The research evaluated 28 different early education programmes. It found the best approaches were those that provided a planned curriculum and emphasised teacher-led practice, supported by so-called structured "child-chosen" activities.
Oli de Botton, senior consultant at the CfBT Education Trust and author of the report, admitted early education should balance the discipline of teaching with play. But he claimed teacher intervention and use of academic materials improve outcomes significantly, particularly for the most deprived children.
"Effective programmes didn't exclude play, but they did include a significant amount of teacher-directed activity," he explained.
But SkillsActive national programme manager Leslie Godfrey argued that free, unstructured play is vital to early education because it teaches children to make independent choices and assess risk.
Curriculum-based programmes such as the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are weighted too heavily towards teaching, she warned.
"I'm not convinced we've got the balance right," she said. "EYFS was expected to be delivered through play, but the reality is that, in many places, it isn't."
Action for Children chief executive Dame Clare Tickell is conducting an independent review of the EYFS on behalf of the government. She will provide a final report on the review in spring 2011. The government will consult on any proposed changes before they take effect from September 2012.
Source: Children & Young People Now