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Play, Creativity, and Problem Solving

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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).

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