TIME features Dr. Nina Chien’s research: Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter

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Written by Shivani Singh

Dr. Nina Chien, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Child Development and Community Health at UC San Diego’s Department of Pediatrics, has been cited in TIME magazine.  The TIME article reports on an article published in the journal, Child Development, in which Nina and her colleagues found that children who received more individual teacher instruction in their preschool made greater gains in language/literacy and mathematics than children who spent more time in free play.

 “If early childhood education is to level the playing field by stimulating children’s academic development, more quality instructional time spent with teachers and less free play time without teacher guidance may prepare children better for starting kindergarten,” according to Nina C. Chien, a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego, who led the study (Chien was at the University of California at Los Angeles at the time of the study). “Our work has implications for policy and practice.”

In the study, Chien et al looked at more than 2,700 children enrolled in public prekindergarten programs in 11 U.S. states; more than half the children were poor. Based on their observations, they categorized the children according to 4 types of settings in which they spent the bulk of their time – playing with educational toys during free time, learning from teacher-directed activities, group instructional activities, or individual attention from a teacher.

The researchers found that children who were engaged in free-choice play made smaller gains in language and math than the other children. The free-choice play model involving limited teacher intentional instruction is popular in many early childhood classrooms—more than half the children in this study had free-choice play as their primary pattern of activities. The study suggests that this approach may not be best for children’s early achievement. In the study, the researchers noted that the children who took part in free-choice play spent little time on academic activities.

Chien and colleagues note that teachers who modify instruction to fit children’s changing needs can do so during play settings by asking thought-provoking questions or using new words to describe what children are doing, so it’s not a matter of play versus instruction. But it appears that play without such teacher input doesn’t support learning to the same extent as contexts involving more introduction of instructional content by teachers.

These findings appear in the September/October 2010 issue of Child Development. Dr. Chien is a post-doctoral fellow supported by the UC San Diego Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities which is funded by the NIH National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities

In addition to Chien, researchers who worked on the study came from the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education.

The link to the TIME magazine article is below that features Dr. Chien's published research. Feel free to contact Dr. Chien directly at ncchien@ucsd.edu