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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.

By Sarah D. SparksEducation Week / July 25, 2012

Play time: A new study says that despite having less play time, kids are more imaginative now than 20 years ago. William Bucey, 3, plays in one of the many areas at the Savannah Children's Museum's Exploration Station during the grand opening on June 9, 2012 in Savannah, Ga.

Richard Burkhart/The Morning News/AP

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Students today may have less time for free play, but new research suggests their imaginations have actually sharpened compared with children two decades ago.

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In an analysis published in May 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal and 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.

“We did think everything was going to get worse, because if play time is going down, you’d think children wouldn’t be able to engage in play as well as they used to,” said Sandra W. Russ, a professor of psychology, who co-authored the study with Case Western doctoral student Jessica A. Dillon.

“We knew from talking with children that they didn’t play with toys as much as they used to. So we were surprised by the finding, and we think it’s important.”

Measuring Play

Ms. Russ has been analyzing students’ 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 child’s imagination, emotional expression, actions, and storytelling.

“We look at, can the child use the blocks to be different things—cars, a building, beads on a necklace?” she explained. “We look at different play elements in the story: How novel is it? Is the child engaged in it, enjoying it?”

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 nation’s students, just as research shows the cognitive and social benefits of children’s 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 “loss of the culture of childhood” 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.

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