Recent studies suggest children’s exploratory play is consistent with formal accounts of rational learning. Here we focus on the tension between this view and a nearly ubiquitous feature of human play: In play, people subvert normal utility functions, incurring seemingly unnecessary costs to achieve arbitrary rewards. We show that four-and-five-year-old children not only infer playful behavior from observed violations of rational action (Experiment 1), but themselves take on unnecessary costs during both retrieval (Experiment 2) and search (Experiments 3A–B) tasks, despite acting efficiently in non-playful, instrumental contexts. We discuss the value of such apparently utility-violating behavior and why it might serve learning in the long run.

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Competing Interests: The authors declare no conflict of interests.

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