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.

Jack-in-the-Box

Do children play more when evidence is not clear?

Jack-in-the-Box

This study asks if preschool children recognize there is something to “figure out” about a toy whose cause and effect relationships are not presented clearly.

Preschoolers see a colorful “jack-in-the-box” with two levers. Children in one condition see both levers pushed down at once, causing two toys to pop up at the same time (e.g. a duck and a pig). This is called the confounded condition because they cannot tell which lever controls which toy.

Children in the second condition see one lever pushed down, causing one toy to pop up, and then the other lever pushed down, causing the other toy to pop up. This is called the unconfounded condition because children know which lever controls which toy.

In both conditions we then give children the two-lever box and a new box to play with on their own. Children in the confounded condition play more with the two-lever box, while children in the unconfounded condition are more attracted to the new box.

We found that when it is not clear which lever makes which toy pop up in the red jack-in-the-box, children prefer to continue exploring that box, anxious to “figure out” how it works in the course of their play. This preference may indicate one way that children learn through play.



Other Resources

This research was published in the journal Developmental Psychology. You can download and read the paper: Serious Fun: Preschoolers Engage in More Exploratory Play When Evidence Is Confounded 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

Be a Cognitive Scientist!

The Discovery Center has jack-in-the-boxes similar to those used in this study. During your visit, ask a volunteer to take them out, and try doing the study with your own child.

Will you put your child in the confounded or unconfounded condition?

How do you think your child will react to the toys?

Have an Infant? Babies play too!

Let your baby explore the touch pads of our sea-themed causal learning exhibit.

How does your baby respond to each pad?

Can s/he determine which pad causes the light to turn on?

Which pad causes the seaweed to 'wave'?

Splash! The Science of Water Play

Watch your child play at our water table and ask them to them notice how each toy behaves in the water.

Can your child figure out which toys will sink and which will float, or if the toys flow down the stream in the same way?

How does their play change when a toy behaves in a way they do not expect?

Try it at Home

Exploring Causal Toys

Find a toy in your home that has many buttons or levers that your child can investigate. Does your child take time to push one button or lever down at a time to find out how it works? How long will your child play with one toy before moving on to a new one?