Sara Baker

Play is not a waste of time or just for fun. According to Dr. Baker, play offers children the opportunity to practice sophisticated forms of thinking, such as making plans and decisions, adapting to new circumstances, and problem-solving.

“Play is a really useful context for developing self-regulation in young children” – Dr. Baker

Dr. Baker was drawn to study SRL through her original interest in executive functions – a set of mental skills, such as working memory and impulse control, that students use to plan, focus, and follow directions. As Sara started working more with teachers in classrooms, she realized that SRL offered students an opportunity to develop a more overarching set of skills that could help them achieve in school and life. Dr. Baker views SRL as a major difference-maker that teachers can use in their classrooms to help students achieve their own goals and become successful.

“My research ultimately aims to empower educators and learners to make decisions based on
goals that are meaningful to them” – Dr. Baker

Self-Regulation and Executive Functions in the Early Years 

Dr. Baker’s research explores how play can support young children’s self-regulation and executive functions. Her research challenges the idea that young children can’t regulate themselves, by showing how they do so during play. Dr. Baker has found that during play, young children self-regulate themselves by thinking about their learning, making plans and decisions, and engaging in problem-solving. Playful contexts help children develop these skills because they are active, flexible, led by the learner, open-ended, and challenging. Sara has also found that playful learning environments can be replicated with older children. For example, project-based learning and inquiry projects invite older children to engage in playful forms of learning.

“Project-based learning is a form of playful learning that also has all of those features of being active, open-ended, flexible, and challenging” – Dr. Baker

No matter the age, Dr. Baker has found that learning opportunities that are flexible and open-ended often result in deeper forms of learning and development.

“I’ve learned that children are most engaged in their learning when they have a certain amount of influence over the learning experience, while also benefitting from the guidance of an adult. Finding the balance between space and support is the central challenge” – Dr. Baker

Dr. Baker is extremely grateful for all the wisdom that educators have shared with her over the years. While working with teachers, Dr. Baker establishes a “Community of Practice” that encourages researchers and teachers to collaborate during a series of meetings. Over the course of these meetings, the community explores the current research evidence on a topic of their choice, applies the research in their own classrooms, and discusses how things are going and offers help and support to one another. In her own experience, Sara has found that educators often push her thinking and challenge her research to consider how broader classroom environments can support self-regulation for all learners.

“Working with educators has really challenged my thinking. It’s led me to consider not just the individual … but also the collective setting that children live in and learn in” – Dr. Baker

In return, Sara works hard to create opportunities for educators to continue advancing their own thinking and teaching practices.

“What we try to achieve is a model where we mirror with the educators what we hope they can do with the children that they work with. This model allows our work to feed into educators’ professional development, while being research-informed, and conducted alongside their peers” – Dr. Baker

Sara looks forward to connecting with more educators in the future and co-constructing deeper understandings of how playful learning can support self-regulation and executive functions.


Sara Baker, PhD
Professor of Developmental Psychology and Education, University of Cambridge Faculty of Education 

General Research Interests: 

  • Self-regulated learning/ Executive functions 
  • Professional development for preschool and early primary educators 
  • Measurement approaches and individual differences 
  • Self-regulation in early science education