Although there’s much more research to do, playing and learning go together. Letting children play is important. But is there any more to say about the role of caregivers? Can parents somehow help children play better?
A depressing finding is that grownups can actually get in the way of play. Elizabeth Bonawitz and her colleagues contrasted the playful, exploratory learning in the Pop-Bead experiments with the direct instruction you get in school. They gave preschoolers a toy with many plastic tubes that did different things. If you pushed on one tube, a beeper squeaked, another held a hidden mirror, a third lit up, a fourth played music.
For half of the children, the experimenter brought in the toy and said, “Oh, look at this neat toy! Oops!” Then she “accidentally” bumped into the tube so that the beeper squeaked. For the other half, the experimenter acted like a teacher. She said, “Oh, look at my neat toy! Let me show you how it works,” and deliberately pushed the tube that squeaked the beeper. Then she left the children alone to play with the toy.
Both groups of children immediately made the beeper squeak—they’d learned how the beeper worked. The question was whether they would also learn about all the other things the toy could do. When the experimenter activated the toy accidentally, the children were fascinated and they played. Just by randomly trying different actions they discovered all the things that the toy could do. But when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children would squeak the beeper, and then squeak it again and again, ad nauseam, instead of trying something new.
The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the “hidden” features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them.
So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught, just as we saw in previous chapters. But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer. The children were more eager to imitate the teacher than to discover things themselves. (College teachers like me will recognize that this syndrome continues into adulthood.)
In my lab, we found much the same result in a different study. In that experiment, four-year-olds saw an adult act on a toy in a complicated sequence, shaking it, squeezing it, and then pulling a ring; or tapping it, pushing a button, and then turning it over. Sometimes the toy played music and sometimes it didn’t. The pattern of events indicated that there might be a much simpler way to make the machine go. For example, all you really had to do was just pull the ring.
When the adult said that she had no idea how the toy worked, the children discovered the more intelligent strategy. But when she acted like a teacher and said that she was showing the child how the toy worked, the children imitated everything the teacher did instead.
So do grown-up teachers always screw things up? Not necessarily. By its very nature spontaneous play is undirected and variable. But how about if you want to teach children something in particular, as we often do in school?
In one study, the researchers tried to teach preschool children a challenging geometry concept, the concept of shape. Preschoolers don’t yet know some basic principles about shape that are important for geometry. They don’t initially get that a triangle is a shape with three sides, no matter how long or short, acute or obtuse.
The researchers gave four-year-old children a set of cards with different kinds of shapes on them—both more typical shapes, like an equilateral triangle or a square, and more unusual ones like a parallelogram. One group just got to play with the cards.
For a second group, the experimenters joined in. They donned detective hats and explained that they were going to discover the secrets of the shapes. Then they pointed to a group of geometrically defined triangles or pentagons and asked the children to figure out their common secret. When the children responded, the grown-ups elaborated on what they said and asked them questions as part of the game.
For a third group of children, the experimenters acted like teachers. They said all the same things as the experimenters in the second group. However, rather than encouraging the children to generate the secret themselves, they simply told them what it was.
A week later the researchers asked the children to sort out a new group of shapes into “real” shapes that obeyed the geometrical rules and “fake” ones that didn’t. The children in the second, “guided play” condition did a much better job than either of the other two groups. They had learned the nature of the shapes more deeply, and understood the principles more completely.
This kind of guided play can serve as a model for teachers and educators. Scientists use the word “scaffolding” to describe this kind of interaction. It’s not that the grown-up builds knowledge for the child. Instead, the grown-up builds a scaffold, and the scaffold helps the child to build knowledge herself. This work on guided play parallels the work on children’s learning and listening I described earlier.
There are many ways that caregivers can contribute to play without telling children to play or trying to control how they play.Play is such a fundamental part of human childhood that it emerges even in awful circumstances. Children played even among the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. But clearly, play flourishes in a stable, safe environment. Caregivers have a more important role than anyone else in finding the resources to create that environment. It’s not easy or particularly fun, and none of us do it perfectly, but it’s a gift that lets children play.
Second, caregivers can contribute to the richness of a child’s world. Children play differently in different cultures partly because they are surrounded by different things to play with, from sticks, rocks, and corncobs to iPads. Grown-ups can provide those playthings. They can give children a chance to master the tools of their particular culture, like the adult crows that let
the babies play with their sticks and leaves.
A Wired magazine contest awarded sticks the prize of the all-time best toy. But they can be joined by pots and pans, watering cans and flowerpots, goldfish and caterpillars, and even iPhones and tablets.
And grown-ups can sometimes join in the play themselves. If children are exploring the minds of others, then the actual minds of actual others are the best toys of all. “Guided play” is a nice example. The grown-ups allow the children to lead the way, but they are also there to suggest or elaborate (and wear those silly detective hats).
But there is a more important reason to play with children. Play is really fun for grown-ups, too.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development. She writes the Mind and Matter column for The Wall Street Journal and is the author of The Philosophical Baby and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, Alvy Ray Smith.