If you remember how you learned what a square or a triangle was when you were four, it's likely to have involved a teacher talking and you listening. If you were listening, that is.
It probably didn't resemble the scenario developmental psychologist Roberta Golinkoff and her colleagues recently tested in a research lab at Temple University in Philadelphia. Picture private-eye costumes and the narrative arc of a mystery novel, to start.
Experimenters asked four- and five-year-olds, "Did you know all shapes have secrets? Today I need your help in discovering the secret of the shapes," while bringing out detective hats for everyone to wear.
When tested on how much they'd picked up, these children fared better at sorting through shapes they'd never seen before than peers who were taught using "didactic instruction," or kids who played on their own with enriched materials about the same shapes. All the kids were able to identify the standard shapes they'd been shown, but it was the so-called guided play group wearing the goofy hats that somehow aced the broader concepts.
Welcome to the front lines of one of the hottest areas of research today: the science of play. Educators are especially interested in the potential of work done by cognition and neurology experts who are busy decoding the workings of the toddler brain. Researchers are keen to see if there is a way to fine-tune the way children play, to unlock better learning opportunities. Which play-based curriculums already in motion boost kids' success most? How much, exactly, should teachers, and parents, jump in to steer play? And how can we avoid taking the fun out of it all along the way?
"There's something about guided play where you follow the child's interest and encourage the child's discovery that gets them to think," says Golinkoff about her study, which will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Child Development. "It's in the cognitive processes that guided play invokes in a kid. If I want to learn stuff and I'm engaged and I ask you questions and you ask me questions, we're collaborating together and you're really making my wheels turn. Which you're not doing when you're just telling me stuff."
Golinkoff, who works at the University of Delaware, also in Philadelphia, likes to talk about the "transfer," or the ability "to use the information you unearth with your guide – the teacher, or your parents – in new situations, to extend it, to transfer it, to generalize it."
Likewise, UC Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, the author of a recent review of the last 10 years of research on the topic, considers children little scientists, who have the ability to test hypotheses and conduct thought experiments by imagining things that aren't true or figure out what is.
"Like Einstein thinking about a train going at the speed of light … that's a more powerful way to learn. It's the core of what's going on," says Gopnik, the co-author of The Scientist in the Crib and author of The Philosophical Baby.
As the director of Toronto's Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, a lab school for three-to-12- year-olds that incorporates play-based learning, Janette Pelletier says there are still preschools and kindergartens comprised of children sitting at tables doing worksheets.
"And when they're finished their worksheets they can play. Play is always contrasted with work, when play really is children's work. We know children need to play because they do it. It is our job to figure out how to capitalize on doing that in the best way possible."
For starters, she and others are finding that learning opportunities are greatest when adults take a step back and forget they know more than the child – while at the same time keeping an eye on the latest science of play.
A series of recent studies on the popular play-based program Tools of the Mind, which was created in the 1990s out of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, suggest it is not a magic bullet. Researchers have found few examples of improved academic performance or improvements in the personal skill du jour: self-regulation. Tools of the Mind has become known for its "play planning," in which children write (or draw) their play intentions for the day and revisit it to stay on track and sustain their focus.
Another review of 150 studies on the role of pretend play released last month found little correlation to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving, according to author and University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard. She did, however, find that it "might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation."
Gopnik says this scientific slicing and dicing – others have used the term "house-cleaning" – is the only way to figure out useful specifics. "Does medicine make illness go away? Yes, but without specific data on which medicines and which illnesses, it's meaningless," she says. "What you're looking for is what, exactly, is the effect of a particular medicine on a particular disease."
On Saturday, Pelletier will be sharing techniques that she's seen kids enjoy in class during the keynote address at an early learning symposium hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She's particularly fond of how dramatic play – acting out stories, taking on roles and even wearing costumes – seems to boost children's self-regulation and early literacy.
But as experts continue to fine-tune their approach, it can start to look as though every movement in a class is an engineerable teaching moment. Is there a risk of overly fine-tuning a child's school day? Not yet, says Pelletier.
"I'd sooner over engineer play than over engineer worksheets."