Prof gets grant to question tie between play, learning

Elaine Helm

The U.S. Department of Education awarded a $548,245 grant to a Northwestern professor this summer to conduct a three-year study about the effectiveness of using simple toys to teach young children.

Psychology Prof. David Uttal said he is not out to debunk a myth, but rather to test a commonly held assumption in education: Children best learn abstract concepts, such as reading and mathematics, by playing with objects.

“There’s been an assumption for many years that the best way to teach young children is through concrete materials,” he said. “We don’t really have an axe to grind. We just want to know how (play) helps and how it hurts (learning).”

Over several years, Uttal said, he worked with Judy DeLoache at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now at the University of Virginia, to examine the way children learn symbolic relationships. From their studies, they found children often focused more on the objects themselves than the concepts they represented.

“Play can get kids interested in things,” Uttal said. “But at the same time, it can make (it) more difficult for children to focus (on concepts).”

Uttal applied for the grant to conduct a study with volunteers in the Chicago area to observe children in their own homes and measure how they perform on simple spelling, reading and math tests after spending time playing with blocks or other objects.

With 4-year-olds, researchers will test simple knowledge of letters and numbers. The study also will test second- and third-graders on simple math, such as addition and subtraction.

For example, children may play with letter blocks and then be asked to form words or play with blocks of different lengths and then be asked if two blocks together are longer than another one.

Melanie Bostwick, a Weinberg junior, helped Uttal conduct research for the grant proposal and wrote a draft proposal Spring Quarter. She said she hopes to play a major role in fine-tuning the study and participate in the its execution.

Although Bostwick is the only NU student currently working on the study, Uttal said the research team plans to involve undergraduate psychology majors and work-study students from NU.