Creativity is an essential skill for the 21st century. However, unlike academic skills, such as Chinese, Maths and English, it is not something that can be taught in a large scale and be assessed by standardized tests in schools. This is also why the cultivation of creativity is such a challenge for parents and educators.


So, how can creativity be nurtured? What is the connection between play and creativity? How exactly does playing boost creativity? In what ways could teachers or parents guide children to develop creativity while they are learning?

What is the connection between play and creativity? (Bateson, Bateson, & Martin, 2013)


Playful Learning is a source of creativity, and children who are more playful tend to be more creative. Also, using things creatively can increase playfulness.


How does play help children develop creativity? (Solis et al., 2019)


Play provides children with the opportunity to ask more “what if?”, allowing them to think of more questions and figure out possible solutions. While playing, children make new connections between people, ideas, materials, and the world. They create, take risks, make and change rules. They learn how to work with others in negotiation. They also explore and learn from their mistakes with a playful mindset.


In practice, does play boost children’s creativity?


In Dansky’s and Silverman’s experiment, they found that children, who were allowed to play with different objects before the assessment of creativity, would  performed better than those who were not. Also, children’s play reflects, in part, their divergent thinking (HowardJones, Taylor & Sutton, 2002; Whitebread & Basilio, 2013).


In addition, a study examining the effects of children aged 6-10 having pretend play showed that the level of imagination manifested while children were playing kept increasing in the future 23 years even when children  became adults and spent less time playing (Russ & Dillon, 2011; Bateson et al., 2013). Also, children’s pretend play during preschool is strongly associated with the development of creativity during adolescence (Mullineaux & Dilalla, 2009; Whitebread & Basilio, 2013). In Karwowski’s and Soszynski’s study, research findings showed that undergraduates engaging in role-playing games significantly increased their fluency and originality in creativity process (Karwowski & Soszynski, 2008; Whitebread & Basilio, 2013).

In what ways can play boost creativity?


  1. Allowing children to play in their own ways without prior planning or intervention.


  1. Adults acting as collaborators but not instructors, and developing skills with children.

E.g. Taking role-playing games as an example, adults could co-develop confidence and language skills while performing with children.


  1. Incorporating children’s interests, cultural environment and community practices into play.

E.g. Parents can take their children to the fire station in their community and show them around. Then, when children get home, parents can act out the fire station scenes with their children through role-play, such as extinguishing the fire.


  1. Encouraging children to learn about real-world issues from popular culture, and incorporate popular culture into play.

E.g. Extracting some real-world knowledge about firefighting from the children’s cartoon “Fireman Sam” and the adult TV series “The Great Fire of London,”, and incorporate them into a firefighting role-play.


  1. Allowing children to construct, plan and develop their own playing environment.

E.g. Children can decide where they want to play and how their play area is decorated, etc.

In guided play, how could creativity be cultivated?


So far, you might have a new understanding of the relations between free play and creativity, which is children are able to develop creativity through free play. What about guided play? How can a teacher or parent guide a child to develop creativity while learning?


1.Helping students identify the moment creativity is needed, and when it is not.

What are the moments when creativity is needed?

a) There’s no one right answer.

b) Past experience is not useful.

c) No fixed rules for the task.


2.Providing materials that mimic real life situations to help students understand the similarities between real-world situations and learning tasks.

Specific approach:

a) Guiding students to focus on their mental process while playing, and realize the importance of repetitive practice.

b) Introducing students to different playing strategies and giving examples of how to apply them in different contexts, helping students transfer the strategies from the original task to a new one.


3.Helping students develop a reflective mind and realize the importance of different skills in particular situation or stages of creative process.

Specific approach:

Guiding students to ask themselves ______ when they encounter a creative problem:

a) What kind of situation is this?

b) What strategies can be adopted?

c) Which strategy is the most relevant?

4.Helping students select, apply, and monitor the implement of strategies.

Specific approach:

Guiding students to be aware of their mental process while playing, helping them become aware of their own application of knowledge.

Prompting children’s thoughts through asking:

a) What do you want to do now?

b) Why are you doing this?

c) Are the available resources (time, materials, etc.) sufficient for you to achieve it?

d) Have you reached your goal?

e) Do you think it is better to move on or to change tactics?


5.Encouraging students to try new approaches rather than relying on familiar solutions.

Specific approach:

a) Helping children recognize their emotional state before and after implementing creative strategies, making these emotions children’s advantage when they are performing their tasks.

b) Helping children recognize that when they try to think creatively, they may encounter a lot of confusion, conflict, and ambiguity, which is also why there might not be a quick and accurate response.

c) Guiding students to accept a period of uncertainty or anxiety, helping them to understand the necessity of such trouble for the development of creative approaches.


We know that playing is a natural part of children’s nature, which is the same as creativity; they two are arguably innate in humans. Being able to play or be creative is actually an ability that are increasingly indispensable. However, if lacking the right environment and developmental conditions, these abilities can fade away.


The Torrance data on the decline in creativity in the United States in the 1990s already showed a crisis. There is less and less time and space for both free and guided play, and many parents and teachers are neglecting the impact of “learning to play” and the role of “leaving space for children”. I hope that this article could inspire you to rethink the relationship between play and creativity; play and learning. Together, we can create a more suitable environment for children to grow and become creative lifelong learners!

(Chuying Wu, Siyu Zha)



Antonietti, A. (1997). Unlocking creativity. Educational Leadership, 54, 73-75.

Bateson, P., Bateson, P. P. G., & Martin, P. (2013). Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation: Cambridge University Press.

Whitebread, D., & Basilio, M. (2013). Play, culture and creativity. Cultures of Creativity. Billund, Denmark: The LEGO Foundation.

Wood, E. (2009). Developing a pedagogy of play. Early childhood education: Society and culture, 27-38.

Solis, L., Khumalo, K., Nowack, S., Davidson, E.B., & Mardell, B. (2019). Towards a South African Pedagogy of Play. Pedagogy of Play.