Play time: Kids have less time, more imagination for make believe
New play time study shows kids are more imaginative and comfortable with make believe than they were 20 years ago, despite shrinkig play time during and after school.
Richard Burkhart/The Morning News/AP
Students today may have less time for free play, but new research suggests their imaginations have actually sharpened compared with children two decades ago.
In an analysis published in May 2011 in theÂ Creativity Research JournalÂ andÂ posted online last month, researchers from Case Western University in Cleveland found elementary school children in 2008 were significantly more imaginative and took greater comfort in playing make-believe than their counterparts in 1985 despite having less time either during or after school for free play.
âWe did think everything was going to get worse, because if play time is going down, youâd think children wouldnât be able to engage in play as well as they used to,â said Sandra W. Russ, a professor of psychology, who co-authored the study with Case Western doctoral student Jessica A. Dillon.
âWe knew from talking with children that they didnât play with toys as much as they used to. So we were surprised by the finding, and we think itâs important.â
Ms. Russ has been analyzing studentsâ play practices at middle- and working-class elementary schools for 23 years, using a measure called the Affect in Play Scale. Nearly 900 children ages 6 to 10 have been videotaped for five minutes each as they talked while playing with three blocks and two hand-puppets. Researchers later scored each video for the childâs imagination, emotional expression, actions, and storytelling.
âWe look at, can the child use the blocks to be different thingsâcars, a building, beads on a necklace?â she explained. âWe look at different play elements in the story: How novel is it? Is the child engaged in it, enjoying it?â
The Case Western researchers found that across 14 studies spanning 23 years, children showed no difference in the organization or emotional engagement of their play or storytelling. But there was a marked increase, on a one-to-five scale, in the quality of imagination they displayed during the sessions.
Children who rate highly in imaginative and emotional play are not necessarily more intelligent than other children, Ms. Russ said, but they do show better coping skills, creativity, and problem solving than students who rate low on the play scale.
Shrinking Free Time
The findings may give a breath of relief to educators concerned that playtime is shrinking for the nationâs students, just as research shows the cognitive and social benefits of childrenâs make-believe. According to 2008 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent available, public school students have on average 1.7 hours of recess time each week, but 7 to 10 percent of schools have no recess at all in particular grades.
On average, American children have eight fewer hours of unstructured playtime after school each week than they did 25 years ago, according to research by David Elkind, a professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Mr. Elkind attributes a âloss of the culture of childhoodâ to increasing parent concerns over child safety during free time and a rise in academic focus for both school time and extracurricular activities, leading to more structured, scheduled play.
Moreover, the American Academy of PediatricsÂ has foundÂ that students from low socioeconomic-level backgrounds have disproportionately less time for unstructured free play, because they are more likely to face cuts to school recess time, and unsafe parks and playgrounds to use after school. Play, for the researchersâ purposes, can include play indoors or outside with toys, but does not include video game play or sports or other structured activities.
But Ms. Russ believes that, as childrenâs playtime is restricted, they may be finding ways to âsneak inâ pretend play, and that schools forced to do away with recess or art frequently try to incorporate more imaginative tasks into other parts of the curriculum.
âChildren are resilient,â she said. âItâs possible they are playing more than we think they are, that theyâre squeezing it in somewhere during the day, at night, when theyâre not being taken to sports or dancing class.â
âThe very fact that animals play and humans play tells you something; there must be some evolutionary benefit here,â Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said. âYou canât have something that prevalent in a species that doesnât have a use. I think that use comes out in social skills, inhibiting bad responses, and promoting good responses, talking about that which can and cannot be seen.â
Play as Safety Valve
However, while imagination can be developed via other methods, childrenâs emotional development may be taking a bigger hit from limits on playtime, the Case Western researchers found.
Children in the study showed no change in positive emotions and enjoyment during the play sessions, but over the years they became much less likely to show negative emotion during play. That might seem like a benefitâchildren are becoming happier in their playâbut Ms. Russ finds it troubling that children are less likely to use play as a safety valve for aggression, depression and other bad feelings.
âThis may be where the lack of time to play may be starting to hurt,â Ms. Russ said. âPlay is safe; itâs pretend, and if they express negative emotions, itâs OK. Children use play to process negative emotion, and if they donât have as much time to play, they donât have many other places where they can do it. So as a clinical psychologist, that finding concerns me.â
John J. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., called play âvital, not only for studentsâ happiness but their ability to take in new information and learn about failure.â
Bringing Back Play
After more than a decade of reductions in recess time, the pendulum is just beginning to swing back toward providing more time for students to play, both at home and at school.
âPlay is active, engaged, and meaningful learning, and we know thatâs absolutely not a waste of time,â Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said. âI think we have to begin to ask, if the goal is about learning, how do we create learning environments that allow kids to take the playful lead?â
In Illinois, for example, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford has proposed legislation to require all K-5 schools to provide at least 20 minutes of recess, including âfree and structured playâ per day, and to recommend the same for all grades above that. By contrast, many Chicago public schools had not had recess for decades, until the districtâs extended-day plan implemented this year required all primary schools to offer recess starting next year. That bill, SB 636, passed the state Senate on May 10, but a spokesperson from Sen. Lightfordâs office said it wonât be taken up by the state House until fall.
Individual schools are trying to integrate more play as well. The Blue School, an independent school in the Manhattan borough of New York that was founded by the performance art troupe the Blue Man Group, uses a project-based curriculum to allow students as much free rein in learning as possible. The school, which serves 200 students from preschool through 3rd grade, evolved out of a parent-run play group and tries to keep to its roots, according to ReneĂŠ Rolleri, a co-founder and the president of the schoolâs board.
For example, one class of 4-year-olds used the schoolâs playground of giant foam shapes to create an âanimal training center.â While the project incorporated considerable free play, the children also researched the whales, dolphins and lions they would pretend to train, designed and built costumes, and interviewed guests associated with a real wildlife conservation center.
âWhen teachers have the freedom and ability to watch and listen to the students and integrate content into projects the students care about,â Ms. Rolleri said, âyou have this incredible group of deeply engaged students who have ownership of what they are learning.â
Blending free play and formal academics can be a delicate balance, though.Â Research by H. Lindsey Russo, an assistant professor at the State University of New York New Paltz school of education and the curriculum director at Blue School, shows preschool-age children made no distinction between work and play if they were having fun, but they were acutely sensitive to being allowed to do things independently. âEven when an activity was fun it immediately became âworkâ if an adult intervened,â she found.
Copyright 2012Â Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.
- âStudies Explore How to Nurture Students' Creativity,âÂ December 14, 2011.
- "Pediatrics Academy Stresses Low-Income Students' Need for Playtime,"Â (Schooled in Sports Blog) December 27, 2011.
- "National Summit to Promote Role of Imagination in Schools,"Â (Curriculum Matters Blog) July 7, 2011.