“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”- Albert Einstein
Sitting in an indoor playspace, I watched my daughter climb into a plastic storage bin on the floor. Although it was meant in this case for housing various toys in the room, there was no harm done. She sat contently in the container and began mimicking the action of driving a bus, calling for other passengers to join her on the ride. As I continued to observe, another child approached and grabbed his own bin only to be chided by his mother. “James, we don’t climb into containers.” Even as a proponent of creative play I found myself feeling guilty, but of what? Was I letting my child run wild or allowing her an opportunity to take advantage of a space created specifically with children in mind, a space whose very design fosters imaginative play, creativity, and exploration? Her simple and innocent act of driving a school bus was interrupted as we both confronted societal norms in which play and creativity were no longer allowed.
Creativity is as essential to healthy development as nutritious food or physical activity. Creativity allows us an opportunity to develop our minds in unexpected ways. It seems all too often that we live in a world where we value the correct answer over a multitude of possibilities. Yet, the times when only one solution applies is far and few between. We emphasize standardized testing over resourceful thinking. We reward those who think along lines similar to ours and penalize those who offer a different perspective. Still, in today’s world, we must continue to consider new and innovative solutions to tough challenges. If you need an example look no further than our current economic crisis. Aside from the inability of our elected officials to work together across party lines, there remains a lack of creative solutions being ushered forward. The result? Spinning wheels, shouting matches, and arguments centered around ideas implemented in the past.
Is this the future we want for our children? I certainly hope not. If we look back over the last several decades, it is remarkable how far the world has advanced–the introduction of the Internet, improvements in life-saving medicines, clean drinking water where none previously existed. These advancements are not accidental in nature, they are the byproduct of allowing oneself to think and act in a creative manner.
Creativity is not something that should be thought of as a privilege of youth. It is something that we each can tap into each day, regardless of age. Yet, there is something to be said about flexing those creative muscles at an early age and cultivating healthy cognitive development from the onset of life. The opportunity to be creative during play sessions benefits children in a number of ways. Play expert Joe Frost writes that “Play that is beneficial to children is play that is active , creative, and social, engaging the body in fine and gross motor negotiation and the mind in negotiation, problem solving, imagination, and flexibility.” (1) Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has additionally identified the positive impact of play for both children and adults. “Kids play because it feels good and in playing kids try out and learn new ideas, make new friends, and strengthen their body. Play spells learning and growth because positive emotions broaden and build.”(2) In considering how this impacts one’s ability to creatively contribute to society she further states. “A broadened mind allows you to break out of old habits and well worn ruts to do something different, anything different. Randomness like this is essential to building resources, rebounding from adversity, and flourishing.”
When one looks at the research stemming from academic, medical, and psychological disciplines, it is difficult to ignore the impact that play has on healthy child development. Yet the rate at which people dismiss the importance of play as a means to improve the overall health of children is astounding. Perhaps this dismissal stems from a lack of understanding of the level of damage that can be inflicted by not allowing children to receive the full benefits of discovering, creating, and engaging through play. A study conducted out of Baylor College of Medicine found that “children who don’t play much or are rarely touched developed brains 20 percent to 30 percent smaller than normal for their age.” (3)
In a synthesis of research focused on pretend play which examined academics, cognitive, linguistic, social development, and problem solving, it was found that when high-quality pretend play opportunities were presented, children thrived through the use of creativity and imagination. In summarizing her findings Bergen states that “If children lack opportunities to experience such play, their long-term capacities related to metacognition, problem solving, and social cognition, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, may be diminished.”(4)
While I may have initially been stricken by an unnecessary pang of guilt, as I sat in the playroom watching my daughter break societal norms, I was ultimately able to sit back and give her the room she needs to reach her highest potential. It dawned on me as I was writing this entry that if we are to help others realize the merits of play it’s not enough to simply write about it or to talk about its benefits, we must take it to a higher level and dare to play in public.
- Frost, J. (2006). The dissolution of children’s outdoor play: Causes and consequences. Retrieved from http://www.ipema.org/documents/common%20good%20pdf.pdf.
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Nash, J. M. (1997, February 3). Fertile minds. TIME Australia Magazine, 5, 36-45.
- Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children’s cognitive development. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1).