Exploring Cause and Effect at the Playground

A child’s desire to cause things to happen emerges almost at birth. When babies cry, their needs are met. Early on, when an infant bats an uncoordinated arm at a toy, it rattles. As the child becomes more aware, they begin to notice the relationship between the two events. ”I tap that thing and it makes a sound.” Soon, the child realizes it’s possible to cause things to happen. And, it’s possible to change how to interact with an object or a person to change the outcome. “I’ll shake this toy really hard, and it will make a much louder sound.”

A 3-year-old shows an understanding of cause and effect when he makes a prediction about what could happen. “I’ll turn this crank, and a clown will pop out of the box.” Or, when he reflects on what caused something to happen. “The clown popped out of the box because I turned the crank.” A 4-year-old has the reasoning capacity to track a complex chain reaction of cause-and-effect relationships.

Why is this important?

These early experiences with logic and reasoning form the very basis of a child’s future mastery of school subjects. Understanding the idea of cause and effect will help the child with problem solving in many contexts. Even the simplest play contributes to the framework of more sophisticated thinking and learning.

The playground offers many opportunities for your child to explore cause-and-effect relationships. So, as soon as you’re comfortable taking your baby on an outing, consider a stop at the playground. At first, your visits will be more of a show and tell. You’ll show your baby all the fun playground equipment, name each piece, and talk about how you play on it. Then, together, you’ll watch children playing as you narrate their actions to your little one. This sets the stage for things to come.

Once your child has reached certain gross-motor milestones—she walks without help, he has good balance and coordination, they climb on playground equipment such as ladders and slides—you can enhance the physical fun with some cognitive learning. When your child takes a break from the action, sit together on a bench facing the playground. Then, narrate other kids’ actions, pointing out cause and effect instances whenever possible.


While at the playground, describe cause-and-effect relationships to your child. “The harder her dad pushes her, the higher she goes.”


For example, you might say, “Watch. When that little boy goes down on the seesaw, the little boy on the other end goes up.” Or, “When the dad pushes the girl on the swing, the swing moves back and forth. The harder he pushes, the higher she goes.” Or, “When the children splash in the puddle, they get wet.” Or, “When the girl sits at the top of the slide and lets go, she slides to the bottom.”

On your return home, look for other examples of cause and effect. If you’re in a car, you might say, “When I press the gas pedal, the car moves forward.” Or, “When I step on the brake pedal, the car stops.” Or, “When the light is red at the intersection, I stop the car. When the light turns green, I can go.” As your child matures, challenge them to come up with cause-and-effect examples independently.

Developing an understanding of cause and effect can help children build their ability to solve problems, to make predictions, and to understand the impact of their behavior on others. These are major activities in the fields of science and engineering. So, head on over to the nearest playground today, and show your little one the concept that doing something can cause something else to happen. You may end up nurturing a budding scientist or engineer.