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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Early Childhood

July 2018


What does research say about the connections between play-based learning and pedagogies to early literacy, early numeracy, and social-emotional learning in early childhood?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the connections between play-based learning and pedagogies to early literacy, early numeracy, and social-emotional learning in early childhood. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to preschool settings. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Farran, D. C., Wilson, S. J., Meador, D., Norvell, J., & Nesbitt, K. (2011). Experimental evaluation of the Tools of the Mind pre-k curriculum. Nashville, TN: Peabody Research Institute. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The experimental evaluation of the ‘Tools of the Mind Pre-K Curriculum’ described in this report was designed to examine the effectiveness of the ‘Tools of the Mind’ (‘Tools’) curriculum for enhancing children’s self-regulation skills and their academic preparation for kindergarten when compared to the usual prekindergarten curricula in use in the school system. In order to assess the long-term impacts of ‘Tools’ on student academic achievement and self-regulation outcomes, students were followed into kindergarten and first grade. Participating classrooms were also observed three times during the prekindergarten year using multiple measures designed to capture implementation fidelity as well as child and teacher behaviors in the classroom. The project was fortunate to have participants from Franklin Special School District, Lebanon Special School District, Wilson County School District, and Cannon County School District in Tennessee as well as Guilford County Schools and Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina. The evaluation involved two cohorts of children. Cohort 1 (2010-2011) included the four Tennessee school systems and Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and involved children from 60 classrooms (‘Tools’ = 32) in 45 schools (‘Tools’ = 25). Cohort 2 (2011-2012) included Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina with children from 20 classrooms (‘Tools’ = 10) in 12 schools (‘Tools’ = 5). The research design investigated the effectiveness of ‘Tools,’ by conducting a longitudinal cluster-randomized experiment to address the questions: (1) Do children in ‘Tools of the Mind’ classrooms improve more in literacy, math, social skills, and exhibit reduced behavior problems during the preschool year than children in ‘business as usual’ comparison classrooms? (2) Do children in ‘Tools of the Mind’ classrooms show greater gains in learning-related self-regulation than children in the comparison classrooms? (3) Are there differential effects of ‘Tools of the Mind’ associated with characteristics of the children? And, (4) Do the effects of participating in a ‘Tools of the Mind’ classroom sustain into kindergarten and first grade? In addition, an extensive battery of observational measures was employed to examine implementation fidelity and other classroom processes that might have mediated the curriculum effects. Overall, the authors found no significant effects of the ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum on literacy, language or mathematics achievement when compared to business as usual classrooms whose teachers used a variety of curricular approaches. Similarly, they found no effects on Self-Regulation. Gains in achievement and self-regulation were correlated, r = 0.35. Additional outcomes and future directions are recommended.”

Lewis Presser, A., Clements, M., Ginsburg, H., & Ertle, B. (2015). Big Math for Little Kids: The effectiveness of a preschool and kindergarten mathematics curriculum. Early Education and Development, 26(3), 399–426. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Big Math for Little Kids (BMLK) is a mathematics curriculum developed for use with 4- and 5-year-old children. To investigate the BMLK curriculum’s effect on children’s mathematics knowledge, this cluster-randomized controlled trial randomly assigned child care centers to provide mathematics instruction to children, using either the BMLK mathematics curriculum or the centers’ business-as-usual curriculum, over a 2-year period when children were in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Participants in the study were 762 children and their teachers at 16 publicly subsidized child care centers. The study assessed children’s mathematics knowledge using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), Direct Mathematics Assessment, a measure of young children’s mathematics knowledge that is not aligned with the curriculum. The ECLS-B scores of children in the BMLK group increased significantly more than did those of children in the comparison group. The study also included exploratory analyses to examine whether children in the BMLK group demonstrated evidence of improved mathematical language.”

McCormick, K. K., & Twitchell, G. (2017). A preschool investigation: The Skyscraper project. Teaching Children Mathematics, 23(6), 340–348. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Young children thrive in classrooms that allow them to explore and discover their environment and interests and also support them in this learning. Because children learn best when they are interested and excited, early-childhood educators should offer children play-based, integrated mathematical experiences (NRC 2009). In this article, the authors describe a meaningful project-based learning experience that intrinsically invites problem solving and mathematical thinking in a preschool classroom. Project-based learning is a learner-driven approach to teaching in which children investigate significant, real-world ideas or problems. Early-childhood, project-based learning allows children to learn through exploring their world of play and further investigate their curiosities and interests.”

DMDRC. (2015). Three approaches to preschoolers’ social and emotional competence: A summary of impact and implementation findings from Head Start CARES. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This summary describes the Head Start CARES research project, which evaluated three classroom-based approaches to enhancing children‚s social-emotional development: (1) The Incredible Years Teacher Training Program; (2) Preschool PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies); and (3) Tools of the Mind—Play. The three social-emotional approaches tested in Head Start CARES were called ‘enhancements’ because they complemented and enriched classroom practices that already existed. The effects, or ‘impacts,’ of the enhancements were rigorously evaluated by randomly assigning approximately 100 Head Start centers to one of the three enhancements (the program group) or to a control group that continued with ‘business as usual.’ On average, coaches and trainers rated implementation across the year for each enhancement at or above a satisfactory threshold for quality implementation. Compared with the control classrooms, each enhancement also improved the specific teacher practice it was meant to affect: The Incredible Years improved teachers’ classroom management; PATHS bolstered teachers’ social-emotional instruction; and Tools of the Mind–Play increased the degree to which teachers structured peer interactions and play. Two of the three enhancements also showed consistent positive impacts on a range of children’s social-emotional outcomes in preschool, although not always as predicted.”

Phillips, D. A., Lipsey, M. W., Dodge, K. A., Haskins, R., Bassok, D., Burchinal, M. R., ... & Weiland, C. (2017). The current state of scientific knowledge on pre-kindergarten effects. Durham, NC: Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The question of how the U.S. will develop a citizenry with the skills necessary to meet the challenges of the 21st century has attracted the attention of legislators, scientists, and educators. Answering this question leads inevitably to its roots: how well are we preparing young children to enter kindergarten ready to learn? Educators in k-12 school systems are faced with wide disparities in skill levels of entering kindergarteners, which means that all too many children are already far behind many of their peers. Findings in developmental science point toward the importance of early-life experiences in shaping brain development and suggest that if we knew how to provide these experiences in our early education programs, we could have a lifelong impact on children’s success. The quality and reliability of early experiences and environments are the building blocks of early brain architecture. Parents and trained adult caregivers who are in tune with a child provide the ‘serve and return’ stimuli through conversation, interactive play, guided exploration, and orderly progression that serve as the raw materials of early child development. Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods, violence, lack of services, and the stresses of poverty combine to make it difficult for a family to provide optimal stimulation and stability during a child’s early years. The result is that a disproportionate number of children from low income families lack optimal environments and stimulating experiences and thus enter kindergarten already behind their peers in intellectual and social-emotional development. In recent years, families across the entire income spectrum have experienced increasing stress due to such challenges as making financial ends meet, working multiple jobs, and/or raising a child as a single parent. The good news, according to numerous studies, is that children attending publicly-funded pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared for kindergarten than similar children who have not attended pre-k. While some studies have shown that the advantages persist well into elementary school, two reports have led some policymakers to question whether pre-k can provide the persistent effects that undergird an ambitious agenda for pre-kindergarten programs. Previous studies have found positive impacts on children’s skills at the end of the pre-k year but not later in elementary school. These findings have caused policymakers and educators to turn to the scientific community for clarification about the likely impacts of pre-k programs and identification of those factors that might distinguish effective early learning programs. Although the early years are not the only time when a child’s development can be influenced, evidence suggests that the year before kindergarten is an opportune period. In order to understand how to use the new phenomenon of pre-k to boost early learning and to provide a stronger base over time for skill acquisition, a Pre-Kindergarten Task Force of interdisciplinary scientists reviewed the evidence on the impact of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and set out to bring science to bear on the current state of knowledge and its implications for the path forward. The report begins with a description of the pre-kindergarten landscape in America today. Another group took in all available information, reached consensus on the six major conclusions that form the basis for this report. A consensus statement summarizes the findings. Subsequent topical chapters commissioned and authored by individual scholars offer insights to assist policymakers in reaching decisions.”

Pyle, A., DeLuca, C., & Danniels, E. (2017). A scoping review of research on play-based pedagogies in kindergarten education. Review of Education. 5(3), 311–351. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Across a number of countries, play-based learning is the mandated pedagogy in early years’ curricula. However, a lack of consensus remains both in research and practice regarding the value and role of play in children’s learning. This scoping review analyses 168 articles addressing play-based learning for 4-5 year old children divided into three categories: research on play for developmental learning, research on play for academic learning and factors influencing play in kindergarten classrooms. Much of the research endorsed play as fulfilling an important role in early learning. However, two disparate perspectives concerning the role of play for developmental versus academic learning demonstrate different orientations towards the value and potential benefits of play. Research focused on developmental learning endorsed the use of free play and a passive teacher role, while research focused on academic learning endorsed teacher-directed and mutually directed play where the teacher fulfills an active play role. A similar lack of consensus was found among research with educators regarding the role and benefits of play. These findings indicate a need to move away from a binary stance regarding play and towards an integration of perspectives and practices, with different types of play perceived as complementary rather than incompatible.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Stegelin, D. A. (2005). Making the case for play policy: Research-based reasons to support play-based environments. Young Children, 60(2), 76–85. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article can help teachers and directors become eloquent and effective advocates of play-based early learning environments. It defines play and play policy and discusses distinct research areas that support play policy and practice for physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development within diverse early childhood settings. Also presented are three anecdotal examples of current challenges to play-based curriculum. In this article, the author discusses the definitions of play that emerge from three perspectives: (1) the exploratory and open-ended nature of play; (2) the intrinsic, evolutionary, and synergistic nature of play; and (3) the developmental aspects of play. Among other things, she discusses three research foci, namely: (1) active play and health-related indicators; (2) brain research—the critical link between play and optimal cognitive and physical development; and (3) the link between play, early literacy, and social competence.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Toub, T. S., Hassinger-Das, B., Nesbitt, K. T., Ilgaz, H., Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., ... & Dickinson, D. K. (2018). The language of play: Developing preschool vocabulary through play following shared book-reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 1–17. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Two studies explored the role of play in a vocabulary intervention for low-income preschoolers. Both studies presented new vocabulary through book-readings. Study 1 children (N = 249; Mage = 59.19 months) were also randomly assigned to participate in Free Play, Guided Play, or Directed Play with toys relating to the books. Guided and Directed Play conditions involved different styles of adult support. Although children in all conditions showed significant gains in knowledge of target vocabulary words, children in both adult-supported conditions showed significantly greater gains than children experiencing Free Play. In Study 2, classroom teachers implemented our procedures instead of researchers. All children (N = 101; Mage = 58.65 months) reviewed half the vocabulary words through a hybrid of guided and directed play and half the words through a picture card review activity. Children showed significant pre- to post-test gains on receptive and expressive knowledge for both sets of taught words, but they also showed significantly greater expressive vocabulary gains for words reviewed through play. These results suggest that there are unique benefits of adult-supported play-based activities for early vocabulary growth.”

Wager, A. A. (2013). Practices that support mathematics learning in a play-based classroom. In L. D. English & J. T. Mulligan (Eds.), Reconceptualizing Early Mathematics Learning (pp. 163–81). New York, NY: Springer. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This chapter reports on the opportunities to learn mathematics in a public, play-based preK classroom. In response to an education climate that encourages increasingly academic practices in early childhood classrooms, the case study presented here provides an example of how teachers’ purposeful practices can provide children with rich opportunities to learn powerful mathematics. I propose an interpretation of ‘focused’ instruction that minimizes teacher-centered practices and privileges play in which a teacher (a) plans and prepares for mathematics learning; (b) builds on children’s understanding, interests and cultural practices; and (c) recognizes and responds to mathematics that emerges in play.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(2), 104–112. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Decades of research demonstrate that a strong curricular approach to preschool education is important for later developmental outcomes. Although these findings have often been used to support the implementation of educational programs based on direct instruction, we argue that ‘guided play’ approaches can be equally effective at delivering content and are more developmentally appropriate in their focus on child-centered exploration. Guided play lies midway between direct instruction and free play, presenting a learning goal, and scaffolding the environment while allowing children to maintain a large degree of control over their learning. The evidence suggests that such approaches often outperform direct-instruction approaches in encouraging a variety of positive academic outcomes. We argue that guided play approaches are effective because they create learning situations that encourage children to become active and engaged partners in the learning process.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

What Works Clearinghouse. (2008). Tools of the Mind. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Tools of the Mind’ is an early childhood curriculum for preschool and kindergarten children, designed to foster children’s executive function through development of self-regulation, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Activities emphasize both executive functioning and academic skills. One study of ‘Tools of the Mind’ meets the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards. The study included more than 200 three- to four-year-old children attending preschool in a low-income, urban school district. The WWC considers the extent of evidence for ‘Tools of the Mind’ to be small for oral language, print knowledge, cognition, and math. No studies that meet the WWC evidence standards with or without reservations addressed phonological processing or early reading/writing.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “4K program”

  • “Child-centered” descriptor:“preschool children”

  • “guided play”

  • “Montessori”

  • “play-based”

  • “Preschool children” “play” “program effectiveness”

  • “Tools of the Mind”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.