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Why Do Children Play?

Hint: It’s not just about stickers and Monopoly money
The experimental “Beach Bowling” game
The experimental “Beach Bowling” task
Photo: Verity Pinter

Play has always been a bit of a mystery. It serves no obvious practical purpose, but it has long been recognized as an important part of how children discover and learn about the world around them. A team of researchers recently set out to investigate what motivates kids to play. A broader scientific understanding of why children play, they surmised in their study, might lead to better educational tools and experiences that leverage the fun of it.

To understand the rewards children gain from playing, researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the psychology departments at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, conducted two outdoor experiments with kids between the ages of 5 and 10. They wanted to find out if children would select different settings for a game, making it easier or harder, when they were playing to win versus playing for fun.

Play to win or play for fun?

The children were shown two different ways to enjoy a “Beach Bowling” game created by one of the researchers, Mariel Goddu: exploit or play. To exploit the game and win stickers the players had to try and knock over six blocks by tossing batons or bean bags. Behind the blocks were three blue polyester sunshades, decorated to look like sharks with their mouths wide open, which had to be avoided. Alternatively, the kids could play for fun in which case there would be no prizes — the only rule would be to have as much fun as possible.

The kids were allowed to change the game through variables that could positively affect the outcome such as standing closer to the blocks or choosing lighter versus heavier ones. Each choice could be adjusted to be “easy,” “medium,” or “hard.” Then there were other variables the children could select that had no impact on the difficulty of the game. They could use batons that were different colors or lit up with flashing lights and they could choose to dress up and pretend to be a sea monster or sea alien, for example.

Learning scientist Elizabeth Bonawitz, is one of the authors of the study, Fun Isn’t Easy: Children Choose More Difficult Options When “Playing for Fun” vs. “Trying to Win.” An associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Bonawitz discussed some of its key findings:

•    Play is not just about stickers and Monopoly money

As the name of the study suggests, the researchers found that children chose harder settings when playing for fun rather than trying to win. Even children as young as five recognized how “task-relevant factors impact[ed] their chance of winning,” and chose “easier settings when trying to win but harder settings when playing for fun,” according to the study. “When children play, they're not just trying to maximize extrinsic reward,” explains Bonawitz.

•    Intrinsic rewards matter

Play is also driven by internal goals. “If I have curiosity and I satiate that curiosity when I learn something, then learning is rewarding. But even if I am not learning something specific in the moment, play could be rewarding in its own right. Maybe because I may be learning something that will help me accomplish an unknown potential future goal, but also because play may be silly, or creative, or allow me to bond with someone — or support other factors that feel rewarding,” says Bonawitz.

•    Even when the children exploited the game to win, there was still a part of them that wanted to play for fun

The learning scientist was not surprised that children would challenge themselves when playing for fun, but she says she was surprised to find that some kids chose to wear “silly costumes” or use “really novel blocks” when they were trying to win.

•    The children were evenly split over which was better: playing to win or playing for fun

At the end of the study, the children were asked which version of the game they preferred — 43% chose playing for fun and 57% chose trying to win, indicating that they were motivated by both external and internal rewards. 


Bonawitz believes that the findings of the Fun Isn’t Easy study, which is currently under peer review and available as a preprint, have some important implications for educators:

  • Play is a powerful motivator — think of it as a core feature of educational practice 
    “I think there is a mindset that still exists that play in school is the thing that is not the learning. Play is the thing that you give children as a break from school,” she explains. “And I think that is a terrible disservice to childhood and to children. It’s not the way that our minds are built. Play is an incredible motivator. It's where children learn and challenge themselves. Play lets children choose to explore and discover new things.”
  • Play supports learning, growth, and development — design for it 
    Play is “core to the human development experience,” says Bonawitz, who hopes educators will consider that when designing curriculum, pedagogies, and classroom experiences.  

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