Museum of Science, Boston

Learning Through Play

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.

Balancing Blocks

Do children’s theories about the world affect their 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:

  • Children who were Center Theorists (around ages 6-7) played more with the block after researchers showed them that it could balance when placed off-center. Many of these children changed their ideas about how objects balance after they had a chance to continue playing with the block.

  • Children who were Mass Theorists (around ages 7-8) played with the block more when they saw it balance at its center, and many of them thought that it stayed up because of a magnet or other “trick.”
  • Younger children (ages 4-6) usually had no preconceived ideas about how things should balance, and often chose to play with the new toy rather than the block, since they weren’t surprised by any evidence that the researchers showed them.

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.

Other Resources

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

Try it at the Museum

Building with Blocks

Observe your child play with the foam blocks on the second floor of the Discovery Center.

Where does your child try to balance each block?

Can your child find the point on each block where it can balance?

Is your child a "mass theorist" or a "center theorist"?

Sending a Message

Have your child send a message in the capsule of the message tube. Ask your child to predict how the capsule will travel through the tube.

What happens when you press the green button?

What will happen if you open the message tube door as the capsule is in motion?

If their prediction is wrong, does your child try to figure out why?

Try it at Home

Floating Paperclip

Ask your child to guess whether a paper clip can float in water. If you drop a paper clip in a cup of water, its natural tendency is to sink to the bottom of the cup. However, by carefully placing the paper clip on top of the water without breaking the surface tension, you can make a paper clip float! How does your child react as his/her guess is supported or refuted?