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.


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'.

A two-paneled mat was placed in front of children so that the white panel was closer to the child and the black panel was farther away. Children in one condition saw that a blue block placed on the white panel makes a red toy light up, and then saw that a yellow block on the black panel makes a green toy light up. This is called confounded evidence because it is not clear which variable—the type of panel or the type of block—causes the toy to light up.

Children in the second condition saw that the blue block makes the red toy light up when placed on either panel. Similarly, the yellow block makes the green toy light up when placed on either panel. This is called unconfounded evidence because it is clear that the type of block determines which toy lights up.

In both conditions, children were then given a chance to play on their own. We predicted that children shown confounded evidence would try both sides of the mat and discover that it is the type of block determines which toy lights up. We predicted that children shown unconfounded evidence would primarily use the side of the mat that is closer, because they would already know that it is the type of block, not the side of the mat, that determines which toy lights up.

This research helped us better understand whether children are sensitive to different kinds of evidence, which may be one way that children are able to learn through play.

Other Resources

This research was presented at the 30th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, and is in peer review. You can download and read the draft paper: Stretching to learn: Ambiguous evidence and variability in preschoolers’ exploratory play 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

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?