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.


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.

In this study, an experimenter shows children a toy with various discoverable “properties” and presents a nonsense verb (such as “glin”) describing something the toy can do. The verb provides the child with a subtle cue about an obvious property of the toy. For example, words that begin with “gl-“ often are related to properties of light (i.e. glow, gleam, glisten, glitter…).

The study asks: will children play with this toy in different ways, perhaps searching for specific types of outcomes (e.g. a light), depending on how the toy is initially described to them?

Once the experimenter introduces the toy and the nonsense verb, the child is given a chance to play with the toy on his own. When the experimenter returns, she asks the child to demonstrate how the toy works.

We are interested in understanding how children use subtle verbal information to explore the toys’ properties. We are looking to see whether children will predictably label the named property by using knowledge of words that they are familiar with. Additionally, we would like to know whether children will explore the toy differently depending on how they match the verb to a property.

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

Explore Electricity!

Take your child to the Electricity exhibit, on the second floor of the Discovery Center, and show him or her how to build a parallel circuit using the light, the buzzer, and the motor. Once this circuit is built, establish that you just built a circuit that “glins!” Let your child observe and play with this circuit for a moment, and then ask him or her to tell you what the circuit does.

Will s/he only point out that the light turns on, associating the “gl-” word with the light property of the circuit? Or will s/he note that the motor and buzzer are working as well?

Try it at Home

Match the word to the object

Pick three household items, one of which has a property that clearly makes it very different from the other two. For example, take a sponge, a pencil, and a marker. Create some nonsense words to describe a property of one of the objects. For example, many words that are associated with a sponge begin with “squ-” (squish, squirt, squeeze), so you might make up a word like “squimp” to describe what a sponge does.

Then, place the objects up in front of your child and ask him which of the items “squimps”. Will he manipulate the objects to explore their properties before deciding? Or will he go straight for the sponge by associating “sq-” with familiar sponge qualities?