Play, Creativity, and Problem Solving (page 3)

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

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.

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