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.

Pretense and Causality

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.

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

Try it at the Museum

Building a nest

The Discovery Center has many opportunities for pretend play! Try building a robin’s nest in our Children’s Gallery. Before beginning, take a look at the twigs and branches surrounding the nest. Ask your child to imagine some different ways to use these materials to build a nest. What kinds of ideas did your child discover? Now show your child one way that robins find food. Does your child come up with other ways to gather food, or do they rely on the information you provided?

Try it at Home

Tower designs

Build a tower out of blocks with your child and imagine different scenarios. What will happen if you remove one of the blocks from the top? What about from the bottom? Why? What will happen if you build a tower with a narrow base, compared to a wide base? Ask your child to predict what might happen in each situation and then give it a try! Then start again and build a brand new tower. How does your child’s tower design change after predicting and observing these cause-and-effect relationships?

Learning through Play

Pretend play can be important for learning many different social skills, such as language, sharing, and problem solving. Next time your child is “playing house” or engaging in other kinds of pretend play, take a moment to notice all the different situations and skills that come up!