From play to problem solving

There’s no right way or wrong way for children to play⎯is there?

“No, there’s no right or wrong way,” says Sandra Russ, a psychology professor and researcher at Case Western Reserve University. “But we’re finding that some forms of play may be more beneficial than others.”

Russ is conducting a study at the Children’s Museum of Cleveland to see if interacting with adult researchers during play helps children learn to use creativity and imagination in their daily lives.

Russ says her research over the past decade has shown that “good” players—those who express a wide range of emotions and use creativity in play—continue to use their imaginations to solve problems and cope. Adult interaction can help, she says, if it doesn’t dominate.

Russ and her team are meeting with 4- to 6-year-olds individually and letting them take charge of their playing and storytelling. Children play creatively with toys, such as blocks and toy cars, which they use as props for stories and imagined scenarios. Parents and caretakers also engage by watching and learning how to develop creative skills at home.

Separately, a “control” group of children works in coloring books or assemble puzzles during sessions with a facilitator and during follow up sessions at home. This group’s activities, Russ says, involve less freeform play.

“The coloring sheets have pre-determined pictures,” Russ says, “and the puzzles have a set outcome.”

Russ says the study will help parents more effectively play with their children by helping them either to step back or to engage, depending on the individual needs of their children.

"Parents may not realize they are dominating the play instead of letting their children play," she says.

The museum also expects to gain from the study.

"This research project will hopefully provide the museum with groundbreaking research that will help us create extraordinary exhibits and programming, especially in the area of creativity," says Colleen Cross, the museum’s education director.

Cross notes a pilot study performed by Russ and her team over the last year and a half has influenced the types of objects the museum includes in exhibits. It also encourages more parents to follow their children’s lead as they explore the museum's offerings, she says.

"Sometimes all children need is permission to be creative," says Kelly Christian, a graduate student involved in the current study, along with fellow graduate researcher Karla Fehr and undergraduate Kathryn Clusman. The study is called "Effects of Play Intervention on Play Skills in Preschool Children.”