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Dr. Sandra Russ, Case Western Reserve University – Imagination in Children’s Play

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Sandra Russ of Case Western Reserve University examines how the level of imagination in children’s play has responded to recent technology and time restrictions.

Sandra Russ is a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University where her research is focused on understanding how pretend play is involved in child development and in child psychotherapy. She has also carried-out a number of studies that have investigated the relationship between pretend play and areas of adaptive functioning such as creativity, coping, and emotional understanding.

About Dr. Russ

Dr. Sandra Russ – Imagination in Children’s Play

Despite less time to play, children find ways to use their imaginations by engaging in pretend play in a variety of ways from feeding baby dolls, swinging as Spider-Man, playing house, or racing toy cars.  This imagination is important in child development—and for creativity.

Children love to play, but, it is well-documented that less time exists to play at home and in school.  At home, children spend much time attending scheduled activities, watching TV, surfing the internet, or playing videogames.  At school, the pressure is to teach academic content. How has this impacted the quality of children’s play?

My lab at Case Western Reserve University was in a unique position to answer this question. We had samples of pretend play from 1985-2008 from children between the ages of 6 and 10. These children participated in studies where they played with two human puppets and several blocks for five minutes. The play was videotaped and then scored for creativity, imagination, and several other factors.

My graduate student, Jessica Dillon, and I analyzed the data and found that children in more recent years had more imagination and engagement in their play.  Children imagined the blocks to be different things, like a telephone or rocket ship, and they had more story elements and novel ideas than children in earlier samples. The organization of stories was similar.  Children did show a worrisome decrease in the amount of negative emotion expressed, such as play fighting or arguing between the puppets.  Play is one way that children process negative emotions.

What do these findings mean?  We think children are resilient and find ways to develop imagination despite less time to play. Perhaps videogames, the internet, and the complexity of the modern world stimulate imagination.  We plan to continue to study play’s role and its significance in child development.

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