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.

Colors and Labels

Can children use labels to figure out the properties of objects?

Adults understand that labels or symbols can have different meanings:
they can represent something or tell you about the properties of an object (e.g., a skull and crossbones might tell you that something is poisonous). We want to figure out whether children can also use symbols to make judgments about new objects they encounter.

To find out, we showed children (ages 2-3) a toy that can light up when a disk is placed on top. Some children see both a red and a yellow disk placed on the toy, but only the red disk makes the toy light up. Then we give children two new disks (one red and one yellow) and ask them to try to make the toy light up. We predict that children will quickly choose the red disk and will not explore the yellow disk.

In another condition, we show another group of children two white disks, and we label one with a red sticker and the other with a yellow sticker. We show them that only the disk with the red sticker makes the toy light up. Then we give them two new white disks, place red and yellow stickers on them, and ask children to try to make the toy light up. We predict that children will spend more time exploring both disks in this condition, because they have seen that both disks are the same underneath the stickers.

If children pay attention to the stickers when playing with the disks, this study might suggest that children think that a label (in this case, a colored sticker) can symbolize other properties of an object (in this case, whether the disk will make the toy light up). However, if children ignore the stickers, this might suggest that children believe you can alter the internal properties of an object simply by changing its appearance.

This study will help us understand how children learn about labels and symbols, and the things that they represent.

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

Insides versus Outsides

Try out different costumes and masks and pretend to be different animals. When you put on a costume or a mask, do you “become” that animal, or are you always the same underneath? When children put on a bee costume, how do they change their behavior to suit their new appearance? What bee behaviors do they show you (flying, stinging, making honey)?

Labels and Features

Find the animal masks and costumes in the Discovery Center’s Children’s Gallery. What aspects of the costumes’ appearance tell you that it is a skunk, a beaver, a robin, or a bee? What colors, shapes, or features symbolize each animal and help you and your child recognize what it is and what it can do?

Try it at Home

Find the toy!

Play a hide-and-seek game with your child by hiding a small toy underneath three identical cups. Label the cup that has the toy inside with a sticker. Once your child has found the toy, shuffle the positions of the cups and play again! Is your child faster to find the toy this time? After a few guesses, children may learn that the sticker labels the cup with the toy inside. Could they use any other clues to help them guess which cup to pick?