It is widely believed that children learn by playing, but if you observe children’s play activities, you may notice that the process of ‘playing’ is inherently unsystematic. This contradiction has made the question of how children learn during play of particular interest to parents, teachers and researchers. To find out what play is all about, cognitive scientists have developed and are testing theories about how children might learn through play.
Before children hold an adult-like "mass theory" of balance (e.g., that objects balance at their center of mass), they hold a "center theory", believing that an object will balance in the middle regardless of the center of mass. This study investigated whether children who had different theories would choose to play with the same toy in different ways.
In one condition, children were shown an L-shaped block “balanced” at its geometric center. This evidence should surprise children with a mass theory, while center theorists should not be surprised. In the second condition, children were shown the same L-shaped block, this time balanced off to one side, at its center of mass. This evidence should surprise children with a center theory, while mass theorists should not be surprised.
In both conditions, we then gave children the L-shaped block on its balance and a new toy that they had never played with. We predicted children would play more with the block if it was balanced where they would not expect, but would play more with the new toy if they were shown unsurprising evidence.
We found that children did play more with the L-shaped block when researchers showed them surprising evidence:
This study demonstrated that children’s theories about the world can influence how they play. When playing with the same toy, children’s ideas about how it should work affected how they explored it and how long they spent trying to figure it out, especially when the evidence they saw conflicted with their original theory. This shows that children are motivated to play in order to gather evidence about the world and revise their ideas.
This research was presented at the Twenty-Ninth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, and has been submitted to peer review. You can download and read the draft paper: Weighing the evidence: Children’s naïve theories of balance affect their exploratory play here.
Learn about other research related to Learning Through Play.
This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT