How do children’s theories about the world affect their play?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    This study investigates whether children who have different theories will choose to play with the same toy in different ways.

    Before children hold an adult theory of balance (that objects balance at their center of mass), they hold a "center theory", believing that regardless of the center of mass, an object will balance in the middle.

    In one condition, children 6-8 years old were shown an L-shaped block “balanced” at its geometric center. This evidence should surprise children with a mass theory, while center theorists should not be surprised. In the second condition, children were shown the same L-shaped block, this time balanced off to one side, at its center of mass. This evidence should surprise children with a center theory, while mass theorists should not be surprised.

    In both conditions, we then gave children the L-shaped block on its balance and a new toy that they had never played with. We predicted children would play more with the block if it was balanced where they would not expect, but would play more with the new toy if they were shown unsurprising evidence.

    This study suggests children can see exactly the same toys, but will play differently depending on what they believe about the world. Children’s theories affect their play: even when children observe identical evidence, they engage in different patterns of play depending on their prior beliefs.

    Bonawitz, E. B., van Schijndel, T. J., Friel, D., & Schulz, L. (2012). Children balance theories and evidence in exploration, explanation, and learning. Cognitive psychology, 64(4), 215-234.

    This research was conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT.

        » Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Building with Blocks

    Observe your child play with the foam blocks on the second floor of the Discovery Center.

    Where does your child try to balance each block? Can your child find the point on each block where it can balance? Is your child a mass theorist or a center theorist?

    Sending a Message

    Have your child send a message in the capsule of the message tube. Ask your child to predict how the capsule will travel through the tube.

    What happens when you press the green button? What will happen if you open the message tube door as the capsule is in motion? If their prediction is wrong, does your child try to figure out why?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Ask your child to guess whether a paper clip can float in water. If you drop a paper clip in a cup of water, its natural tendency is to sink to the bottom of the cup. However, by carefully placing the paper clip on top of the water without breaking the surface tension, you can make a paper clip float!

    How does your child react as his/her guess is supported or refuted?

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