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Howard-Jones, P.A. , Taylor, J. and Sutton, L. (2002) The effects of play on the
creativity of young children, Early Child Development and Care, 172 (4), p 323-
The effect of play on the creativity of young children
during subsequent activity
PAUL A. HOWARD-JONES, JAYNE R. TAYLOR and LESLEY SUTTON
Cardiff School of Education, University of Wales Institute Cardiff.
This study investigated whether the experience of unstructured play in a preceding
task may influence the creativity of young children in subsequent activity. 52 children
in the age range 6-7 were randomly allocated to two groups. The first group was
allowed to play with salt-dough for 25 minutes, while the other group followed a
structured exercise involving the copying of text from the board. All children were
then asked to produce a collage of a creature, using a controlled range of tissue-paper
materials. The procedure was then repeated some days later, with the two groups
experiencing the other preceding task. 10 judges (7 trainee teachers and 3 lecturers)
judged the creative quality of the work arising. The range of colours and total number
of pieces used by each child in each collage was also recorded. Analysis of the results
revealed a significant positive effect of preceding task upon creativity and range of
Keywords: Play, creativity
Email contact: PAJones@uwic.ac.uk
Play has been referred to as the “work” of children (Papilia and Olds, 1990) and the
importance of play in the cognitive development of children has frequently been
acknowledged. In particular, children’s tendency towards play, or playfulness, has
been linked to creative thinking skills (Lieberman, 1965, Wallach, 1970, Lieberman,
1977) and tends to indicate a disposition towards creativity in later life (Clark,
Griffing and Johnson, 1989, Schmukler, 1982-3, Russ, Robins and Christiano, 1999).
Some immediate effects of playing have also been examined. An early study by
Sutton-Smith (1967) demonstrated how children’s ability to think up uses for an
object was improved by being allowed to play with it. Dansky and Silverman (1973)
exposed groups of pre-school children to conventional objects for 10 minutes. One
group was allowed to play freely with it, another imitated an adult’s actions on the
objects and the third group observed an adult act upon the objects. The free-play
group scored significantly higher than the other two groups in an alternate uses test
involving the objects. Dansky and Silverman (1975) later carried out a similar
investigation but assessed the children’s ability, after exposure to objects, to produce
alternate uses for new objects they had not seen before. The group who had been
allowed to play transferred their playful disposition towards the new objects and
again scored significantly higher than the other two groups. In interpreting this and
other studies, Pellegrini (1984-1985) distinguishes between exploration and play,
suggesting that exploration can be characterised by a behaviour that seeks to answer
“What is it?” “What can it do?”. This explorative behaviour then wanes and is
replaced by a playful behaviour that is more concerned with “What can I do with it?”.
Pellegrini (1983-1984) suggests, given the short time that the children were allowed
with the object, that it may have been the transfer of an explorative mind set that
supported the children in determining uses for the new object. This idea was
successfully exploited in later studies that showed adult-led exploratory questioning
to be more effective than free play in improving the general associative fluency of
children (Pellegrini, 1981, 1982, Pellegrini and Greene, 1980).
Affect may also play a role in influencing the creativity observed in tasks following
playful activity. In a study by Isen, Johnson, Mertz and Robinson (1985), adult
subjects who watched films designed to induce a happy mood made more unusual
associations on subsequent verbal tasks. However, these findings appear to conflict
with those of Tighe, (1992), who found that subjects in positive mood conditions
wrote stories that were rated as less creative than did subjects in either negative or
neutral conditions. Further, Amabile (1996) reports that she has failed, in several
attempts, to show that inducing a positive affect significantly influences the creativity
of her subjects. Such apparently contradictory findings may be due to the relationship
between associative fluency and more general measures of creativity (see below).
Additionally, the level of relaxation induced by the experimenters may be a more
significant factor than the positive mood of their subjects. By considering models of
creative cognition involving movement between focused and unfocused states of
mind (Martindale, 1995, Howard-Jones and Murray, in press), it can be predicted that
relaxation of subjects should lead to greater associative fluency - as demonstrated for
adults by Forgays and Forgays (1992).
Berretta and Privette (1990) measured the creativity of children using the Torrance
Tests of Creative Thinking for after they had experienced structured or flexible play
experiences. These tests provided scores for over-all creative thinking , fluency,
flexibility and originality. Children who participated in flexible play experiences
exhibited greater creative thinking than the children who had received highly
structured play experiences. These higher scores derived from increases in originality
of thinking rather than fluency or flexibility. The lack of an effect for fluency may be
considered surprising in the light of studies such as Dansky and Silverman (1975).
Berretta and Privette (1990) suggest that those activities that benefit from improved
creative thinking should be scheduled after free-play, so that they may benefit from
Studies that use measures of associative fluency, and even those that include
flexibility and originality, may not provide us with a direct indication of creativity in
the broader sense. Creativity is most often defined as the ability to produce solutions
which are both appropriate and original. The ability to access remote associations
may be considered fundamental in producing original ideas. However, the
appropriateness of an idea relies upon an individuals ability to focus critically upon it
and refine it (Martindale, 1995). The Consensual Assessment Technique (Amabile,
1996) provides a more general measure of creative value, by gaining a measurement
of the creativity of an outcome according to a panel of individuals according to their
own independently-formulated criteria. This technique has been used to assess the
positive impact of creative activity upon college students, showing it to have
beneficial effects upon creativity, intrinsic motivation and long-term retention (Conti,
Amabile and Pollak, 1995). The creative task employed, however, was directly
related to the learning topic (dreams), and this was chiefly a study of longer-term
effects than those considered in the present study.
The focus of the present study was to determine whether short periods of free-play
have an influence upon the creativity demonstrated by young children in an activity
typical of the curriculum, when this subsequent activity is not related to either the
medium or topic of the preceding free-play. In this respect, it evaluated the potential
effectiveness of the type of schedule proposed by Berreta and Privette (1990). Unlike
previous studies, however, it assessed the effect of preceding task upon creativity
using the Consensual Assessment Technique (Amabile, 1982) - in which an
independent panel of judges subjectively rate the creative value of outcomes produced
Participants were attending a semi-rural, English-medium infants school in the South
Wales area. They were in the same year (aged 6-7 years old), and randomly allocated
into two groups of twenty-six children: A and B.
A repeated-measures design was followed. On the first day, all fifty-two children
assembled in the classroom. Group A left the room accompanied by a teacher and
taken a spare classroom where they were allowed to indulge in free-play with salt
dough. There were about 3 to 4 children per table, and each child was provided with
approximately the same size piece of blue salt dough. They were instructed to “Do
whatever you want with it” and given no other guidance. Interaction with the adult
present was kept to an absolute minimum. At the same time, Group B were
instructed to complete a handwriting exercise that involved the copying of text from
the board. They were seated in groups of 6 to 7 and were each supplied with a pencil
and a lined piece of paper. If the written task was completed they were asked to
repeat it. After 25 minutes Group A were escorted back to the classroom where both
groups A and B were addressed and asked to make a collage of a creature using the
materials provided. The children sat in groups of 6-7 at a table. On the table were the
following: 100 sheets of tissue paper (10 sheets of 10 different colours), 4 glue pots, 8
glue spreaders, 8 pairs of scissors and a sheet of paper for each child to make their
collage on. The children were given 35 minutes to complete their collage and pencils
were then distributed for the children to write their name upon their work.
The next day, at the same time, the whole procedure was repeated with the groups
carrying out the alternative preceding task. Before creating their collage, Group A
were allowed to play with the salt dough in the spare classroom while Group B
carried out their handwriting exercise.
The outcomes of the children were scored for their creativity according to Amabile’s
consensual assessment technique (Amabile, 1982). This technique involves having
judges independently and subjectively rate the level of creativity of the outcomes. All
judges were blind to experimental condition but were made aware of the task given to
the children. The initial panel of judges were 7 trainee teachers approaching the end
of their third year of training. These trainees teachers, as result of their training, were
already familiar with the type of outcomes that might be produced by children of this
age, and thus their background met the criteria suggested by Amabile (1996) for
identifying appropriate judges. However, in order to confirm that the judgements
were sound, the work was also judged by a panel of 3 “expert” judges who were
experienced lecturers in Primary Education.
In addition to rating the outcomes for their creativity, they were analysed by counting
the number of different colours used (colour range) and the overall number of pieces
of tissue paper used to construct the collage.
The inter-judge reliability amongst the panel of 7 trainees was good (Cronbach’s
alpha = 0.81), as was the inter-judge reliability amongst the panel of 3 expert judges
(Cronbach’s alpha = 0.84). There was also a good correlation between the two panels
(Pearson’s r = 0.80 , p < 0.001 ). Judgements from each of the 10 judges were added
together to give a final score for each outcome out of 50, with inter-judge reliability
(Cronbach’s alpha = 0.89).
Means for the 3 dependent variables of creativity, colour range and number of pieces
used, together with standard deviations, are shown in Table 1 for the two preceding
tasks of a writing exercise and free-play with salt dough.
Creativity Colour range Number of pieces used
Writing Play Writing Play Writing Play
M21.31 23.96 3.88 4.79 12.5 15.77
SD 8.38 8.36 1.58 1.91 7.00 11.23
Table 1 Mean and standard deviations for 3 dependent variables of creativity, colour
range and number of pieces used.
Separate ANOVA analyses of the 3 dependent variables revealed that there was a
significant subsequent effect of preceding task upon creativity (F (1,51) = 11.60, p
=0.001 ), colour range (F (1,51) = 10.70 , p = 0.002) and number of pieces used (F
(1,51) = 7.02, p = 0.011). However, correlation analysis revealed strong associations
between these variables (p<0.01 for all combinations).
Although repeated-measures experimental designs are generally more sensitive
experimental method than between-subjects studies, it has been pointed out that these
methodologies can be vulnerable to differential transfer, especially when
investigating the effect of instructional variables (Underwood and Shaughnessy,
1975). As a precaution against such effects, the first stage of the experiment was
treated as a random groups design to investigate the effect of the independent variable
without any possible influence from differential transfer (Poulton, 1982). Means and
standard deviations for subjects arising from the first condition are shown in Table 2.
Between-subjects ANOVA analysis of the 3 dependent variables from the first
condition revealed that there was a significant subsequent effect of preceding task
upon creativity (F(1,50) = 4.83, p = 0.033) and colour range (F (1,50) = 10.56, p =
0.002), but the effect upon the number of pieces did not reach significance (F(1,50) =
2.90 , p = 0.095). Correlations between dependent variables were significant for all
combinations (p < 0.01).
Creativity Colour range Number of pieces used
Writing Play Writing Play Writing Play
M22.75 24.18 4.07 4.76 12.99 16.38
SD 9.08 8.27 1.77 1.97 6.96 13.26
Table 2 Mean and standard deviations for 3 dependent variables of creativity, colour
range and number of pieces used for the first condition experienced by subjects.
The present study has shown that the nature of a preceding task, comparing a highly
structured writing task with free-play, can influence the creative value of children’s
outcomes in a subsequent task as judged by an independent panel. The study by
Dansky and Silverman (1975) demonstrated that preceding task can influence
associative fluency, and Berreta and Privette (1990) found that the degree of structure
of the preceding play could influence originality in later tasks, although not,
apparently, fluency. The present study has not shed light upon which individual
thinking skills are most influenced by the preceding task - but it has shown that the
overall creative effect upon a subsequent activity typical of the school curriculum can
It remains, then, an issue of debate how such effects are best explained and what are
the essential elements of play that support creativity subsequently. It may be, as
discussed above, the transfer of a playful mind set (Danksy and Silverman, 1975), or
possibly an exploratory one (Pellegrini, 84-85). There was a statistically significant
increase in the range of colours used - which may reflect an increased tendency to
explore the materials provided. However, it would be very difficult to confidently
analyse the outcome of a creative process in terms of what has been achieved by
exploration and what is the result of playfulness. Indeed, such distinctions are
difficult to make even from close observation and discussion with young subjects, due
not least to limitations in language (Pellegrini, 84-85).
Alternative explanations for an increase in creativity might be the more relaxed
mental state of the children after playing with the salt-dough (Forgays and Forgays,
1992), or simply that the children were more awake after a session of play than after a
writing exercise. The increase in the number of pieces of tissue papers used in the
children’s collages after the free-play session might be interpreted as evidence of a
simple increase in general productivity. However, productivity and creativity are very
closely associated with each other and so some increase in quantity of work should be
expected (Diehl and Stroebe, 1987). If the effect is due only to a simple increase in
general productivity (as opposed to creative productivity), one would also expect to
detect it in non-creative tasks and this would be a useful line of enquiry for future
investigations. Additionally, since tutored play has been shown to be more effective
than free play in developing children’s associative fluency (Pellegrini, and
Greene,1980, Feitelson, and Ross, 1973), it would be interesting to know how the two
types of activity might impact upon the rated creative value of outcomes in
subsequent tasks - especially since Berreta and Privette (1990) found that fluency was
not influenced by the degree of structure of the preceding play.
The type of motivation that the children were experiencing may also have influenced
results. Children, when in the free play condition, were pursuing activities of their
choice, and thus were intrinsically motivated. The children completed each part of the
hand-writing exercise because they had been asked by the teacher to do so - and thus
were being extrinsically motivated. According to the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation
principle (Amabile, 1996), these two types of motivation will impact positively and
negatively (respectfully) upon creativity. Thus our results could be explained by a
transfer of the motivation type.
Many questions remain to be answered about the mechanisms by which play supports
creativity and how the positive effects of play can transfer to other contexts. The
present study further emphasises the need for a better understanding of the cognitive
significance of play and to ensure it is given the consideration it deserves in
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