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.
This study asked: Do children explore more when the evidence they see conflicts with their assumptions about the physical properties of an object, based on the name the object is called?
We showed preschoolers a set of blocks called ‘blickets.’ Children learned that these blocks were magnetic and would stick to a metal stage. We then showed them a second set of blocks that looked identical, but were not magnetic. Half the children were told these new blocks were also called ‘blickets’, and half of the children were told these new blocks were called ‘feps’. Children were then allowed to play with the new blocks on their own.
When the new blocks were called ‘blickets’ children assumed they were magnetic (like the first set of ‘blickets’), and were surprised when they did not stick to the stage. Children in this condition explored more, trying to stick multiple blocks to the stage. However, when the new blocks were instead called ‘feps’, children did not assume they were magnetic, and were not surprised when they did not stick. Children in this condition explored less, trying fewer of the blocks on the stage.
This study suggests that children are sensitive to the relationship between the name of an object and it’s properties. If children explore more when the evidence they encounter contradicts what they ‘know’ about an object, this may be one way that children learn through play.
This research was published in the journal Developmental Psychology. You can download and read the paper: Word, thought, and deed: The role of object categories in children’s inductive inferences and exploratory play here.
Learn about other research related to Learning Through Play.
This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT