Despite less play, children's use of imagination increases over two decades

May 30, 2012

Children today may be busier than ever, but Case Western Reserve University psychologists have found that their imagination hasn't suffered – in fact, it appears to have increased.

Psychologists Jessica Dillon and Sandra Russ expected the opposite outcome when they analyzed 14 play studies that Russ conducted between 1985 and 2008.

The video will load shortly

But as they report in "Changes in Children's Play Over Two Decades," an article in the Creativity Research Journal, the data told a story contrary to common assumptions. First, children's use of in play and their overall comfort and engagement with play activities actually increased over time. In addition, the results suggested that today expressed less negative feelings in play. Finally, their capacity to express a wide range of positive emotions, to tell stories and to organize thoughts stayed consistent.

Dillon, a fifth-year doctoral student, and Russ, a professor in psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve, decided to revisit the play data after a 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed children played less.

They set out to see if having less time for unstructured play affected the processes in play that influence cognition and emotional development, a focus of the play research.

The pretend play studies focused on children between the ages of 6 and 10. The children's play was measured for comfort, imagination, the range and amount of positive to negative emotions used and expressed, and the quality of storytelling by using Russ' Affect in Play Scale (APS).

The APS is a five-minute, unstructured play session. Children are asked to play freely with three wooden blocks and two human hand puppets. The play is videotaped, and later reviewed and scored for imagination, expression of emotions, actions and storytelling.

Russ explains that children who exhibit good play skills with imaginative and emotional play situations have shown better skills at coping, creativity and problem solving. She stresses there is no link between being a good player and intelligence.

The APS data provided a consistent measurement and research structure over the 23-year period. Russ said the consistency of having the same tool to measure play provided this unique opportunity to track changes in play.

"We were surprised that outside of imagination and comfort, play was consistent over time," said Dillon.

Russ did voice concern about the decrease in displayed negative emotions and actions. "Past studies have linked in play with creativity," she said.

But even with the lack of time to play, Russ said, children, like some other forms of higher mammals, have a drive to play and always will find ways to do it.

As new stimuli, like video games and the Internet, have crept into everyday life, Russ explains that children might gain cognitive skills from using technology where they once got it from acting out situations in play. Skills might also develop from daydreaming.

Russ said future research will need to focus on whether acting out emotions and creating stories in play is as important as it once was in helping children to be creative.

Even though children have less time these days for , Russ still advises giving children time for it, adding that it helps children develop emotional and cognitive abilities.

Explore further: Toy teaches autistic children positive play

Related Stories

Toy teaches autistic children positive play

July 1, 2011
A responsive, mechanised toy designed especially for autistic children six months and up has been created to teach positive play behaviours.

Young children understand the benefits of positive thinking

December 22, 2011
Even kindergarteners know that thinking positively will make you feel better. And parents' own feelings of optimism may play a role in whether their children understand how thoughts influence emotions.

Augmented play helps autism

February 23, 2012
Playing with interactive toys could help children with autism to improve their social interaction with other children, say University of Sussex psychologists.

Recommended for you

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

New study suggests that reduced insurance coverage for mental health treatment increases costs for the seriously ill

July 19, 2017
Higher out-of-pocket costs for mental health care could have the unintended consequence of increasing the use of acute and involuntary mental health care among those suffering from the most debilitating disorders, a Harvard ...

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.