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Play Declines and then Creativity Rises? No Way!

Explaining an inverse relationship.

Science often surprises us most when it uncovers the counterintuitive: sound, for example, travels 15 times faster through solid steel than air! On hard surfaces steel balls bounce higher than rubber balls! And, despite contrary appearances, the earth is not flat. A recent study contrasts two startlingly opposing trends: as time allotted for play has shrunk creativity appears to have risen. Or, as a press headline put it, “Despite Less Play, Children’s Use of Imagination Increases over Two Decades.” This seems just as implausible as the other puzzlers I mentioned. So what’s going on?

First the facts. In a well-publicized study Case Western Reserve University researchers Sandra Russ and Jessica Dillon begin by listing the disheartening data that chart the decline in play. Four in five school principals endorse the link between recess and achievement, social development, and well-being, yet curriculum and testing now crowd out unstructured free time for nearly all children in most schools. With more time spent passively watching television indoors added to the hours allotted to organized sports and other planned activities, kids have lost about 12 hours of spontaneous play per week over the last 20 years.

Because time spent voluntarily in free play correlates with inventiveness and divergent, out-of-the-box thinking, we would expect less creativity of kids today. Russ and Dillon expected that, too. Instead, they discovered that (when measured by the Affect in Play Scale) kids’ creativity has not declined over the last two decades. In fact, rather the opposite has occurred. Between 1985 and 2008, both comfort with play and imagination in play significantly increased in children. In timed puppet-play sessions over the course of 23 years, groups of six to ten-year-olds generated both more ideas and more novel ideas. That the facility for pretending and creating should increase in the face of “more hours in front of the television or the video game console” and “the decrease in play time” however, left Russ and Dillon not a little perplexed.

The Strong's eGameRevolution exhibit arcade

eGameRevolution arcade courtesy of The Strong

And it is perplexing unless, and here’s the kicker, we regard the hours spent at the video game console as play.

What’s happened after 1985 besides the loss of outdoor free play time? In a word, “video games.” Video game play has exploded since 1985. An estimated 183 million Americans play video games now. (In the interest of full disclosure, the place I work, The Strong, houses the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, which holds the largest public collection of video games in the country.)

In 1985, Nintendo sold 10 million copies of a game featuring the Super Mario Bros.—comical Italian stonemasons who raced rocket-powered all-terrain vehicles through fantasy landscapes. That same year Atari launched Gauntlet, a multiplayer arcade game that presented a struggle among the characters Thor (a wizard), Merlin (a magician), Thyra (a Valkyrie), and Questor (an elf). The handheld Game Boy appeared in 1989 and bundled in the problem-solving game Tetris. By 1993, Sega had introduced Virtua Fighter, which featured stunningly realistic action scenes in 3D. PlayStation’s 1999 Ape Escape invited gamers to frustrate the ambitions of an albino ape-genius named Specter. By hijacking a time machine, Specter traveled backward to raise an army of intelligent primates who would rewrite evolutionary history to humans’ great dismay. In 2010, the company Quantic Dream released Heavy Rain, an interactive game with a narrative so complex, psychologically portentous, and capricious that it almost defies description here. Let me relay only that the characters include a comatose architect, an asthmatic private investigator, an insomniac photojournalist, and a FBI profiler trained in the use of “augmented reality glasses”—all of them are in hot pursuit of the Origami Killer.

International Center of the History of Electronic Games

Collections, courtesy The Strong

Here’s the answer to our paradox: play is a powerful impulse not easily denied. Creativity hasn’t increased despite a decline in play; it has likely increased because of the growth in a kind of play that adults can’t yet credit. Since 1985 the marketplace has conducted a vast, remedial experiment that has revealed how kids will fit video game play into the interstices of many other activities. When kids find play being squeezed out they take recess in tiny intervals, finding respite in fleeting playful moments enabled now even on the phones they carry in their pockets. Now I’m not arguing that kids should forsake either their homework desk or the climbable tree for video games. But I will insist that the content of video games—often about conflict, but also heavily laden with character development, twisting plots, unfolding visual possibilities, and fantastic mythologizing—encourages exploratory flights of the imagination. Couple this with the symbols gamers are obliged to decode and manipulate, the meanings they are invited to discover, and the complicated strategies that the games require players to master (often in the company of other players), and shazaam, we’ve got a recipe for encouraging beneficial, creative, satisfying, divergent thinking in a generation comfortable with imagination.