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.

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 worked 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 predicted that participation in the arts – in particular theater experiences – will be related to specific outcomes in these children. . This study had 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.


To learn more about the THESPY project, check out the final report!


PAPER: Goldstein, T. R., Lerner, M. D., Paterson, S., Jaeggi, L., Toub, T. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2019). Stakeholder perceptions of the effects of a public school-based theatre program for children with ASD. Journal for Learning through the Arts: A Research Journal on Arts Integration in Schools and Communities15(1).


POSTER: Goldstein, T.R., Lerner, M.D., Paterson, S., Toub, T.S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2017, May). Stakeholder perceptions of the effects of a theatre program for children with ASD. Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention. Boston, MA.


POSTER: Paterson, S. J., Lerner, M. D., Goldstein, T. R., Toub, T. S., Golinkoff, R., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2018, May). Acting out in Public School: How a Theatre Program Can Impact Imitation Skills in Children with ASD. Poster presented at the International Society for Autism Research Annual Meeting, Rotterdam, Netherlands.



What does it mean for a child to be creative, and how can we best foster creativity in children? Recent work in the lab aims to answer these questions by surveying the childhood creativity literature and testing a new measure to assess creativity in preschool children. In our creative problem-solving task, children are asked to figure out how to remove a small ball from a jar using everyday objects such as pipe cleaners, spoons, and chopsticks. This task allows us to analyze the creative processes a child engages in when trying to solve problem. Using this measure, we have found that some children spend a lot of time exploring the properties of objects and try to understand how the objects can be adapted or combined together in ways that help remove that ball – those children tend to be more successful at getting the ball out than children who spend less time exploring the properties of objects.



We also investigate how different types of play and instilling exploration behaviors may be more or less conducive to fostering creativity in certain circumstances, and if children are naturally more creative or if creativity is a set of behaviors we can teach.

Language for Reading


In collaboration with the University of Delaware and Vanderbilt University, our lab embarked 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 addressed 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. This project employed playful learning as an effective strategy to enhance children’s vocabulary.


Our labs collaborated 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 helped 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. During the third year of the intervention, we implemented a final round of changes to the program in order to maximize playfulness following teacher input. Our team also compared the effectiveness of the program to typical reading routines in the Head Start classroom.


To learn more about learning vocabulary through play, check out this blog!


PAPER: Dickinson, D. K., Collins, M. F., Nesbitt, K., Toub, T. S., Hassinger-Das, B., Hadley, E. B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2019). Effects of teacher-delivered book reading and play on vocabulary learning and self-regulation among low-income preschool children. Journal of Cognition and Development, 1-29.


PRESENTATION: Hopkins, E. J., Collins, M.F., Dore, R. A., Lawson, J., Schatz, J., Scott, M., Shirilla, M., Toub, T.S., Dickinson, D., Golinkoff, R., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019, March). Playtime is learning time: A play and reading intervention to teach vocabulary. In M. Scott (chair), Exploring recent techniques in classroom vocabulary interventions. Symposium to be conducted at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development: Baltimore, MD.


POSTER 1: Hopkins, E. J., Scott, M. E., Schatz, J., Toub, T. S., Collins, M. F., Lawson, J., Dore, R. A., Shirilla, M., Dickinson, D. K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2017, October). Long-term benefits of boosting vocabulary through reading and play. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society: Portland, OR.


POSTER 2: Dore, R. A., Shirilla, M., Saunders, T., Foster, L., Hopkins, E., Spiewak Toub, T., Collins, M. F., Schatz, J., Scott, M., Lawson, J., Hadley, E.B., Golinkoff, R.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., and Dickinson, D. (2017, October). Time to go on a space adventure! Using digital games to support early vocabulary learning. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society: Portland, OR.

Playful Learning and Guided Play


The science of learning tells us that children learn best when they are active, engaged and not distracted, when the material they are learning is meaningful, and when then the lesson is socially interactive. Playful learning builds on these principles by bringing the joy and agency that children experience in play into their learning experiences. Playful learning spans three types of play: free play, guided play, and games.


PAPER: Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Solis, S.L., & Whitebread, D. (2018). Accessing the inaccessible: redefining play as a spectrum. Frontiers in psychology, 9.


During free play, children choose the activities and make the rules – free play is self-initiated and self-directed. When someone mentions play, free play is often the first thing that comes to mind. We picture children running through a field with friends, playing dress up, or doing science experiments with water and baking soda. Free play with objects helps children uncover how the world works using scientific thinking, social free play gives opportunities for learning how other people think and how to work together while negotiating social conflicts, and choosing activities builds self-confidence.


Guided play is both child-led and adult-guided. Adult guidance can take numerous forms, including playing with a child as a peer would, asking the child questions that the adult knows the answer to, or supplementing a child’s discovery with relevant information. During guided play the child often chooses the activity, such as building a tower, but the adult may gently guide the child toward a goal that will increase their learning, such as how to build a stronger tower that is unlikely to fall. The adult’s role is to maintain the child’s focus on the activity and provide support when the child is struggling, for example asking the child questions about which block should be added next or making suggestions about how many blocks are necessary to have a strong base. Children learn better when they figure out an answer or correct a mistake on their own than when an adult simply tells them the answer or corrects a mistake for them. We found that using guided play to help preschool-aged children discover the “secrets of the shapes” led to enhanced learning about shapes. We encouraged children to physically interact with the triangles and asked them instructive questions about the physical features of the triangles. Children who engaged in this guided play demonstrated greater geometric knowledge about shapes – both immediately after playing and one week later – compared to children who passively observed the adult exploring the shapes, or children who played freely with the shapes with no adult guidance. Thus, guided play could be thought of a “sweet spot” that combines the best elements of child-directed play and adult-guided learning.


PAPER: Fisher, K. R., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers’ acquisition of geometric knowledge through guided play. Child development, 84(6), 1872-1878.


Games combine either tangential or targeted learning goals with the fun and engaging characteristics of game play to support children’s learning. For example, a game with a tangential learning goal would be Simon Says. Simon Says was not designed to work on executive functioning skills, such as inhibiting a response when Simon does not “say” to do something, but it builds those skills all the same. Our research group’s work on a modified version of a Snakes & Ladders game provides an example of a game with a targeted learning goal.  In this study, pairs of preschool children read a storybook featuring target vocabulary words with a researcher, and then reviewed the words. Children whose word review was embedded in the Snakes & Ladders game learned more words than children who reviewed the words in a traditional non-game context, illustrating the power of games in playful learning.


PAPER: Hassinger‐Das, B., Ridge, K., Parker, A., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Dickinson, D. K. (2016). Building vocabulary knowledge in preschoolers through shared book reading and gameplay. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(2), 71-80.


To learn more about playful learning check out this 2019 review!


PAPER: Toub, T. S., Hassinger-Das, B., Nesbitt, K. T., Ilgaz, H., Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., Nicolopoulou, A., & Dickinson, D. K. (2018). The language of play: Developing preschool vocabulary through play following shared book-reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 1-17.