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What does learning through play look like?

By Suzy Letourneau, Project Researcher, Providence Children’s Museum

Providence Children’s Museum is collaborating with Brown University on a major National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes. In particular, Museum researchers are investigating how to make kids’ learning through play visible and are prototyping research activities in the Museum’s Mind Lab this summer.

July2014-1-1 Imagine that you are 3 years old, playing with an interesting new toy. A grown-up shows you that the toy has some buttons. When she pushes a red button, nothing happens. When she pushes a blue button, nothing happens. But when she pushes both at the same time, some music starts to play. Now it’s your turn. What do you do?

Researchers who study child development use simple toys like this to answer questions about how children learn. What seems like a simple choice actually involves many underlying thought processes. As a child playing with this toy, you pay attention to what the grown-up is doing, notice the connection between the buttons and the music, and remember what you saw. Then you form a theory about how the toy works and decide what to do based on everything you’ve learned. You might even try different ways of playing with the toy, testing out your ideas.

When asking questions about how children learn, researchers don’t assume that children already know something. Instead, they carefully observe children’s behavior to find out how they interpret each experience, make each choice, and incorporate what they see or hear into what they already know. As a parent, you can watch your own children play through a scientific lens, observing your child’s thinking and learning in a new way.July2014-2-1

Imagine another scenario: you are watching a 7-year-old build a castle out of blocks. She works on each part of the structure for a long time, adding one block at a time to make walls and a tower and adjusting when they start to wobble. She looks closely at her work, talking quietly about the characters that inhabit her imaginary kingdom. She smiles proudly and announces, “Look what I did!,” showing off her completed castle.

You can observe many thinking skills in this everyday situation. In order to construct the castle, she thought about what parts it should have, drawing on memories of castles she had seen before. She strategized by carefully placing blocks and fixing wobbly ones before moving on. As she talked about what she was doing, she put words to her ideas and kept herself focused. She reflected on what she was doing by looking closely at her work, and then by sharing what she had done with pride.

Thinking and learning can look different depending on the age and activity, but everyone — from infants to adults — shows their thinking as they play. Here are some thinking behaviors you can look for in any situation:

  • Exploring materials: Kids test things out to decide what to do.
  • Watching and imitating others: Kids learn how to start or what to try.
  • Talking about what they’re doing: Kids learn to describe their thinking and stay focused on what they’re doing.
  • Telling others what to do: Kids share ideas and strategies by collaborating or even by giving orders.
  • Repeating over and over: Kids practice new skills and learn about cause and effect.
  • Using trial and error: Kids learn from mistakes, make changes and try again.
  • Focusing: Kids look serious and intense when they concentrate on something they’re interested in or challenged by.
  • Expressing frustration: Kids reach obstacles, but working through challenges can help them learn to persevere and value the process of figuring things out.
  • Sharing accomplishments and “ah-ha” moments: Kids reflect on their own learning by showing others what they’ve discovered.

Visit the Museum’s blog and website for more information about the Learning About Learning project.

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