I would otherwise.  I tell them how we play: what we use, what they’re learning, and how much/little I step in to guide the kids.  It’s a mini lesson in guided play – sometimes an unwanted one, but often a very welcome lesson.

So don’t be that person who says “let them play.”  Yup, the parent already knows that.  Big surprise there, right?  Instead, ask them how they plan to incorporate play into their learning.  It’s a great starting point to opening up a conversation about child-led education and the importance of play.  Because play is serious business around here.  Play is learning.





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