Structured Play in the Early Childhood Classroom

By Zaina Cahill

By Zaina Cahill of Children’s Village 

Despite the research on the ways in which children are able to learn through play, many early childhood programs still require teachers to engage in periods of “structured” or “teacher-guided” play throughout the day. So, how can teachers meet this requirement while still also adhering to what research says about how children acquire new knowledge?

It should first be said that young children should not be forced to engage in structured play and, furthermore, teacher-facilitated play is not a substitute for free play. Quality rating scales, such as the ERS, require that young children spend a substantial portion of the day in free choice activities; with the other requirements of the early childhood day (e.g. meal times, bathroom, outdoor time, etc.), there should only be brief periods of time for teacher-guided play in the average day. In my experience, offering teacher guided activities to children during free play gives them the opportunity to choose this type of lesson of their own regard, rather than being required to engage in it at a specific time of day.

Create Structured Play Experiences

With this understanding in mind, as teachers plan structured activities that are engaging, they must create experiences for children that are exciting, based on students’ interests. They should:

  • Plan activities that are quick. We don’t want children relying on teacher guidance in play for extended periods of time, as we want to promote creativity in children when they come up with new play schemes for themselves. They should
  • Plan activities that are accessible to students based on their abilities. Activities should not be too difficult for children, but they should also not be too easy. Teachers should plan for activities that are at each child’s developmental level, with opportunities for challenge and teacher scaffolding.
  • Plan activities for both in and out of the classroom. It is important to remember that, wherever children are, they are learning. (e.g. the park or on a field trip).

Activities that are teacher-guided might look like bingo board games like Alphabet BingoColors & Shapes Bingo, and Number Bingo; memory matching games like Seek-a-Boo, and traditional “first” board games such as Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.

Big Body/Active Play

Teachers can create more traditional structured opportunities for Big Body Play, like obstacle courses. Children can also engage in active play activities rooted in cognitive skills. For instance, children can act out/perform familiar stories (The 3 Little Pigs is always a favorite for this type of activity) or the life cycle of a favorite plant or animal. In addition, they can use their bodies to create the letters of the alphabet or numbers. Children can represent manipulatives in certain mathematical activities as well, such as activities around counting with 1:1 correspondence or simple addition/ subtraction activities.

Craft Activities

It is important to remember that craft activities should be focused on the child’s artistic process rather than the product. Open-ended art activities offered by teacher tend to create the strongest opportunities for children to discuss their process and express their creativity and individual abilities. Teachers’ work of art, as a model, tends to pull away from the originality of these types of activities, so it’s often best to avoid a model of what children “should” create. Instead, offering a variety of natural materials, (e.g. sticks, dirt, grass, leaves, etc.) might prompt one child to create a 3D nest during a thematic study on animal habitats while another child may opt to create a natural material representation of their family.

Regardless of the form of guided play you choose to engage in, play (as described by NAEYC) is the root of the early childhood classroom, whether it is done freely or with teacher guidance. Therefore, teachers must ensure that, through guided play, they are creating joyful experiences for the children in their care.

For more information on the connection between children’s play and learning, see: Academics vs. Play: The False Dilemma That Some Principals Face by NAEYC.


Zaina Cahill, Early Childhood & Learning Lab Director at Children’s Village (Philadelphia, PA) and adjunct professor at Arcadia Univ., is an NYU (B.S.Ed) and Walden Univ. (M.S.Ed) grad. Since 2005, she’s worked as a substitute, assistant, lead, & special ed. teacher and an administrator, with toddler to elementary school children. Zaina holds ECE teaching cert., is authorized to offer professional development in PA, and is a certified PreK CLASS observer. She has presented and spoken at events at the city, state, and national levels. Zaina is a member of the NAEYC Membership Engagement Committee, Exchange Leadership Institute, Becker’s Advisory Council, and the Philadelphia Race Matters and Cultural Competency Learning Circle. In 2016, she was honored at the White House Teacher of the Year event, and in 2017, testified at the Democratic Women’s Working Group hearing on “The State of Childcare in America.” Zaina has made written contributions to the Becker’s and NAEYC blogs and Teaching Young Children.

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