Do children play more when evidence is not clear?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    It is widely believed that children learn by playing… but how does this happen? This study asks: do preschool children recognize there is something to “figure out” about a toy whose cause and effect relationships are not presented clearly?

    Preschoolers see a colorful “jack-in-the-box” with two levers. Children in one condition see both levers pushed down at once, causing two toys to pop up at the same time (e.g. a duck and a pig). This is called the confounded condition because they cannot tell which lever controls which toy.

    Children in the second condition see one lever pushed down, causing one toy to pop up, and then the other lever pushed down, causing the other toy to pop up. This is called the unconfounded condition because children know which lever controls which toy.

    In both conditions we then give children the two-lever box and a new box to play with on their own. Children in the confounded condition play more with the two-lever box, while children in the unconfounded condition are more attracted to the new box.

    We found that when it is not clear which lever makes which toy pop up, children prefer to explore the box, anxious to “figure out” how it works in the course of their play. This preference may indicate one way that children learn through play.

        » Serious fun: preschoolers engage in more exploratory play when evidence is confounded

    Schulz, L. E., & Bonawitz, E. B. (2007). Serious fun: preschoolers engage in more exploratory play when evidence is confounded. Developmental psychology, 43(4), 1045.

    This research was supported by a James H. Ferry and a McDonnell Foundation Collaborative Initiative Causal Learning grant to Laura Schulz, Primary Investigator at the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT

        » Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Play with the Jack in the Boxes

    Be a Cognitive Scientist! The Discovery Center has jack-in-the-boxes similar to those used in this study. Ask a volunteer to take them out, and try doing the study with your own child. Will you put your child in the confounded or unconfounded condition? How do you think your child will react to the toys?

    Have an Infant? Babies play too

    Let your baby explore the touch pads of our sea-themed causal learning exhibit in the Discovery Center’s Infant Area.

    How does your baby respond to the effects caused by each paddle?

    Activities to Try at Home

    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?

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