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.
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