Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Young children learn best through play. This mantra of early childhood experts is supported anew in research by MIT scientists at the Boston Children’s Museum and Museum of Science.

“Researchers, with clever experiments at these museums and elsewhere, are finding that young children have a surprisingly sophisticated intuitive grasp of probabilities, which they use to make inferences. When a toy does not work, or a squeeze ball squeaks, even babies weigh data and make informed bets about why,” The Boston Globe reports today (Studies find clues to babies’ minds). “The results are forming the basis for a new understanding of one of the most distinctive traits of the human mind — the ability to make, test, and continually adjust ideas about how one thing causes another. Such insights could help classroom teachers.”

The more playful the prompt from an adult, the more engaged the children and the more likely they were to explore how a toy works.  At the Children’s Museum, the more randomly researchers chose soft, squeaky balls from a box the more likely toddlers were to see if a ball they were handed squeaked, too. (Video MIT scientists are learning how babies learn)  At the Science Museum, in a study published in the journal Cognition, adults showing preschool-aged children a complicated toy sometimes explicitly told them one way it worked and sometimes seemed to randomly discover the same aspect of the toy. The children who received explicit instruction were less likely to explore the toy and discover its other attributes.

“People on the front lines feel as if there’s a tremendous pressure to make the environment for young children more and more academic — less and less exploratory,’’ Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Philosophical Baby,’’ tells the Globe. “Even something that looks like random, exploratory play can help children to learn and in some cases help them to learn better.’’

Work from Gopnik’s lab is the subject of another study reported in Cognition. In the Berkeley study, as in the Museum of Science study, preschool-aged children who received direct instruction about how a complex toy works were less likely to discover its characteristics on their own than children who watched an adult randomly, playfully discover a trait.

“Developmental scientists like me explore the basic science of learning by designing controlled experiments. We might start by saying: Suppose we gave a group of 4-year-olds exactly the same problems and only varied on whether we taught them directly or encouraged them to figure it out for themselves? Would they learn different things and develop different solutions? The two new studies in Cognition are the first to systematically show that they would,” Gopnik writes in Slate.

“As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Why might children behave this way? Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental. It’s this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place. “