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Preschoolers tend to investigate their environment better when faced with a situation that conflicts with their expectations. They do so in a way that corresponds to a firm scientific approach. There is thus more methodology in children’s patterns of play than initially meets the eye. These are the main findings of research conducted by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) into the patterns of play of 4- and 5-year-olds. The results were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Child and researcher
Photos: Hanne Nijhuis - TalentenKracht

UvA researchers Tessa van Schijndel, Ingmar Visser, Bianca van Bers and Maartje Raijmakers studied preschoolers’ patterns of free exploratory play by using a shadow set-up. They first assessed the theory individual children had about shadow size – whether a child believed that it is only the size of a puppet that determines its shadow size, or if the distance of the puppet to the lamp also plays a role. The researchers then selected a group of children which solely used the size of the object in their reasoning. One half of this group were shown an example that conflicted with their theory: a small puppet placed in close proximity to the lamp with a larger shadow than a big puppet placed farther away from the lamp. The other half of the group were shown an example which was consistent with their theory: a small puppet placed at a sizeable distance from the lamp with a smaller shadow than a large puppet placed closer to the lamp. The children were then allowed to engage in free play with the shadow set-up. 

Child and researcher

Children who saw the example that conflicted with their theory performed more informative experiments than children whose theory was actually corroborated by the example. Informative experiments are experiments from which valid causal conclusions can be drawn (about factors that influence shadow size). In these experiments, the children repeatedly changed only one variable (the size of the puppet, for instance) and excluded the other variables (distance to light source) to observe the effect of this change. This approach corresponds to a firm scientific approach in which the researcher always manipulates only one variable at the time and controls for the rest.        

Methodology in patterns of play

Until ten years ago, little was known about how children learn from play. This has changed, however, as a result of recent studies within the field of development psychology. These studies have revealed more methodology in children’s patterns of play than meets the eye. With their results, the UvA researchers have made an important contribution to this line of study.     

Within teaching and education nowadays a lot of emphasis is put on skills learning, the so-called 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. The exploratory skills displayed by young children during their free play can be viewed as precursors to these 21st century skills and thereby provide a starting point for interventions.   

Publication details

Tessa J.P. van Schijndel, Ingmar Visser, Bianca M.C.W. van Bers en Maartje E.J. Raijmakers: ‘Preschoolers perform more informative experiments after observing theory-violating evidence’, in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (Volume 131, March 2015).