Play is more often simply observed than studied scientifically – play behaviors occur unpredictably and, when they do occur, are highly chaotic, making it very difficult to study them in the laboratory. Despite these challenges, new work is beginning to make play accessible from a rigorous scientific framework.
For example, a recent article by Schulz & Bonawitz takes Piaget’s notion of play as a mechanism for understanding causal relationships and recasts it into a testable prediction: children should be more likely to play with an object about which they have incomplete or confounded evidence.
To test the idea, Schulz & Bonawitz carefully crafted two toys in the form of a simplified jack-in-the-box: each toy consisted of a box with a puppet inside; the puppet could be made to emerge from a hole in the top of the box by moving a single lever on the box’s side. The important difference between these toys was the number of levers: one of the boxes had an additional lever on the side which controlled an additional puppet. An experimenter introduced each child to the two-lever toy first, and then gave them the opportunity to continue playing with that toy, or to switch to the single-lever toy.
Those children who hadn’t been able to determine the causal structure of the first familiar toy – i.e., the child and experimenter were always coordinated in depressing the two levers, so that children couldn’t determine which lever controlled which toy – were more likely to continue playing with it when given the opportunity than three other control conditions, where the evidence was disambiguated. (These control conditions were included to assure that the effect was not due to the amount of time spent playing with the familiar toy, nor merely to the fact that kids weren’t allowed to play with the familiar toy independently). Conversely, if the causal structure of the toy was revealed during the course of playing with it, kids always preferred the novel toy.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, the majority of children who chose to continue playing with the novel toy did so by manipulating each lever independently, thus disambiguating the toy’s causal structure!
I wish I knew more papers using such a rigorous methodology to approach exploratory play. Do any readers have recommendations?