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.
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.
In our study, children aged 4-5 play with a complicated new toy in order to figure out how it works. The toy can do many different things – it has parts that move, light up, or make sounds. We ask half of the children to imagine how the toy might work and what it might do. For the other half of the children, the researcher “accidentally” discovers one thing the toy can do (e.g., “Oh look, pushing this end turns on the light!”). All of the children are then given one minute to play with the toy on their own. Afterward, we ask them to show us how to make the toy do various things (e.g., How can you turn the light on? How can you make the bell ring? etc.).
We predict that when children imagine what the toy might do before playing, they will discover more possible ways to make the toy work during exploration. This research will show whether pretending can help children learn cause and effect relationships.
Learn about other research related to Learning Through Play.
This research is conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT