2020 Undergraduate Research Showcase

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date


Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Iryna Babik


Experiential learning is rooted in free play that encourages problem solving skills through discovery of causal relationships and practice of self-control.1 During play, children learn to self-regulate their emotional responses by developing appropriate problem-solving techniques when encountering challenges. Moreover, play allows children to experiment through trial and error, observe consequences of their actions, and engage in flexible thinking.2,3,4 Planning and implementing sequences of goal-directed actions during play not only facilitates children’s problem-solving skills,1,5 but also involves working memory and planning aptitude, typically associated with higher order executive functions.2,5 Thus, play is intrinsically interconnected with problem solving and executive functioning, though the two elements have distinguishable relevance. Problem solving requires self-regulation, ability to identify an obstacle, projecting an outcome based on previous experiences, and tailoring one’s behavior to achieve a goal.1 Executive functions, on the other hand, utilize the information gathered from both the discoveries made during play and problem solving to integrate higher order cognitive strategies into overseeing challenging life tasks and goal-directed behaviors.4,6 Examining the relation between free play and problem solving highlights the impact that early experiential learning has on the development of executive functioning as skills become more refined through practice.


1. Babik, I., Cunha, A. B., Ross, S. M., Logan, S. W., Galloway, J. C., & Lobo, M. A. (2019). Means‐end problem solving in infancy: Development, emergence of intentionality, and transfer of knowledge. Developmental Psychobiology, 61(2), 191–202. doi:10.1002/dev.21798

2. Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Singer, D. G. (2006). Why play = Learning: A challenge for parents and educators. Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth, 3–12. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195304381.003.0001

3. Trawick-Smith, J., & Dziurgot, T. (2011). ‘Good-fit’ teacher-child play interactions and the subsequent autonomous play of preschool children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26(1), 110–123. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.04.005

4. Bernier, A., Carlson, S. M., & Whipple, N. (2010). From external regulation to self-regulation: Early parenting precursors of young children’s executive functioning. Child Development, 81(1), 326–339. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01397.

5. Berk, L., & Meyers, A. (2013). The role of make-believe play in the development of executive function: Status of research and future directions. American Journal of Play, 6(1) 98–107.

6. Blakey, E., Visser, I., & Carroll, D. J. (2015). Different executive functions support different kinds of cognitive flexibility: Evidence from 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds. Child Development, 87(2), 513–526. doi:10.1111/cdev.12468