Education: Direct Instruction versus Exploration and Free Play

I read an article recently titled “Why Preschool Shouldn’t be like School“. The article highlighted a concern about the pressure on kindergartens and nurseries to become more like schools with increased direct instruction. They felt that very young children should be “allowed to explore, inquire, play, and discover” because although “direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills”, it made them “less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution”.

One study examining how 4-year-olds learned about a new toy confirms the concern that direct instruction made children less curious and less likely to discover new information on their own. The toy had 4 tubes and each tube could do something interesting – “if you pulled on one tube it squeaked, if you looked inside another tube you found a hidden mirror, and so on. For one group of children, the experimenter said: “I just found this toy!” As she brought out the toy, she pulled the first tube, as if by accident, and it squeaked. She acted surprised (“Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!”) and pulled the tube again to make it squeak a second time. With the other children, the experimenter acted more like a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” and deliberately made the tube squeak. Then she left both groups of children alone to play with the toy. All of the children pulled the first tube to make it squeak. The question was whether they would also learn about the other things the toy could do. The children from the first group played with the toy longer and discovered more of its “hidden” features than those in the second group.”

Another study, also involving 4-year-olds and a new toy, confirmed that direct teaching made children less creative. In this study, the children were given a toy and the experimenters “demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, [the experimenter] might start by squishing the toy, then pressing a pad on its top, then pulling a ring on its side, at which point the toy would play music. Then she might try a different series of three actions, and it would play music again. Not every sequence she demonstrated worked, however: Only the ones that ended with the same two actions made the music play. After showing the children five successful sequences interspersed with four unsuccessful ones, she gave them the toy and told them to “make it go.”

[The experimenter] ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this,” she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. (“Here’s how my toy works.”) When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something she had not demonstrated). But when she acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.”

It was agreed that there was a benefit to be derived from direct instruction – children learned a lot more quickly through direct instruction. The downside was that it taught them to be less curious and it robbed them of their creativity. The conclusion was that “it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.”

Okay, all that made sense. But my question now is: why is this limited only to young children? If young children benefitted from opportunities that gave them a free reign to explore and discover new things on their own, then why would it be different for older children? In other words, if school is bad for young children, then why would it be any different for older children? Why is it okay for older children to be taught with direct instruction? If it is killing the creativity of our young children, surely it is doing the same with our older children and we should be looking to reform the education model not just for young children but for all children.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Education: Direct Instruction versus Exploration and Free Play

  1. The curiosity level of each child is very diverged, the experiment would have more convinced if they take in two group of children, one full of curiosity and one less, then the direct instruction is then given to the group which is creative and clueless to the group which is less. Reason being children being children, especially in a class room environment, tend to follow instruction given by teacher or under supervision of someone with authority, so it is hard to say if the child is robbed of creativity. I remembered I attended music lessons with my daughter and other kids in the class. The teacher said ” hi, everyone, now follows what I do”, so the kid followed jovially what the teacher had just instructed, then, again the teacher said, “alright, now, listen, now you can have your own dancing style, , your style, any style”, then, again, certain child would have happily changed her
    style, and again certain wouldn’t. I personally think creativity should be something more profound with individualistic. Kid who is inherently creative would be hardly robbed of such creativity by just a simple direct instruction, even though I can’t deny of such negativity impact that might appear.


  2. I think the idea of having direct instruction is outdated and a lot of research confirm this. What matters is to be clear that working with children in first years of life should be targeted on the full training of the person as human (rather than working on specific skills) and in particular to enhance the ability to “learn to learn “.
    If we start by this premise, everything becomes clearer. The fact is that each of us carries an image of school that is mostly directive, and that it is hard to ignore it.
    So in my opinion, conceiving the (pre)school from this point of view is the best way to meet the interests of children, their curiosity but also the different modes and styles of learning. Starting from this fact we must change our way of thinking.
    Every child has the right to learn according to languages ??and exploratory procedures which are peculiar, and the adult must learn to recognize and support these processes and these languages, rather than to impose their view of the world, which is by definition not well crystallized and inclined to accept the child’s curiosity and wonder of learning.
    The adult may then acquire an aptitude for research rather than teaching, and get involved with children starting by the same epistemological position.
    I think this is also for compulsory education, and it is a fact in many experiences around the world, where you try to start by the children.
    Clearly there are some content that can be conveyed, but as proposed basis for research processes. If you really want to imagine a school for children, it can not be done without their real and deep involvement in the planning and conduction of the learning process.


    1. Cristian – That is what I question. If direct instruction robs little children of creativity, then why should it be any different for slightly older children? Why is the direct-learning school setting okay for say kindergarten and primary school children but not with preschoolers? And if we accept that this is true, then shouldn’t something be done about the current school system?


  3. Fz – ideally that would be the perfect scenario, but then how do you decide if a child is “full of creativity” versus “less creative”? From the perspective of a study, I think it is difficult to quantify. But I do agree, some things affect some children more so than others and not all children will be impacted negatively by such an environment.

    My philosophy has always been to find what works best for my own child. But when we’re looking at a group of children, then the question has to be what works best for the majority of children with the least negative effects. I think it is naive to think that there is one perfect system for every child, but we certainly can do something to better the existing system. As long as we accept that we should always be striving to better ourselves. But I fear that the education system is in a bit of a rut.


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