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.