Temple Infant & Child Laboratory | Play Research
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Play Research

Play Overview


Preschool children learn through play. The history of developmental psychology attests to this message. Guided play advances cognitive skills like language and reading, as well as social skills like emotional regulation and peer cooperation. Despite overwhelming evidence for the power of play in development (Zigler et al., 2004; Singer et al., 2006), parents and educators worry that playtime takes children away from precious academic activities (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003). Playtime has dropped precipitously from 40% in 1981 to 25% in 1997. Research in our laboratory explores how play sets the stage for academic and social learning in three general areas of study. First, we are examining how playful parent-child interactions stimulate rich verbal and physical expressions using different play media (e.g., construction blocks, electronic books). A second research area explores how different learning contexts, such as playful learning or memorization-based approaches, influence children’s ability to learn. Lastly, a third area of study examines parents’ beliefs about the nature and academic value of play, and how such beliefs relate to parenting practices. Click to the left to read more about our current studies and conference presentations! If you are interested in learning more about the role of play in child development, please see the presentation below for a general overview.


PRESENTATION: Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. Play equals learning. Preparing the 21st century child for the global world.



Can you feel the beat?

Rhythm is a key element in music, and it may play an important role in social skills, too. Successful interactions are characterized by natural rhythms, both when two adults talk to each other, and when adults interact with babies. In a new study at the Temple Infant & Child Lab, we are investigating the relationship between musical rhythm and social skills in school-aged children. Six- and seven-year-olds tap along with a computer copying a series of rhythmic patterns, while their parents fill out an assessment of their social skills. We predict that kids who are better at the rhythmic task will also show stronger social skills.


Theater in School to Promote Youth with ASD

Theater offers tremendous potential to engage children in ways that ignite a love of the arts while fostering the academic, social, and innovation skills required for 21st Century success. In this study we are working together with staff at a special NYC public school—P94—to test how exposure to theater arts might improve social and communication skills among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We predict that participation in the arts – in particular theater experiences – will be related to specific outcomes in these children. . This study has two goals: 1) To identify and isolate elements of a school-based theater arts program (STAARS) thought to be related to social and academic outcomes in the special population of children with ASD, and 2) To determine whether the elements identified in Aim 1 relate to changes in children’s social, language, planning and attention skills, and creativity.


Pitch Perfect

Music abilities have long been thought to relate to intelligence; however, little empirical exists for these claims. We are investigating how music relates to various cognitive abilities, specifically looking at the way infants and children understand relative pitch processing— the relation between two tones on a piano keyboard. Children in our study hear two notes played one after another, and then select an image of a piano keyboard that visually depicts either what they heard or another pitch relationship. We predict that there will be a strong relationship between an understanding of relative pitch and children’s spatial ability.

Construction Block Study


Spatial skills are basic skills needed to navigate the world. These skills are also connected to success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Recent research shows that spatial language from parents and other caregivers plays a critical role in the foundation of spatial competencies (e.g., school readiness in reading maps, mathematics). Recent studies in our lab looked at whether block play might stimulate spatial talk and whether certain kinds of block play might offer richer contexts for spatial language than other contexts. We asked 3- to 5-year-olds and their parents either to play with a preassembled block structure, free play with a set of blocks, or engage in guided play with step-by-step instructions for constructing a certain structure. We found that block play in general lead to a substantial amount of spatial words (such as “on top,” “next to,” or “in the middle”), but that guided play led to the highest frequency of spatial language of the three conditions. These findings suggest that block play stimulates conversations about shapes, sizes, patterns, relations between objects, and orientations of objects—just the sort of language that might help children build early skills related to math and science. Another study found that spatial language is indeed related to concurrent math abilities. Future research will investigate how spatial language might translate into longer-term child outcomes and how we might use block play as a playful intervention that encourages more spatial language within families.


If you are interested in learning more about our research on spatial language, check out the papers and presentation below.


PRESENTATION: Shallcross, W. L., Goksun, T., Golinkoff, R. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Loyd, M. E., Newcombe, N. S., & Roseberry, S. (2008, March). Building Talk: Parental Utterances During Construction Play. Poster presented at the XVIth International Conference on Infant Studies. Vancouver. Canada.


PAPER: Ferrara, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N. & Golinkoff, R. (2011) Block talk: Spatial language during block play. Mind, Brain & Education, 5,3, 143-151.


PAPER: Verdine, B., Golinkoff, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K, Newcombe, N., Filipowicz, A. & Chang, A. (2013) Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Development.

E-book Research


Do electronic books provide the same reading experience as traditional books? Is one reading form more academically stimulating? With the increasing numbers of e-books and e-book readers on the market, we wanted to find out whether changing the format of a book also alters the parent-child reading experience around that book. In a recent study with 3- and 5-year-olds, we found e-book reading on touch-sensitive, electronic console resulted in less “dialogic reading” (an interactive, shared reading style that is particularly beneficial for emergent literacy) than reading traditional books. Parents reading traditional books asked their children more questions and were more engaged with their children than parents reading e-books, whereas e-book reading prompted directives from parents (e.g., “do this,” “push the button”). Children’s story comprehension was also negative affected by the electronic features of the e-book relative to traditional book comprehension suggesting that these features may be distracting. We are currently running a similar study examining reading e-books on an iPad app, with or without the use of the book reading activities or the read aloud function on, in comparison to traditional books.


To learn more about our e-book study, check out the paper below.


PAPER: Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. (2013). Once upon a time: Preschoolers and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era. Mind, Brain & Education, 7, 200-211.

Language for Reading


In collaboration with the University of Delaware and Vanderbilt University, our lab is embarking on a three-year project developing a multimedia toolkit of playful classroom activities with the goal of supporting vocabulary and associated language abilities in preschool children from low-income backgrounds.


This project intends to address the educational achievement gap between children from more and less privileged homes. Previous research finds that early literacy skills, including vocabulary, highly predict later reading skills and readiness, which in turn predict academic achievement.


Playful experiences have been found to facilitate learning in a classroom environment, particularly when an adult actively supports a child-directed activity with educational conversation. We hope to emerge from this project with a program that employs playful learning as an effective strategy to enhance children’s vocabulary.


Our labs will be collaborating with local Head Start programs to develop a range of playful activities, including songs, games, and digital apps, to support vocabulary introduced during book-reading. In the first and second years of this project, Head Start educators will help us design these playful learning experiences in such a way as to maximize educational effectiveness, level of child engagement, and the ease by which teachers can implement these activities in their classrooms.

Parents’ and Experts’ Play Beliefs Research


In conjunction with Fisher-Price, Inc, this study investigated parental beliefs about the nature and academic value of play. This research addressed three questions: (1) What is considered play by modern parents? (2) Do parents recognize the academic learning value associated with play? and (3) Do parents differ from experts in these beliefs?


Parents and child development experts participated in an internet survey. Twenty-six common childhood activities were presented individually to the participants (e.g., dress-up, using blocks, organized games, reading, using electronic media, playing “house,” going to the museum). First, participants rated each activity as a form of play on a 7 point scale (1 = not a form of play, 7 = definitely a form of play). Second, participants rated each activity on its academic learning value on a similar scale (1 = no academic learning value, 7 = academic learning value).


  • What is play? Parents identified two forms of play. Unstructured play represents activities requiring imaginative or creative processes, often lacking clearly delineated rules or goals (e.g., dressing up, using blocks). Structured play represents activities with an inherent process or goal directed structure, often found in life skill development activities (e.g., reading, doing chores) and electronic toy activities (e.g., T.V., video).


  • Do parents recognize the academic learning value in play? Yes! Parents believe both structured and unstructured forms of play have inherent academic learning value; however, they identified more learning value in structured activities than others.


  • Do parents differ from experts in these beliefs? In agreement with parents, experts believe unstructured activities are playful in nature. Conversely, experts view structured activities as non-play behavior, and see more learning value in unstructured activities than in structured activities.


The research suggests parents and experts may have different definitions of play. While experts define play in narrower terms, parents classify more activities as play. This differentiation may provide one answer to the apparent “switch” from free play activities to more structured, academically-focused activities. A broadening definition of play may result in a society that identifies more behavior as playful with less delineation in types of play—allowing for an increase in structure in children’s lives in educational and home settings.


PRESENTATION: Fisher, K. (2007, Oct). Mother vs. Expert Beliefs: Disagreement in the nature and value of play. Presentation at the Cognitive Development Society Conference, Santa Fe, NM.

Research Sponsored by: Spatial Intelligence & Learning Center

Authors: Drs. Kelly Fisher, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Nora Newcombe, & Roberta Golinkoff
Title: Teaching Style Impacts Preschoolers’ Ability to Learn Abstract Geometric Concepts


What is the best approach to teaching children shape concepts? A recent project in our lab suggests that children’s early mathematical knowledge may be facilitated or constrained by a teacher’s teaching style.


Previously, scientists believed that children’s understanding of abstract geometric shapes was primarily due to cognitive maturation that was not heavily influence by experience. This shape study suggests that, in fact, educational experiences can have a profound influence on children’s learning.


Preschoolers were taught definitional properties of triangles, rectangles, pentagons, and hexagons using either guided exploration (a teacher prompted children’s exploration and discover of shape properties through question asking), explicit instruction (a teacher explicitly told children the shape properties), or free play (children were allowed to play with the shapes by themselves). We found children in the guided play conditioned learned the shape properties better than children in the other two conditions, and this effect still held true one week later. These findings suggest that guided play and the exploration and engagement associated with it support shape learning.


To learn more about the findings of this study, check out the paper below.


PAPER: Fisher, K. R., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N. and Golinkoff, R. M. (2013), Taking Shape: Supporting Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Geometric Knowledge Through Guided Play. Child Development, 84: 1872–1878. doi: 10.1111/cdev.1209