Children who play creatively early show best creativity and problem-solving later

August 02, 1999

Giving children the time, space, and tools to play can aid them in developing important coping and problem-solving skills in stressful situations, according to CWRU psychologists who are following children in a study on play and creativity in children. Results from the second of three longitudinal studies shows that creative children in the first and second grades continue to use their imaginations and emotions in their play in the fifth and sixth grades.

"Good early play skills predicted the ability to be creative and generate alternative solutions to everyday problems and a higher quality of solutions," says Sandra Russ, professor and chair of CWRU's Department of Psychology.

She will report the research findings on play and creativity from the longitudinal study, "Pretend Play: Longitudinal Prediction of Creativity and Affect in Fantasy in Children" in the upcoming edition of the quarterly Creativity Research Journal. Other authors on the research project are Andrew Robins and Beth Christiano, former CWRU graduate students.

The researchers revisited some of the 121 children in a 1987 study to see if the creative players in early grade school remained that way in later years. The earlier study explored whether the quality of the use of fantasy and expressing emotions in pretend play can predict creativity.

Of the 86 fifth and sixth graders still living in a Cleveland suburb, 31 agreed to participate in the follow-up study. The sample had 17 boys and 14 girls, with 29 percent of the sample population being African-American and 71 percent Caucasian.

For many years, Russ has looked at the importance of play in developing creativity, because children use imaginative thinking, experiencing of emotional changes, and expressing emotions involved in creativity while playing.

According to Russ, the two studies -- along with another one under way looking at the same children now in the 11th and 12th grade -- will provide the foundation work on play and creativity to see whether the skills of being a good imaginative player in early grades continue through adolescence. If those skills persist, Russ explains, early interventions by parents, teachers, and daycare workers can help young children learn how to develop into better players with some lifelong coping skills.

This study is one of only a few research projects that takes a long-term look at play and creativity, says Russ.

The study's participants took three tests for creativity.

The Affect in Play Scale, which Russ developed, measures the range and kinds of emotions children exhibit while engaged in a five-minute pretend play session, using a boy and girl hand puppet and a set of three blocks. In the 1987 study, the children were videotaped playing with the toys, while the older children were asked to construct a play with a story line using the toys. This test measures 11 categories of positive and negative emotions children can use in play.

Students also were given the Alternate Uses Test, which tested creativity by asking them to write as many uses as they could think of for an object like a newspaper.

Using a child's storybook, children were asked to create a story based on the pictures in the book as the third measure of creativity.

The researchers also gathered information on how often the youths participated in activities in the areas of literature, music, drama, arts, crafts, and science. The findings of how creative a child was were not based on intelligence, says Russ.

How well the youths coped was measured after students related how they would handle eight different situations such as forgetting their lunch at home, dealing with someone who is teasing them, or what they would do if they lost a book they needed for a test.

Children who exhibited more emotion and fantasy in their early play had more emotions in their play stories in later years, were more creative, and were better copers, says Russ.

Russ -- the editor of Affect, Creative Experience, and Psychological Adjustment (Taylor and Frances, October 1998) -- pointed out that the family's child-rearing practices can have an influence on learning to be a good player.

She suggests the following tips to help parents give their children a jump start on good playing:Russ encourages people not to underestimate how valuable play is in a child's life. She adds that it gives children an opportunity to explore a variety of solutions to everyday situations.

Case Western Reserve University

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