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.

A popbeads

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?

Children, aged 3-5 years, see that certain snap-together beads that are placed on a ‘machine’ make the machine light up and play music, while other beads do not have any effect on the machine. Next, we show children pairs of snap-together beads- some pairs can be pulled apart, and some pairs are glued together- and children are allowed to play with the beads on their own.

We predict that children in this study will play more with the bead pairs that can be pulled apart, anxious to figure out exactly which bead will make the machine work.

This would show that children are sensitive to the difference between informative evidence (provided by bead pairs that can be separated to determine which bead is the true cause) and uninformative evidence (provided by beads that are glued together).

This would also show that children prefer to play with toys that are informative, helping us better understand how children learn about the world through play.

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!

Learn about electricity with your child on the second floor of the Discovery Center. Try to create a circuit to make a light bulb glow brightly, a motor spin, or a buzzer beep in our Electricity Exhibit.

Can your child figure out how to connect the pieces to make something turn on? Does your child gravitate to certain pieces when creating his/her circuit?

What kinds of evidence does your child draw on to help him/her make a circuit?

Try it at Home

How informative are toys?

Children love to play and have their minds and bodies engaged through experiences with new places, people, and games. At home, find a few toys or games that your child plays with often, and some that s/he plays with infrequently.

Watch your child play with these toys and pay attention to what kinds of toys s/he gravitates toward. What types of toys does your child prefer to play with?

Does your child play more with toys that offer evidence about how they work?

Are there other patterns that you notice in your child’s play?