Let play perish and innovation will follow

David Whitebread and Marisol Basilio, in their essay “Play, culture and creativity”, explain that play is ubiquitous in humans and that every child in every culture plays.

A key adaptive advantage of the long period of human biological immaturity is the opportunity for play.

When writing about curiosity and discovery in the past I have read about these concepts through Alison Gopnik’s work.

She is a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Gopnik explains that humans have a longer childhood, a slower path to puberty in which we can exercise our urge to explore.

This occurs while we’re still dependent on our parents and have an unmatched period of protected “play” in which to learn exploration’s rewards.

Yet while other animals play mainly by practicing basic skills such as fighting and hunting, human children play by creating hypothetical scenarios with artificial rules that test hypotheses. Can I build a tower of blocks as tall as I am? What’ll happen if we make the bike ramp go even higher? How will this schoolhouse game change if I’m the teacher and my big brother is the student? Such play effectively makes children explorers of landscapes filled with competing possibilities.

Whitebread and Basilio explain that this longer childhood provides a critical foundation for thinking, establishing:

the basis for the ‘flexibility of thought’ (Bruner, 1972) which underpins the astonishing problem-solving abilities and creativity of humans.

What do you know about the links between curious children and how playful they are? How do you see children engaging in more purposeful exploration? What value does playfulness have in problem solving?

The impact of playfulness

I was interested to read of the wider implications of developing the creative problem solving capacities in children and young adults. Beyond simply the obvious value, creative problem solving skills have importance for both the individual and the wider society.

Children and young adults who are creative problem solvers have been shown to have better coping skills to deal with everyday problems and crises, and this skill is increasingly important in the ever-more complex and rapidly changing modern world.

Typically we focus on the intrinsic value of creativity, or the importance of young adults exercising that skillset in the workforce. We want those entering work to understand their own creative skills and be well equipped to apply them purposefully.

However we rarely look at the increased coping skills and resilience of creative problem solvers, as highlighted here by Whitebread and Basilio. That link between creativity and resilience is a new insight for me.

Playfulness and creativity have a strong relationship. The essay presents a range of studies that reveal the connection.

These go back as far as the 1960s, with the early studies of Wallach & Kogan showing that creative children were more playful than less creative ones (Wallach & Kogan, 1965). Subsequent studies have shown that playfulness predicts scores on divergent thinking tasks (Howard-Jones, Taylor & Sutton, 2002; Lieberman, 1977).

The ‘divergent thinking tasks’ are often used as devices to measure creativity. Divergent and convergent thinking modes are essential throughout an extended creative/innovative process.

I think there is an ebb and flow between these different modes or thinking states. An awareness of these and how we remain cognitively flexible enough to switch from one to the other, without diminishing efficacy, is a typical characteristic of those with effective creative problem solving skills.

As part of a previous article, I asked why we marginalise the conditions for children to be creative. I recognise that part of this is the reduction in opportunities for play in primary schools. Even in pre-school.

In comparing my experience from England I have noticed that classrooms in Australia don’t have as much resourcing around pretend play. Dress up and role play resources, everyday objects, sand, water and messy trays were always so plentiful in the early years classrooms I led and worked with.

It worries me to see early learning experiences morphing into readiness for future grades or preparedness for higher year groups.

If playfulness has such a strong impact on developing creativity, why are opportunities for play in school diminishing? How might we protect play environments in the classrooms in our schools? How might we help broaden the understand of this area of research?

Pressured play

One of the key challenges for early childhood practitioners, raised by Whitebread and Basilio, is the pressure of covering a prescribed curriculum.

They go on to suggest that this exists in all urbanised cultural regions and is especially evident in the Far East.

A review of attitudinal studies on play and creativity in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese societies revealed that,

a cultural emphasis on narrowly conceived academic achievement was deleterious to developing playful, creative school environments (Fung & Cheng, 2012).

Not only is the word “deleterious” a wonderful new addition to my lexicon, but I also think that this statement holds true for education systems. What do you think?

The latter part of the essay explores the impact of parents and teachers on the development of the child and early achievement. An important element of this is that “specific practices by parents and teachers consistently over-ride broader cultural influences.”

The authors conclude by focusing on the importance of the school experience and the impact of parenting.

while there are clear challenges for human culture on our increasingly crowded planet, we must believe we can overcome these, and playful, creative approaches to parenting and schooling are clearly likely to be very helpful in this endeavour.


Here are a few key ideas, insights and provocations that stood out to me.

  • The challenge set out by the writers to ensure that what we can control of the experience in school, nurseries or where learning happens, is a creative and playful one.
  • The influence of creative teachers as a leveller of achievement for students from different social classes and backgrounds.
  • Children with creative problem solving capacities are more resilient.
  • Creative children were more playful when they were younger. Would an increase in opportunities for different types of play help develop more creativity? How might we sustain access to play in our primary classrooms?
If we want innovation we need creativity, if we want creativity we need playfulness.

Download the essay here: “Play, culture and creativity” by David Whitebread & Marisol Basilio.

This is the second in my thinking series exploring the Cultures of Creativity essays published by the LEGO Foundation, and their relevance to schools and learning organisations.

Next in my series is “Building cultures of creativity in the age of the Knowledge Machine” by Michael Wesch.

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