Play and Learning: What can children tell us?

This week’s guest post is bNicole R. Rivera, Ed.D. Nicole is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Central College. She is also the Academic Research and Evaluation Partner of the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, IL.

For the past two years, I have been working with the DuPage museum to explore what parents and caregivers believe about play and learning. Focus groups and visitor surveys show us that parents highly value play for developing social and emotional skills, fostering cognitive skills, and supporting their children. However, caregivers see play as less associated with academic learning and physical development. In both focus groups and survey responses, caregivers identify a number of barriers to play, including family schedules, concerns about safety, and feeling less confident about facilitating play.

The responses we received from caregivers made us curious about what children believe about play and learning. In order to find out, we began exploring approaches to learning from young visitors to the children’s museum.

Our first study

During the summer of 2016, we began interviewing children on the museum floor. Children were presented with a poster board with pictures of 21 play activities. They were given  post-it notes and asked to identify their three favorite play activities by placing the post-its on the pictures. We talked with 100 children on the museum floor. Children carefully considered their options and made their selections. The top three results were kitchen sets, playgrounds, and toy vehicles. Some parents commented that they were surprised by their children’s choices. We were excited to see that children as young a three were carefully discerning their choices and willing to engage in conversation with us on the museum floor.

Child engaging in a science activity at the DuPage Children’s Musuem;

The second study

A second study that is currently in process involves direct interviews with children ages 4-10. Children are recruited from the museum floor. Interviews take about 5 minutes and children are asked what they think play is, what they learn from play, and what adults should know about play. Children answer our questions and provide us with insights about what they think about play. We will be completing 100 interviews over the next few months and look forward to learning more about children’s views. Here’s a sneak peek at what children have told us that adults should know about play:

“Kids should get a good amount of play.”

“I think they (adults) should know its fun and they should try it out.”

“It’s really more fun than work.”

“That it’s really fun and anyone can play.”

Adult interviewing a child.


A third study

Our third approach to gathering information from children about play and learning came through a focus group. This past November, we invited a group of 2nd grade Girl Scouts to join us at the DuPage Children’s Museum to work on their Citizen Science Journey. During the program, the girls learned about how social scientists research play and learning at the children’s museum through exhibit evaluation. The girls used adapted observation data collection tools and went out to the museum floor in small groups to collect data. Then they were asked to learn more about science by being participants in a focus group. The focus group questions asked the Girl Scouts about their perceptions of play, learning, and science.

What did we learn from the girls? They talked with us about their preferred play activities and discussed where play is allowed at school (i.e. lunch, recess). When asked what they learn through play, the girls listed creativity, imagination, and mastery. One child described the experience of not feeling like you are very good at something the first time you try it, but how you like it more when you get better at it. The girls were very enthusiastic about science and described different types of experiments they have tried at school. When asked what adult should know about play, the children said that adults should take the time to play with their children. As the discussion continued, the group began to energetically exclaim that adults should “get off their phones” and play!

Girl Scout completing a survey at DuPage.

Children have a lot to teach us. There’s an interesting story to tell when we match up adults’ perceptions of the barriers of busy schedules, safety, and comfort with facilitating play with children’s overwhelming requests to join them in play.




2 thoughts on “Play and Learning: What can children tell us?

  1. This is a great post and a very interesting study – thanks for sharing.

    You may also be interested in these posts:
    * Exhibitions developed by children:
    * Advocating for our youngest visitors:
    * Dockett, S., Main, S. and Kelly, L. (2011). Consulting Young Children: Experiences from a Museum Visitor Study. Visitor Studies. 14. (1): 13-33:

    Best of luck with the rest of your work!

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s