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New research shows play-based learning can be more effective than direct instruction at improving outcomes for early learners—particularly in the development of mathematical and spatial skills.

The mere presence of the word play in the teaching method known as play-based learning can alarm some parents of early childhood learners. Students, even our youngest students, should be “playing” at home. They come to school to learn, they might say.

That distinction—between “learning” and “play”—is a false one, according to early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis. Although kindergarten and elementary classrooms often devalue it in favor of direct instruction or seat time, play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development, and its “signature” is apparent in the bodies and lives of little kids who experience it: “Their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they have a chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given the chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment,” Christakis told Edutopia in a 2023 interview.

Children aren’t miniature adults. Nonetheless, a bias toward adult perspectives of childhood, with its attendant schedules and routines, has gradually exerted a stranglehold on our educational system, Christakis continues, trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel dreary, joyless, and alienating. “The notion that there is something of value in being a little kid—with little kid desires and, above all, needs—seems to have fallen out of favor.”

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the clear benefits of play, setting aside the time for even the youngest students can seem out of step with the academic demands of the school day. Early childhood teachers are pressured to meet strict seat-time guidelines in their classrooms, and they often feel that direct instruction is the best method to achieve the many curricular objectives that parents, principals, and other leaders expect.

According to a new study, there’s a middle path. A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed decades of research on “guided play”—more commonly called play-based learning—and concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on the acquisition of skills like math, shape knowledge, and task switching than more traditional approaches that prioritize seat time and explicit instruction.

“In redefining play as a spectrum with varying degrees of child autonomy and adult guidance, guided play has been situated as a ‘middle-ground’ between free play and direct instruction,” the researchers concluded. The learning is inherently rich and meaningful because “play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.”

Incorporating key elements of play—like wonder, exploration, and student agency—into loosely structured lessons that are gently supported by teachers provides an “optimal” approach for students, according to the researchers. For Christakis, this means that play-based learning experiences should provide students with a “steady diet of free, unstructured time and access to open-ended materials” that allow them to engage in “rambling” storytelling and provide plenty of time to just “mess around and make their own rules.”

Play, With an Objective in Mind

In a successful play-based learning class, teachers often have a clear “learning goal” behind the play they let students engage in ahead of time, according to the Cambridge study. A teacher should keep this goal in mind during the play and subtly guide the child toward the goal.

Don’t pull the strings too tight: According to primary teacher Maggie Sabin, teachers shouldn’t necessarily expect students to produce specific outputs. For example, to teach students how colors can be mixed to form new colors, you might avoid giving students instructions to mix specific colors and instead model one example and then allow them to make their own combinations. “Be well prepared and intentional in planning, but allow for flexibility and inspiration,” writes Sabin.

One way to make sure that students are playing with purpose is to structure your classroom with deliberate spaces or centers containing materials, games, or objects intentionally chosen for students to engage with and make sense of.

An area in Sabin’s classroom, for example, contains a “tinker tray” of items that might seem random but are related to lessons or units she is using direct instruction to guide students through. During a unit on nature and natural materials, for example, the tray is stocked with items like pebbles, leaves, or sticks that students can both practice naming and manipulating. The materials can also be used to practice early math skills through the course of play by simply asking students how many pebbles they have or how many pebbles they have left after giving some to a friend.

Providing Choice and Agency

Effective play-based learning should be child-led when possible and give students “freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior,” the researchers assert. However, their findings suggest that the level of autonomy being given to students in play-based learning scenarios is often less than the amount needed to “cultivate children’s agency, motivation, and curiosity.”

To foster that agency, New Hampshire kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow often starts the day by allowing students 30 to 45 minutes of “choice time” to explore various spaces in the classroom—a block center, math center, science center, art center, book nook, or dramatic play corner.

The items they encounter are related to previous lessons and the interests her students have expressed. For example, after reading the children’s book Miss Maple’s Seeds, Arrow said, her students became fascinated by the author’s process of creating the book from her imagination. As a result, Arrow’s art center included materials for students to create stories of their own and to practice speaking, listening, and writing standards in the process.

Arrow writes that their bookmaking interests eventually carried over into other areas of learning. For example, one student created a number book. After Arrow shared it with the class, number books became popular, and her students were referencing number grids and creating their own number books that helped them count and identify large numbers in the process.

“Once my students had experienced play-based learning, they were more focused, motivated, and purposeful,” writes Arrow. “Most important, they were happier. Bringing play-based learning to my classroom created balance, deepened our learning, and defined our classroom community as a place where we could learn and grow together.”

When to Step In

As children play, teachers should be observing closely to gather insights about the way students are learning and use open-ended questions, hints, and prompts to gently nudge students and encourage deeper thinking. You might step in “when a child appears to find an activity too difficult or too easy” so that you “can help them learn beyond what might be possible in independent play,” the researchers say.

For example, when children are playing with blocks, open-ended questions can be posed to encourage problem-solving, prediction, and hypothesizing, according to veteran teacher and curriculum manager for Edmentum Winnie O’Leary. A teacher can bring awareness to math standards by asking students low-stakes questions such as “I wonder how tall this tower can get?” or “I wonder how many blocks you need to make that tower as tall as your friend’s?”

Simple questions can also encourage practice recalling information and identifying shapes, objects, or colors, according to O’Leary. During a game of Go Fish, for example, you can ask, “Hey, who had the number 4 in the last round?” Or during a game of Uno you might ask, “Hmm, what color card do you need to add to the center deck?” Games involving strategy—like checkers or tic-tac-toe—are great to get students thinking critically about their objectives and how to adjust them based on what is happening during the game. Try questions like “I wonder what move you could have made to win?”

Use these strategies wisely, though, the researchers caution. In the end, hints and questions should not feel like directives.

Christakis agrees, telling Edutopia that she often coaches teachers to stay away from “checking questions” such as “What color is the apple?” or “What are you drawing?” Instead, she says, teachers should ask questions like “Tell me about your drawing.”

“The open-ended response really opens up a huge space for spontaneous and deep learning,” Christakis says. 

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5 Of The Best Educational Apps For Kids Of All Ages

Swift Playgrounds

In “The Fundamentals of Swift ” users are taught concepts such as commands, functions, loops, and so much more. As your character, Byte, progresses through the world, more difficult concepts will need to be learnt to overcome certain tasks. Once a foundation is built, you can move on to more complex modules and even code for toys like the Lego Mindstorms or Parrot drones.


Duolingo is a fantastic app for picking up a new language, available on Android, iOS, and the browser. The app is broken into small pieces of learning material, meant to take up just about fifteen minutes of your day for each session. With this, a variety of mini games allows you to more easily learn and maintain the material.

As you progress through the material, previously learnt material is interweaved into the lessons. Stay motivated through a streak count which is logged when you spend time each day. In addition, missing too many questions and “losing” hearts will require restarting the lesson. This prevents you from breezing through the information without retaining all of it. All in all, Duolingo is more personable and a lot better than learning in grade school.


One shortcoming, though, is that if the teacher does not support or use the app in their classroom, the students will not be able to either. Recently, forms of cheating within the app (such as pressing and holding on a word and tapping to view a definition) have led faculty to try to implement apps like Canvas into the classroom instead. Even if that is the case, there is room for Edmodo as a superior educational communications and collaboration app.


While this is great and all, many students have found themselves to be using the app as a crutch to complete homework – without actually learning the material. In doing so, come exam time, it’s likely they will fail. It is just important to use Photomath as a resourceful learning tool, and nothing more.

Quizlet Flashcards

Rarely ever is there an app that encapsulates the need for a simple, easy-to-use flashcard app that just works – and yet, Quizlet Flashcards manages to do it. Create your own decks or use decks sourced from the Internet. You can use your voice to create desks and then memorize the material through mini games within the app. It is available for free on both Android and iOS. The full Quizlet experience is available online.


Corbin Telligman

I’m a junior at UT Dallas, a tech enthusiast, an adreneline junkie, and a coffee fanatic.

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The Power Of Delegation In Leadership

Delegation is the assignment of authority and responsibility to another person (normally from a manager to a subordinate) to carry out specific activities.

It allows a manager to divide work among team members, multi-task, and increase efficiency by enabling others to take on certain tasks. Delegation empowers employees by increasing their participation in decision-making and allowing them the opportunity for personal development through learning new skills or taking on additional responsibilities.

The Importance of Delegation in Leadership

Delegation is an important part of the leadership process. It allows leaders to distribute responsibility and tasks among their team members, enabling them to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. By delegating work, leaders can ensure that tasks are completed accurately with minimal errors or delays.

This helps improve communication between team members and encourages collaboration. Additionally, delegation allows for new skills to be developed amongst team members as they gain experience in different areas which can benefit the entire organization in the long run.

Lastly, it also gives team members a sense of ownership over the project which increases motivation and morale within the workplace.

Benefits of Delegation Time Management

When tasks are delegated, it frees up the manager’s time to focus on other important areas of the business. This can help improve efficiency and productivity within the organization. Employee development – By delegating responsibilities to employees, managers have a great opportunity to provide more meaningful work opportunities for their team members.

This helps stimulate their growth and personal development in ways that benefit both them and the organization as a whole. Cost savings – Asking employees to take on additional responsibilities often reduces staffing costs while still ensuring that all tasks get done in a timely manner.

Improved Productivity

When you delegate tasks to others, it frees up time for yourself and other team members to focus on higher-value activities. It can also improve efficiency since delegating tasks allows them to be handled by a person who has specialized knowledge or skills that are better suited to the task. Additionally, delegation increases involvement and engagement among team members as they take ownership of specific tasks.

This increased engagement can bring about improved morale which will lead to greater collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and innovation within the organization. Finally, delegating tasks helps managers build trust amongst their teams as they demonstrate faith in their abilities while providing necessary support and guidance when needed.

Development of team members

Delegation allows team members to develop transferable skills and build on capabilities in areas in which they may lack experience in. It also helps them become more confident by taking ownership of tasks and developing a sense of responsibility for their work.

This can create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to the success of the organization. Delegation enables leaders to focus on strategic activities.

By delegating tasks or responsibilities, leaders are able to focus less on tactical processes or day-to-day operations and instead devote more time to important tasks such as planning, strategy development, etc.

This allows organizations to be nimbler as they respond quickly when changes arise in their market or industry landscape so they can remain competitive among other firms within their sector.

It improves efficiency and productivity because it frees up resources (time especially) that can be used elsewhere while still allowing goals/objectives to be achieved with fewer people needed due to task delegation that is completed effectively.

Improved decision making

By delegating tasks to the right people, decisions are made more quickly and efficiently. This improves decision-making abilities within an organization as employees learn to trust one another and become better informed about their roles and responsibilities.

It also allows projects or processes that require specialized skills to be completed successfully by those who possess them, freeing up other resources for other activities.

Barriers to Delegation

Most often, lack of trust or fear of making mistakes is the primary issue. People may struggle with delegating tasks for fear that someone else won’t do them as well as they would and therefore become anxious about relinquishing control over important projects or initiatives.

On the flip side, people may also hesitate to delegate because they don’t trust their employees enough to do an effective job in completing the task at hand.

Additionally, delegation can also be hindered by a lack of communication between those responsible for delegating tasks and those who will actually carry out the work. Without clear instructions on how each task should be completed effectively, it can be difficult to ensure successful delegation outcomes.

Delegation Process

Delegation allows business leaders to prioritize tasks, assign them appropriately and ensure that each team member has a clear understanding of their individual responsibility within the company. Moreover, delegating decisions enables managers and supervisors to operate in an efficient and organized manner while allowing for maximum growth potential for staff members.

Delegation Techniques

Delegation techniques provide managers with the skills to effectively assign tasks and responsibilities, as well as ensure that delegated work is completed on time. When delegating work, it is important to provide clear instructions regarding what needs to be done, who will do it, and when the task should be completed.

Additionally, delegation should involve giving authority over the task along with adequate resources so that employees can complete their work efficiently. Lastly, setting deadlines for the completion of the assigned task keeps people accountable and encourages them to stay focused on their objectives.


The power of delegation in leadership is undeniable. Leaders who delegate effectively can unlock a wealth of potential from their team, enabling them to increase productivity and achieve better results for the organization as a whole.

Delegation allows leaders to manage large projects with ease, while also freeing up more time and energy to focus on other important tasks.

By trusting their team members and providing clear instructions and expectations, successful leaders are able to encourage collaboration and creativity while still maintaining control over the outcome. Ultimately, effective delegation is an essential tool for any leader who wants to maximize success within their organization.

The Best Free Iphone And Ipad Math Apps For Kids

Educational apps for iPhone and iPad are plentiful. And it’s with good reason. Putting a device in the hands of your child can help teach them something new or practice what they’ve already learned. And since math can be a difficult subject for kids of any age, using a teaching tool that makes it more enjoyable for them is a great way for them to learn.

If you’re thinking about getting a math app for your child, we’ve assembled a terrific list. All apps are available for free but some come with in-app purchases for extra features – like many free apps. But this gives you a wonderful way to try out the app to see if you and your child like it before spending any money.

Best iPhone and iPad math apps for children

These are all excellent math apps for kids and are definitely worth a look. So, they are are listed here in no particular order.


Start with a basic lesson based on your child’s age and grade. This includes counting, addition, multiplication, and division. And you can customize the plan if you feel your child needs to concentrate on something specific.

Your child completes math puzzle missions to earn “doubloons” with their correct answers. They can then meet more monsters and use doubloons to buy them items.

MathTango covers a variety of math equations and concepts, has over 500 puzzles in more than 40 math levels, and is intended for children ages 5 through 10.

Availability: iPhone and iPad

Cost: Free with in-app purchase options for lesson packs and subscriptions

Monster Math

With Monster Math, your child plays as a kooky monster named Maxx through his journey in Monster Land. He, with the help of your child, collects candies by solving equations to defeat TikTok, the evil monster who has captured his best friend.

Your child can play through story mode or just do the practice equations. Both include addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They simply tap to grab all the candies that solve the particular equation within the time frame and then move on for more fun and learning.

Monster Math concentrates on Common Core Standards, teaches multiple skills at once, and is intended for children in grades one through three.

Availability: iPhone, iPad, and Android

Cost: Free with in-app purchase options to unlock the full version of the standalone app or subscriptions to the math program

Moose Math – Duck Duck Moose

If your little one likes cuddly animals more than cute monsters, check out Moose Math- Duck Duck Moose where your child will build a city using their math skills.

Pick a building to construct and then go inside for some fun math puzzles. They can concoct Moose Juice by adding the right number of ingredients, find hidden pets by counting the number of dots, or lead an animal to the goal by connecting numbers in the right sequence.

Moose Math helps your child with numbers, counting, addition and subtraction, geometry, and measurements. And all within a colorful and upbeat learning environment.

This app also concentrates on Common Core Standards, offers a report card section for parents to review, and is intended for children ages 3 through 7.

Availability: iPhone, iPad, and Android

Cost: Free

Math Kids – Add, Subtract, Count

With each lesson, your boy or girl hears words of encouragement if they take a little extra time figuring out the answer. The app has vibrant colors, lively music, and help from Lucas if they need it.

The Math Kids app supports six languages, has a report card for parents, and is intended for children from pre-K through first grade.

Availability: iPhone, iPad, Mac, Android, and Windows

Cost: Free

Wrapping it up

For more apps for kids, take a look at these cursive writing apps iPhone and iPad or these typing apps for Mac.

Car, Factory, And Power Plant Pollution Can Be Damaging To Kids’ Mental Health

There is no doubt that air pollution is bad for human health. It is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and is an enormous risk factor for morbidity and mortality worldwide. More recently, a growing body of research shows air pollution can also have detrimental impacts on the brain. 

A new study tracked a cohort of over 2,000 individuals in the United Kingdom throughout childhood and adolescence to discover links between mental health and pollution. The long-term study found higher rates of symptoms related to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia in those exposed to fine particulates and nitrogen oxides from cars, factories, and power plants. 

Aaron Reuben, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Duke University and study author, says researchers recognized a potential link between exposure to pollutants and brain health back in the 1990s. Studies over the past two decades have shown some alarming connections between fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, and cognitive decline, which could lead to dementia. 

[Related: Tiny air pollutants may come from different sources, but they all show a similar biased trend.]

This new study uses longitudinal data from a cohort of children born in England and Wales who have regularly participated in health evaluations from birth throughout childhood until they reached adulthood. Scientists evaluated the mental health of the participants when they reached age 18. 

“We asked them about symptoms across 10 important mental disorders, so things like depression, anxiety, psychosis, alcohol dependence,” Reuben says. Then the researchers took this data and used it to calculate one number called a “psychopathology factor,” which would be higher if the person had more mental health issues. When comparing exposure to environmental pollutants throughout childhood to the test results, the researchers found higher rates of mental illness symptoms in those exposed to the most pollution throughout their youth.

Children that grew up in areas with high rates of nitrogen oxides in their neighborhoods from ages 10 to 18 struggled the most once they reached adulthood. “Nitrogen oxides were the most strongly implicated in our findings,” Reuben says, “but we can’t say if that was necessarily, you know, nitrogen oxides themselves, or other things related to traffic emissions that come alongside nitrogen oxides.” 

This may, Reuben says, “help explain a long term trend that we’ve known about for many years, which is that people who live in cities tend to be at greater risk of schizophrenia and psychosis.”

[Related: Living in the same city doesn’t mean breathing the same air.]

Of course, pollution isn’t the only thing that can affect a person’s mental health. But when corrected for other factors, like family history and neighborhood environment characteristics, the data still stood, Reuban says. 

“None of our results changed when we made these high-quality adjustments,” he says. “That makes us pretty confident that what we’re seeing is actually a unique independent effect of air pollution on the development of mental health problems.” 

While scientists know that air pollution can harm the brain, the mechanisms for the harm are still elusive. There is some evidence, Reuben says, that pollution traveling through the nose to the brain can have a direct impact on the brain. “But it seems that even greater contributors are probably what we call systemic inflammation,” where small pollutants invade the lungs and cause a “cascade of inflammatory actions that then seem to reach the brain and cause inflammation.” Research has shown that the body’s immune response causes inflammation, which may then be linked to mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorders, but this needs more examination in the future.

Reuben says this study shows that even in areas such as the UK (which barely breaks the top 100 most polluted countries in the world), people are feeling the mental strain of pollution. More research must be done on the young residents of other countries, like China and India, with locations that suffer even greater amounts of pollution. 

The Year In Theater: Incite Festival Provides Arts Network For Students, Young Alums

This year, Boston University’s actors, directors, and playwrights brought an exciting year of theater to campus. From the Opera Institute’s production of The Magic Flute to the week-long InCite Arts Festival produced by the College of Fine Arts, the performances showcased a wide array of BU talent. This week, BU Today is revisiting the year in theater at Boston University.

InCite Festival Provides Arts Network for Students, Young Alums

On the first night of the InCite Arts Festival, the cast of the operetta The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, based on an essay by neurologist Oliver Sacks, faced an intimidating challenge: the author was in the audience.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” says Gideon Dabi (CFA’07), the baritone who played the “man” of the title — the patient in the famous neurological case study. “This was the first time I’d done a role like this — I had just finished The Magic Flute, and I was a bird-catcher with feathers coming out of my head — and I wanted to honor this man, not exploit him.”

The challenge of performing and exhibiting in front of new and daunting audiences — which included Boston University alumni, current and prospective students, and casting agents — was part of the excitement of the InCite festival, conceived as a way to showcase the strengths of the young up-and-coming artists from the College of Fine Arts. The festival, which ran from March 9 through 15 in New York, featured plays, concerts, gallery exhibitions, and theater showcases from current students and young alumni. The CFA administration hopes to hold similar festivals in major metropolitan areas around the country annually.

“This is an exposure and an experience that we hope enhances their training and that they can take with them through the rest of their artful lives,” says Walt Meissner (CFA’81), CFA dean ad interim. “There are so many agendas going on here: the training of our students, reconnecting with our alumni, and using this to reach the students who have inquired about coming to the College of Fine Arts next year.”

The events, attended by about 1,600 people, showcased work from CFA’s schools of visual arts, theatre, and music. Besides The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the festival featured the plays Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, These Worlds in Us, and Sow and Weep, by Nitzan Halperin (CFA’07), and a selection of works performed by the Boston University Chamber Orchestra.

A weeklong exhibition at the Robert Steele Gallery displayed the work of eight first- and second-year M.F.A. students from the school of visual arts. Lynne Allen, the school’s director, says that the festival allowed students to experience the selection process, but mostly it was a way for them to celebrate their peers.

“It’s just about us, making them feel like they’re part of a family at BU,” she says. “And that’s really nice.”

The festival also forged links between the undergraduates and young alumni. For example, young actors, casting directors, and playwrights working in New York participated in a panel discussion for acting and theater majors. Panelists included actress Tala Ashe (CFA’06), currently appearing on As the World Turns, playwright Daria Polatin (CFA’00), whose play A Fair Affair won the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival prize for best one-act play, and Kaipo Schwab (CFA’93), an actor and director.

After the discussion, students said that the week in New York had been fun, but more important, the interactions with other students and alumni had made them feel more secure about their artistic careers after college.

“It was nice to see the different levels people are at and the decisions you can make after you graduate from this program,” says theater arts major Danya LaBelle (CFA’08). “And there are people we can go to to help us out. I didn’t realize that the BU network was so strong.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at [email protected]. Edward A. Brown can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally ran on March 20, 2008.

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