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.


Is learning affected by the kinds of evidence generated during play?

Preschool children may be able to learn causal relationships from small amounts of evidence. This study examined how children learn new theories without any previous knowledge, and how quickly this learning can take place.

In this study, children saw two blocks that acted like magnets attached to a stand: a yellow ‘north block’ and a blue ‘south block’. Children then saw white blocks that had ‘lost their color’ and were asked to sort them into two groups (they were allowed to test each block first). We predicted that children would sort white blocks that stuck to the yellow block in the yellow group, and white blocks that stuck to the blue block in the blue group. After sorting, children played with the blocks on their own, gathering evidence about which blocks stick or repel. We then asked children to sort the blocks again. We predicted that children would have trouble sorting the blocks into meaningful groups, because they could get direct evidence from sticking the two ‘known’ blocks together.

In another condition, the known yellow and blue blocks were not attached to a stand. Children were again shown white blocks that had ‘lost their color’ and were asked to sort them - we predicted that they will sort them in the same way as children in the first condition. However, during free play these children were able to generate evidence by sticking the two original blocks together, demonstrating that blue blocks stick to yellow blocks. Because children in the second condition were able to generate new, direct evidence that conflicted with their first sorting, we predicted that they would be more likely to properly re-sort the blocks into meaningful groups than children in the first condition.

The results of this study indicated that preschoolers' prior beliefs affect their interpretation of new evidence, and that, in turn, new evidence affects preschoolers' beliefs about the world.

Other Resources

This research was published in Cognition in 2008. You can download and read the paper: Going beyond the evidence: Abstract laws and preschoolers’ responses to anomalous data 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

Investigate like a Geologist!

What kinds of materials will stick to a magnet?
Have your child divide the tools in the Geology Field Station based on which tools they think will stick to a magnet and which tools won’t stick. Help your child test his/her theory using the magnet strip.

Next, help your child to pick ten rocks and divide them into piles of rocks s/he thinks will stick to a magnet and rocks s/he thinks wouldn’t stick. Test these rocks on the magnet strip and ask your child if s/he wants to make new groups.

Does your child form a new theory about what kinds of objects can stick to a magnet and what objects cannot?

Try it at Home

Sinking and Floating

The next time your child takes a bath, turn ‘bath time’ into ‘science time’ by exploring what sinks and what floats. Find objects to test, such as plastic utensils, aluminum foil, apples and bath toys.

Have your child guess which objects will belong to the ‘floating group’ and which belong to the ‘sinking group’. Show your child what happens when you drop an object in the water, and have him/her test some objects independently.

If an object behaves in an unexpected way, does your child revise his/her theory and try to regroup the objects?