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.

Current Research

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Can video games change children’s ideas about nutrition?

Previous research has shown that television advertising can influence children’s food choices and their understanding of healthy eating habits. In our research, we want to find out whether online games that feature candy, cakes, and other foods can have the same effect.

Completed Research

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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.

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How does an object’s name affect children’s expectations during 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?

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Do children’s theories about the world affect their play?

Before children hold an adult-like "mass theory" of balance (e.g., that objects balance at their center of mass), they hold a "center theory", believing that an object will balance in the middle regardless of the center of mass. This study investigated whether children who had different theories would choose to play with the same toy in different ways.

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Do children play more when evidence is not clear?

It is widely believed that children learn by playing, but how does this happen?

This study asked: do children play in more diverse ways with a toy when it is not clear which cause, among several possible causes, makes the toy 'go'.


Do children play more when evidence is not clear?

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.

Previous Research

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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.

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Does pretend play help children learn about cause and effect?

Young children often play by pretending, but does this kind of play also help them learn? In this study, we’re interested in finding out how children use their imagination to help them understand cause and effect relationships in new situations.

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How does expectation affect exploration?

Children are able to learn a lot about the world from very little information. This study examines whether the exploratory behavior of children, ages 3-5, is affected by subtle language cues.

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Do children prefer to explore toys that provide clear evidence?

Previous research shows that children often explore toys in ways that help them figure out cause and effect relationships. However it is not always possible to figure out exactly how a toy works.

This study asks: Do children prefer playing with a toy for which they can gather evidence to figure out how it works, or a similar toy where the exact causes for effects cannot be figured out?