Because children's play is spontaneous and freely chosen, it is often quite imaginative. Indeed, it is sometimes described as creative. But what do we mean when we speak of creativity, and how might children demonstrate creativity in their play? Is all play creative? Are some ways of playing more creative than others, and if a child is encouraged to play creatively, will he or she demonstrate heightened creativity in other areas of life as well?

Creativity is actually not a simple concept, but is somewhat complex in that it contains three related elements. First, it is a personality characteristic, an attitude toward oneself and the world that is characterized by mental flexibility, spontaneity, curiosity, and persistence. Children judged to be very creative display evidence of persistence, high energy levels, self-confidence, independence of judgment, flexibility, openness to new experiences, tolerance of ambiguity, and a good sense of humor. In addition, they seem to be aware of and accepting of their own feelings, and playfully curious about the world (Barron & Harrington, 1981; Janos & Robinson, 1985).

Creativity is also an intellectual process, a way of thinking, an approach to solving problems. Psychologists have always had trouble determining which intellectual skills are necessary for creativity, although most would agree that these include a tendency to form unusual associations, to relax conscious thought to gain access to more "primitive" modes of cognition, to use analogies and metaphors in reasoning, to form rich visual images, and to ask original questions (Barron & Harrington, 1981). An aspect of the creative process that has been studied frequently in research on the play of preschool children is the ability to engage in what are called convergent and divergent problem solving. We shall explore these concepts in the following section of this chapter.

Finally, creativity results in a creative product, which is an original contribution to the appreciation, understanding, or improvement of the human condition (Weisberg, 1993). This is a lot to expect for a preschool child playing with paints or clay, and so it may be more correct to say that children have the potential for turning out creative products than to say that they actually do. In other words, the creativity of young children is more likely to be reflected in the processes of their thinking, and particularly in their approaches to problem solving, than in products they bring home from nursery school.

Within the past 20 years, there has been a considerable amount of research, conducted mostly on preschool children, on the relationship between play and problem solving. More specifically, researchers have looked at the impact of either object play or fantasy play on children's ability to solve either single-solution or multiple-solution problems. The typical research design has been to (1) allow children to engage in free play with materials that they would later use to solve single-solution problems or (2) examine the relationship between make-believe play and children's ability to deal with multiple-solution problems (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983).

Convergent Problem Solving

Single-solution problems require the ability to engage in what is known as convergent problem solving (Pepler, 1979; Pepler & Ross, 1981), the ability to bring a variety of isolated pieces of information together to come up with the one correct solution. As an example, consider the nature of the problem presented to a group of preschool children by Sylva (1977). The children were seated and told to attempt to obtain an object that was beyond their reach, without standing up or leaving their chairs. Two long sticks were provided, neither long enough to reach the desired object. However (and this was the only solution to the problem), if the sticks were clamped together, the children could attain their goal.

Sylva (1977) divided the preschoolers into three groups. The first were allowed to play freely with the problem-solving materials prior to engaging in the task A second group watched as the experimenter solved the problem before they were asked to do it. Finally, a third group, the control, was given neither the play experience nor the opportunity to observe the problem being solved.

It was found that the children who either played with the materials in advance or watched an adult solve the problem became more successful problem solvers than those in the control group. More interesting was the finding that the play group appeared to be more highly motivated to solve the problem and worked at it more persistently than did the observation group, whose members either solved the problem immediately or simply gave up.

Divergent Problem Solving

Multiple-solution problems require the use of divergent problem-solving skills, the ability to branch out from a starting point and consider a variety of possible solutions. A person might be asked, for example, to list all the possible uses for a paper clip, besides holding pieces of paper together, of course. A child in a classroom might be asked to discuss the feelings George Washington may have had as he crossed the Delaware River, as opposed to simply providing the one correct answer to a question like "Which major battle was he preparing to fight?

Divergent problem solving has often been linked to the processes involved in creativity, whereas convergent problem solving has been related to performance on conventional intelligence and classroom tests, on which there are usually single correct answers (Guilford, 1967). The distinction is not quite so simple, however. Although many studies have found correlations between divergent problem-solving ability and various measures of creativity, many others have not (Kogan, 1983; Wallach, 1985). What is more, convergent problem solving may also be involved in creativity, particularly in the area of the natural sciences; it seems fair to say that both types of problem solving are involved in varying degrees in the creative process (Barron & Harrington, 1981; Hudson, 1966).

It was noted earlier that studies linking play and single-solution, or convergent, problem solving typically examined the impact of prior play experience with the materials used in solving such problems. Research on divergent problem solvving has also examined the role of prior play with objects, but more often it has investigated the impact on divergent problem solving of pretense, or fantasy, play.

Object Play

Is it possible to help children improve their divergent problem-solving skills by providing them with appropriate types of objects to play with? In fact, there does appear to be a relationship between divergent problem-solving ability and the characteristics of children's play materials (Pepler & Ross, 1981; Smith & Dutton, 1979; Sylva, Bruner, & Genova, 1976). Consider the findings of Pepler and Ross (1981), who gave 64 preschool children the opportunity to play repeatedly with convergent materials (e.g., puzzles with one correct solution) or divergent materials (e.g., blocks, which can be assembled in a variety of ways). Later, the children in the two groups were asked to solve a variety of problems, and their problem-solving approaches were examined.

The children who had engaged in divergent object play were found to be more flexible and more original in their problem-solving approaches. For example, they were quicker than those in the convergent play group to abandon ineffective approaches to solving problems and to come up with new approaches. The researchers concluded that the experience of working with puzzles or other toys that suggest a single correct way to play with them may teach children that there are correct answers and encourage them to seek them out. Playing with open-ended materials, on the other hand, may tell a child that numerous approaches can be taken to any problem and the possibilities for the use of one's creative imagination are limitless.

Similar results ,yere found by Dansky and Silverman (1973, 1975), who assigned preschool children to one of three conditions (1) divergent play with novel materials, (2) imitative play, or (3) problem-solving experience, before testing all of them on a divergent problem-solving task. The researchers discovered that the children in the first condition performed better on the divergent problem-solving task, both when the same and different play materials were used.

Fantasy Play

Object play has clearly been related to divergent problem-solving ability in young children; so, too, has make-believe, or fantasy, play (Dansky, 1980; Hutt & Bhavnani, 1976; Johnson, 1976). For example, Dansky (1980) observed 96 preschool children in a free-play situation and categorized them as high or low in their pretend playability.  He then assigned them to one of three categories, similar to those used in the Dansky and Silverman (1973, 1975) studies described in the previous section, except that instead of a divergent play condition, he included a condition in which children were allowed to play as they wished.

Dansky (1980) found that the children in the free-play situation performed best on the divergent problem-solving task, but only if they were spontaneously high in their level of make-believe play. He concluded that it is not play in itself that predicts problem-solving skill, but the extent to which children become involved in make-believe when they are playing. This connection between level of fantasy predisposition and success at creative problem solving has been found in other studies as well (Johnson, 1976, Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983), although it should be remembered that such a relationship does not prove that engaging in fantasy play actually causes children to become better creative problem solvers. Perhaps it is the case that fantasy play and divergent problem solving share a common intellectual prerequisite.

It has been suggested that the link between fantasy play and divergent thinking can be found in the concept of decentration (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983). Decentration involves the ability to attend simultaneously to many features of one's environment, to transform objects and situations while at the same time understanding their original identities and states, to imagine at one and the same time things as they are and also as they were. For example, the child engaged in make-believe knows that the object he is sitting in is really a cardboard box, but he pretends it is a car; in a sense, it is both a box and a car at once, and perhaps it was a submarine ten minutes earlier! Make-believe play, therefore, provides evidence of a considerable amount of intellectual flexibility in the child, and flexibility is a key ingredient in the creative process.