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Research at the Museum

Current Projects

MIT Play Lab

1 to 11 year olds

Boston Children's Museum has teamed up with researchers from the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT in PlayLab, an exhibit featuring active research in cognitive development. Researchers conduct studies everyday with young children ages 3 months to 8 years. Their research is focused on answering questions about how children learn and understand cause-and-effect relationships and interpret different types of evidence. The studies are short and fun, and may include playing games or watching a short video or display. If you would like to learn more or participate in a study, stop by PlayLab during your visit to the Museum and look for the researchers. They are happy to tell you about what studies are underway and answer any questions.

Harvard University Implicit Social Cognition Lab

3 to 12 year olds

The Implicit Social Cognition Lab at Harvard University examines children’s understanding of status hierarchies as it relates to individuals and groups (like gender, race, and religion). In their study, researchers aim to understand developmental flexibility in implicit associations. Their research also focuses on answer the questions, “What cues to children pay attention to when determining the powerful agent or groups in a given social context?” “What implications does the assignment of power to groups have on stereotyping the self or others? Do these kinds of social understandings change with age?” If you want to learn more or are interested in participating in their study, please feel free to stop by the 2nd floor bridge Saturday afternoons and speak with a Harvard research assistant.

Harvard University Carey Lab

2 to 6 year olds

The Carey Lab from the Department of Psychology seeks to understand three main research questions “How do children think about possibility and necessity?” “How do children think about dominance?” and “How do children think about abstract relations?” Their research primarily investigates the basic cognitive mechanism of how children interact with the world around them – be it social or physical. For kids it’s an opportunity to play fun and potentially challenging games, while parents get to see just how complicated and counterintuitive developing adult-like thinking can be. If you want to learn more or are interested in participating in their study, stop by the 2nd floor bridge Friday mornings and speak with a researcher.

Tufts University Cognitive Development Lab

6 months to 6 year olds

Researchers at the Cognitive Development Lab examine several topics related to how children understand cause and effect. Their research focuses on the following questions, “How do children learn about tools (such as TV remotes) that cause effects (such as turning on and off the television) and how does this change over the first few years of life?” “How do children’s explorations change based on the way that events are described?” “How do children begin to reason about other people’s behaviors?” If you want to learn more or are interested in participating in their study, please feel free to stop by the 2nd floor bridge Saturday mornings and speak with a Tufts research assistant.

Boston College Arts and Mind Lab

3 to 5 years old

Researchers at the Arts and Mind lab are investigating children’s emotional responses to music. Their research aims to better understand whether young children’s responses to felt emotion questions will match older respondent’s answers, and if they will match perceived emotion responses typical of their age group. Kids will be listening to short clips of music and are asked to pick an emotion that they think best shows how they feel. If you’re interested in participating, please stop by the 2nd floor bridge area on Sunday mornings and speak with a BC researcher.

Boston College Infant and Child Cognition Lab

3 to 5 year olds

The Infant and Child Cognition Lab focusses on the development of numerical cognition in infants, children, and adults. They are primarily interested in how the acquisition of these mathematical concepts impact our prosocial behaviors, formal education, and later numerical abilities. In their research studies, children play short games and adults participate in tasks that may require verbal responses or tasks on a computer or paper. If you want to learn more about the work being done on numerical cognition, please stop by the alcove in KEVA on the 2nd floor on Sunday mornings, and speak with a research assistant.

Boston College Language Learning Lab

3 to 6 year olds

Researchers at the Language Learning Lab aim to better characterize children’s developing vocabulary. Children participating in their study are asked to engage in several tasks such as reading story books, watching videos, acting out verbs with puppets, and sorting pictures of nouns. Their researcher will provide invaluable information to clinicians who are charged with understanding and treating atypical development. Stop by KEVA on the 2nd floor on Sunday afternoons to check out their research studies.

Boston College Cooperation Lab

6 to 9 year olds

The Cooperation Lab at Boston College aims to understand, “How do children solve cooperative problems in socially valid context?” Children participating in this study will be asked to play a game with a research assistant. Researchers are interested in seeing how children solve cooperative problems when they are interacting with a social partner with whom they can communicate. Check out the Cooperation Lab at BCM Sunday mornings on the 2nd floor bridge.

Boston College Emotion Development Lab

6 to 11 year olds

Researchers from the Emotion Development Lab aim to understand “What do children understand from facial expressions of emotions?” In this research study, children are shown facial expression and asked what emotion is shown. If you’re interested in participating, stop by the end of the 2nd floor bridge on Sunday afternoons and speak with a research assistant.

Research Process and Protocols

Researchers interested in collecting data at the Museum need to apply. Applications are available for Fall, Spring, and Summer trimesters, with deadlines in September, December, and April respectively. The museum will evaluate applications based on the following criteria:

  • There is a strong connection between the research and the Museum's mission. For example, the MIT PlayLab research is documenting how infants learn through play.
  • Researchers must demonstrate an interest and capacity for communicating their studies and findings to lay audiences, and they must be willing to provide write-ups for the Museum's website. Researchers will be expected to provide written briefs for the Museum website prior to the beginning of their research. Museum staff will ensure that these are on the website at the beginning of the time period - and revised as needed. Each trimester there should be a complete roster of the studies.
  • The research can be conducted within the guidelines the Museum has established.
  • The Museum and researchers can schedule studies at mutually acceptable times.

Quid Pro Quo

1. Researchers benefit from access to large numbers of children.
2. Boston Children's Museum benefits by serving as facilitator in communicating important new information about childhood development to our audiences.
3. Museum visitors benefit by learning about important research that is being conducted, with the potential for them to increase their interest in scientific research. Visitors can benefit from increased awareness of the role of research in understanding child development.

Desired Outcomes

The research will provide the Museum's many audiences with a greater understanding of the importance of early childhood education and foster strong collaborations with universities, hospitals and other research organizations interested in advancing the child development field.

Learn more about Research at Boston Children’s Museum

Those seeking more information about conducting studies at Boston Children's Museum should contact Michelle Nguyen (nguyen@bostonchildrensmuseum.org).

Child Development Milestones

Summit & Seminars

21st Century Skills

The Power of Play

Play and Learning

“Play is the highest form of research.” — Albert Einstein

Cognitive research has shown the important connection between early childhood experiences and intellectual development. The most important time for a brain is when it is young and growing. Humans are born with 100 billion brain neurons, which make connections through synapses that “wire” the brain for thinking. Early childhood experiences affect the types and amounts of these synaptic connections. To develop the area of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, children need to have rich experiences that stimulate all of their senses. For a child, play is a critical path to those experiences that engage their senses and provide the foundation for future learning.

In a TED talk of 2008 on Serious Play at the Art Center Design conference in Pasadena California, designer Tim Brown asserted that play is at the root of creative thinking, that playfulness can help us do our jobs better, and find more innovative solutions. Play can help us be more adaptive, collaborative, spontaneous and joyful. Brown believes that the relaxation and trust resulting from people playing together can lead to an increased willingness to take risks.

Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University and best-selling author of the book “Einstein Never used Flashcards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less” and of the book “Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth” argues that play-based learning environments are more effective than classroom, memorization-based, learning environments at teaching our children. As Dr. Hirsh-Pasek points out in an interview she gave for The View, you can teach your children that 1+1=2 and they may know the fact of addition, but ask them whether they want one or two scoops of ice cream and they understand the meaning.

Related Information


Brain Building in Progress Campaign

News Articles



Laura Shultz from MIT

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of psychology, Temple University

Play and Health

Television, video games, and the internet are ubiquitous and compelling media that tempt children every waking minute. While fun, these largely passive activities reduce the amount of active and social play children engage in. Worryingly, research into childhood development suggests a direct link between an increase in these sedentary, socially-isolated activities and the growth in childhood stress, anxiety disorders, and obesity. It is particularly telling that both the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the American Academy of Pediatrics took an active decision to promote childhood play and limit screen time.

Increased rates of anxiety, obesity, emotional trauma, and violence have alarmed pediatricians and child psychologists. Many believe play can be the antidote to isolation, worry, loneliness, fear, and violence. Active play fosters sound emotional and mental health. Through play children strengthen their confidence, learn to trust others, create friendships, and feel safe. These benefits develop a sense of belonging, critical to the feeling of well-being. The Let’s Move! campaign recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous active play every day. It may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t all need to happen at one time.

As Dr. Ken Ginsburg, pediatrician and child development researcher at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, stated in guidelines laid out in the American Academy of Pediatricians journal in 2011, “Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing of children beginning in early childhood.”

Related Information

American Academy of Pediatrics 2011 updated guidelines


Life is Good Kids Foundation - http://www.lifeisgood.com/playmakers/

Let's Move! http://www.letsmove.gov/


Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Pediatrician and Child Development Researcher, Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, & Marilyn Benoit, Chief Clinical Officer at Devereux Behavioral Health

Steve Gross, Executive Director, Life is Good Kids Foundation.

Steve Gross: Joy from BrightSightGroup on Vimeo.

http://www.brightsightgroup.net/2011/01/steve-gross.html (How play relaxes everyone)

Play and Language Development

Right from the beginning, play fosters language development. When we play Peekaboo, or imitate a baby’s sounds and smiles, or ask a silly question and wait for the baby’s response, we teach the basics of communication and conversation. And the more we talk, especially in engaging, playful ways that encourage responses, the more language babies learn! Soon, they will not only be understanding and babbling, but saying words!

For toddlers who are beginning to talk, play creates opportunities to learn new words. Silly songs and movement games teach words and concepts such as body parts and opposites. Active play can involve naming places and actions. Simple pretend play, like feeding a baby doll or playing with a doctor kit or toy farm, lets children repeat what a parent, doctor, or farmer might say.

The mastery of the basics of language, which usually occurs between the ages of two and three and a half, heralds a flowering of creativity. Children build and play in imaginary worlds. They use language to pretend, be silly, ask questions, and figure things out. Their wordplay, songs, and storytelling build foundations for reading.

As preschoolers and kindergarteners, children whose language is strong are likely to be popular playmates. They tell stories that are fun to play out, and can keep conversation going. They ask interesting questions, and they can use their words to solve problems, explain their ideas, and compromise. As they play together, children build on each other’s ideas and learn new words from each other.

At every age, adults can enhance the language-building power of play. Without taking over the child’s play or turning it into a lesson, adults can build on children’s ideas. They can supply words for what children are doing and ask questions that provoke thinking. They can extend a back-and-forth conversation, playing with sounds, words, or ideas. They can take on a role and play it with humor and gusto. They can add “juicy words” – specific, interesting words like “excavator,” ”camouflage,” or “scrumptious” - that are fun to say and make play more fun.

Related Information


Association for Childhood Education

National Association for the Education of Young Children

Wealth of Words


Language Develops Through Play

Play and Social-Emotional Development

What do J.K Rowling, Jim Carrey, Edgar Allen Poe, and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They have all had wonderfully successful lives after overcoming hardships, poverty or trauma in their younger years. So is there something more fundamental that helps put children on the path to success? Ellen Galinsky, in her best-selling book “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs”, groups the research into seven critical areas that children need most: (1) focus and self-control; (2) perspective taking; (3) communicating; (4) making connections; (5) critical thinking; (6) taking on challenges; (7) self-directed, engaged learning. For each of these skills, Galinsky shows parents what the studies have proven, and she provides numerous concrete things that parents can do to strengthen these skills in children.

Play is a wonderful way to nurture these characteristics in children. Through explorative play, children can find endless ways to satisfy their curiosity. Working out difficult puzzles or games helps a child learn both patience and perseverance, and builds a child’s sense of accomplishment and confidence. Social play promotes children’s negotiation skills and supports emotional development. So encourage your children to play and get them started in the right direction down that path to success.

Related Information






Richard Weissbourd, Raising Moral and Happy Children

Steve Gross: How Joy and Optimism Ignite the Best in All of Us from BrightSightGroup on Vimeo.

Play and Creativity

Play and creativity are intimately linked.  The experience of play and the creative process both require observation, discovery, experimentation, questioning, and making connections. Also central to both play and creativity is divergent thinking, where many paths offer potential solutions.

Imaginary play, drawing, painting, block-building, dancing, singing, climbing, running, all  enhance gross- and fine-motor development and provide rich experiences that bolster a child’s brain at the most important time for its development. Creative play also provides children with opportunities to express themselves and work through emotional situations in a non-threatening manner.

At Boston Children’s Museum, we enable active and creative play in its many forms. Our many exhibits and programs link play with learning and allow children to become the agent of their own learning.  As examples, our Art Studio encourages children to explore ideas and find out about artists and art from around the world, while also inventing and making artwork of their own. Our KidStage introduces children to the wondrous world of performing arts, allowing children to participate in short performances and be “in the spotlight.” Music programs engage children and families in the joy of music making.  And Johnny’s Workbench is a space for kids to work with hand tools and natural materials. So come, play, and create – your child’s brain and body will be the better for it.

Related Information


Tim Brown, Designer, TED Talk, Creativity and Play


Boston Children's Museum Exhibits

Boston Children's Museum Programs

Play and Cultural Differences

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." Plato

While it is clear that play, both solitary and in groups, enhances children’s cognitive development, group play also provides important cultural and social benefits.  Group play transcends cultural, social and ethnic differences and allows children to make connections with others who may not look or speak like them. Play is a natural way for young children from different backgrounds to engage with others, sharing joyful experiences that build trust.

How we interpret child's play and development differs from culture to culture. Different families may make different distinctions between child's play and a child's other activities. Some families tend to see play and academic activity separately.  Others see little distinction between play and a child's other activities, and put a  strong emphasis on social-interaction in child's play. And others believe that child-initiated play and other experiences are already related to the child's development of later academic experiences.  Notwithstanding different perspectives on play, it is widely accepted that group play serves as an initiation into a wider cultural life, critical to future success, academically and professionally.

Boston Children’s Museum is a diverse and welcoming environment where children have the opportunity to see and play with others from different ethnic, racial and social groups on an equal footing. By encouraging children to play with others from different backgrounds, we develop our children’s social skills, tolerance, and instill in them a sense of understanding and enjoyment of other cultures. Through Boston Children’s Museum exhibits such as Boston Black, Global Gallery and Japanese House children are also exposed to the tremendous diversity of cultures in their world.

Related Information


Boston Children's Museum Exhibit Boston Black

Boston Children's Museum Exhibit


Play & Cultural Differences, Beth Fredericks, M.Ed.


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