What are the child development benefits of creative play, and how can teachers promote this type of activity in school?
What is Creative Play?
In the early stages of a child’s life, their brain constantly develops and needs continual stimulation. Whilst education is a focal point for children and their growth, allowing children to express themselves and improve their physical, social, and cognitive skills is a massive part of their development (Winfield, 2023) and creative play provides opportunities for moral, emotional and language development.
Thus, the child develops holistically, making it the perfect way to boost and develop basic skills for everyday life. The definition of creative play is children’s play, such as modelling or painting, that tends to satisfy a need for self-expression and to develop physical skills (Winfield, 2023). It also includes role play, music, or dancing.
According to Playdale (n.d.), creative play is how children learn to perceive the world and understand their place in it. When getting involved with creative play in the early years, young children can gain basic problem-solving skills. Creative play boosts their intellectual development by improving their cognitive skills whilst allowing them to pay attention, process how things work, and analyse why it works (Winfield, 2023).
How does Creative Play promote Child Development?
Play helps to develop language and communication skills which empower pre-school and school-age children to learn academically as they go through the education system. It can then be said that the root of learning is not in studying books or being told how your body works…it is all about doing.
The foundations of learning are set supporting children to become creators of their own knowledge (Playdale n.d). Additionally, cognitive skills are the cornerstone of human development because they enable us to make judgements, solve problems, sequence events, follow instructions and a multitude of other things.
A good analogy is of a conductor of an orchestra ensuring that all the instruments play at the right time and volume. The absence of the conductor causes chaos, confusion and there is no harmony. Our brains work exactly like that.
Children learn how to draw a square by drawing a square or how to make a sandcastle by actually making a sandcastle through hands on experience. Creative play is not an abstract activity it is very much in the present (Playdale n.d) thereby providing developmental benefits for children.
Learning through Creative Play
As Miles (2021) states, creative play is a natural part of childhood development. Through creative play, children express themselves and explore ideas and concepts amidst in the world around them.
The latter statement could not be more accurate as when I reflect on my childhood, memoires of creative play formed an integral part where I remember using my imagination to whisk me away to magical lands where I pretended to be a ballerina, pirate, princess, dancer, or any career that appeared in my mind's eye.
Creative play afforded me the opportunity to express myself, investigate and explore. What made pretend play more exciting was my friends and I dressing up in my parents clothing and wearing oversized shoes! I recollect inviting my family as the audience to plays that we had scripted, rehearsed, and gathered an armful of props (using available material within our home), and located the correct music so that it shaped the scene for the audience and provided cues for the ‘cast.’
The opportunities for painting were endless as we created our sets. Playing with my siblings or friends provided an opportunity for discovery and investigation where we used trees as swings, built furniture from material that could be recycled and through trial and error we had to ensure that the swing we built could accommodate our weight and was durable - this was before we knew about the design process!
"Child-oriented play may be a promising, effective, and inexpensive means of promoting toddlers’ positive development."
Baking mud cakes and using the sun as an oven and the ‘timer’ was us counting verbally or skipping that many times! This ignited our imaginations as we were able to use everyday tools, equipment, and resources at our disposal.
We stomped in mud muddles enjoying the flow of the rain on our bare feet and feeling the different textures. Experience is the best teacher!
Of late, creative play has been differentiated from play based on the nature of the players (usually children), the requirements for creative materials to be used (modelling clay, paint, dressing up props), the development of physical skills through embodied learning, and self-expression as well as the use of familiar materials to facilitate creativity.
Creative play was seen to occur when children were given time to engage in unstructured, self-directed play, allowing for unrestricted exploration without fear of judgment, especially when immersed in imaginative play and role-playing (Piaget, 1951) (Hurwitz, 2002).
As more students of all ages engage in creative play to develop their abilities as creative thinkers, there is a need to reconsider the nature and benefits of creative play in much broader contexts. Creative play is powerful when integrated with a ‘kindergarten’ approach to learning that enables designing, creating, experimenting and exploring in an iterative process where players imagine, create, play, share and reflect (Resnick, 2007 in British Council, n.d).
The importance of creative play
This then leads us to the importance of creative play. It can be said that creative play is a fluid learning opportunity that permits children to be uninhibited and spontaneous to explore in a manner where they can cherry-pick without stringent rules and limitations.
Children are born naturally creative and intuitive with vivid imaginations and nurturing this creativity, it assists them in developing holistically. Dance, music, pretend or dramatic play alongside the visual arts can help children to develop their senses, autonomy, positive esteem, well-being, and independence (Miles 2021).
Creative play is what children do when they are just being children. Whether it’s drawing, painting, cutting, pasting, modelling, making or make believe, all children love being creative if they are provided with opportunities (Kiwis Family Team, 2020).
Creative play is expressed when children engage in role-playing and imaginative play (PBS, n.d). In so doing it strengthens social development. Playful social interactions begin from the moment of birth. During dramatic play children become cognisant of social roles.
It can also provide them with a myriad of opportunities for attaining social skills as they interact with their peers (PBS, n.d). During play, children control the experience through their imaginations, and they exercise their powers of choice and decision-making (PBS, n.d). To quote O. Fred Donaldson, “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn” (Brockman, 2012).
Creative Expression in play
Creative play helps develop each child's unique perspective and individual style of creative expression where the child expresses their personal, unique responses to the environment. It is a self-expressive activity that draws on the child's powers of imagination, and it is an open-ended, free-form where children have the freedom to attempt new ideas as well as build on and experiment with the old (PBS, n.d).
As parents are the primary teachers of children, it is then the role of parents to create environments that will nurture the creative play of their children in safe and secure surroundings. This lays the foundational blocks for creative play, which will be further stimulated when their child begins the journey of pre and formal schooling.
This is significant to their growth and development as it provides them with the necessary skills to function in the real-world post-schooling. In fact, these development areas help promote creative thinking and creative problem solving and are fast becoming some of the key skills employers are looking for in the workforce and what can be applied in the real world post-schooling (Kiwis Family Team, 2020).
Creative play can be engaged in a variety of ways in the classroom. However, teachers should guard against dominating play as play should be the result of the children's ideas and not directed by the adult. Toys and activities that promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and imagination should be available in the classroom for students to engage with.
Moreover, students should be provided with a worthy range and balance of equipment where the latter is kept stimulating by varying it regularly or moving its position (PBS, n.d).
What are the benefits of learning through creative play?
Creative play is a vital part of childhood and child development. Through creative and imaginative play children can grow emotionally, socially, intellectually, and even physically. Creative experiences help a child develop these skills and enable them to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Exposing children to creative opportunities contributes to, and furthers their development (The Big Picture, 2023). There are many benefits of creative play and the advantages of these will lead to success in the development of a child’s mental and physical state, with some noted below (Rhino Play, 2018):
- Hand-eye coordination
- Sensory development
- Exploring the imagination
- Concentration & attention
- Individual confidence
- Social confidence
- Understanding different environments
- Intellectual Benefits Through creative play, children can learn important problem-solving/critical thinking skills. Reading, for example, gives children the opportunity to express their imaginations and explore a world outside of their own, helping to improve both intellectual and cognitive skills. This also forms the basis of comprehension skills and retention and sets the tone for solving more complex problems as they grow and develop (The Big Picture, 2023).
- Physical Benefits: Creative play supports the development of gross motor skills, coordination, and control. Building fine motor skills requires practice and sets the stage for improving hand-eye coordination and muscle memory (The Big Picture, 2023), which will help children later in life with sports and writing. Playing with small objects within a creative play area can help them control a pencil or paintbrush, making it the perfect activity for progressing their early physical development (Winfield, 2023). Painting, drawing, cutting, and pasting all help to develop fine motors skills in young children, which in turn helps them to be writing-ready as they near school age. (Kiwis Family Team, 2020).
- Emotional: Children often express their emotions through stories, drawing, painting, or activities rather than through words. Creative play creates a platform for children to integrate these feelings into activities so that they can creatively express their thoughts and emotions in a way they are encouraged to do so. Through this, they will be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings more easily as they grow up (Winfield, 2023)
- Social benefits: When engaging in creative play, young children can interact and socialise with their peers as it is a great opportunity to share their ideas and imagination with others around them. This helps with their social interaction skills, basic communication skills, and their confidence to. These skills learnt through creative play will enable them to learn academically (Winfield, 2023).
- Communication Skills: Creative play also helps children develop communication skills. This involves taking turns, listening, and speaking (Homer, 2023). When children are engaged with their chosen material, they talk to themselves about what’s happening. This in turn leads to building their vocabulary and developing their imagination (Kiwis Family Team, 2020).
- Critical Thinking: This type of play also provides plenty of opportunities for decision making. For example, the student might have to decide what story to tell or what character to pretend to be. Having to make these types of decisions helps children to think critically about the world around them and examine their choices (Homer, 2023). Because critical thinking requires us to absorb information and make judgments about that information, it takes imagination and curiosity (Homer, 2023).
Types of Creative Play
When children engage in imaginative play, they also develop essential skills they will use throughout their lives (Creative activities for pre-schooler learning and development, 2022). Creative play is an intrinsically motivated, autonomous, and interactive process, which facilitates (British Council, n.d):
- Democratic participation and collaboration
- Improvisation, risk-taking and emergence
- Plurality of identity and possibility thinking
There are many distinct types of imaginative play, but some common examples include:
- Role-play: The basis of reading is being able to recognise sounds and retrieve familiar words from everyday life. A book is the final part of the reading process. Listening and speaking help children to be able to communicate their ideas. Children learn more words and articulate their thoughts if they have opportunities to talk. Role-play affords children the opportunity to practise real-life situations and emulate the adults around them (Playdale n.d.).
- Pretend Play: Children engage in pretend play as well where they use toys, props and items from their surroundings to act out scenarios or tell stories. As an example, a child might fantasise to be a superhero, a police officer, or a parent.
- Art: Children use art as an outlet to express themselves. For example, they can draw, sculpt, paint, or make a collage. Art and crafts offer children the opportunity to express themselves creatively and talk about the source of their ideas. Imagination is the cardinal element to allow learning to take place (Playdale n.d). Pre-schoolers love to express themselves and convey their ideas using crayons, paints, playdough, clay, scissors, glue and paper. Children start making basic shapes and might enjoy experimenting with texture, space and colours. For example, pre-schoolers often draw houses with shining suns above the roof. This is because this kind of picture is made up of basic shapes like squares, triangles, and circles (Creative activities for pre-schooler learning and development, 2022). Their artistic expressions speak volumes.
- The following link provides access to a video on ‘How Art Benefits children.’ Rebecca Ellison is an Art Teacher, who explains the benefits of art and creative play in this YouTube sketch animation (Kiwis Family Team, 2020): https://youtu.be/FraV5xQiKfs
- Music: Pre-schoolers usually enjoy singing. They love songs with repetition and uncomplicated melodies. They can create their own words to familiar songs, and words often come from the events and people around them. Singing helps children understand the differences in tempo, long and short, high and low, and loud and soft. Music helps foster creativity where children can use instruments, voices, or everyday objects to create sound (Creative activities for pre-schooler learning and development, 2022).
- Dance: Movement allows children to express themselves. It can include actual dancing or just free movement through running, jumping, and twirling (Creative activities for preschooler learning and development, 2022).
- Drama and storytelling: provide opportunities for children to build and practise vocabulary and learn about the structure of stories. When children act out roles like a caring nurse, they see the world from someone else’s point of view and this helps them build empathy (Creative activities for preschooler learning and development, 2022), and appreciate different values and perspectives (PBS, n.d).
- Digital creative play: if the freedom exists for teams to develop their own narratives through gameplay, then digital modes of engagement could provide ways to explore different identities and possibility thinking as part of the problem-solving process in groups. Ultimately, some digital games and play opportunities might lead to comparable outcomes to analogue creative play, but certain structures and possibilities must be considered to ensure this is the case (British Council, n.d).
Facilitating creative play
Diversity in play is good for children. It helps children learn about people from diverse backgrounds, avoid stereotypes and understand equality. For example, teachers and parents could encourage children of all genders to dress up as nurses or builders or choose stories or songs from diverse cultures or languages. (Creative activities for pre-schooler learning and development, 2022).
In this context, it is argued that imagination in play is foundational for imagination in conceptual learning, and therefore play-based programs make a key contribution to the development and learning of the young child.
Below are some creative activities for pre-schoolers with diverse abilities:
- If a child requires help with creative play skills, simple actions should be modelled. As an example, growl like a monster or bang a drum, or break down the activity into easier steps, or use written or picture instructions to help children understand what to do.
- If a child has sensory sensitivities, then they should be provided with tools to touch things like playdough, play music more quietly or introduce new textures and colours slowly.
- When a child has vision impairment or fine motor difficulties, larger materials and tools should be used. As an example, make collages with large oak leaves instead of petals, or use chunky crayons instead of pencils.
- For children with a lot of energy, bigger movements like jumping, swaying arms, stretching, crouching should be encouraged (Creative activities for preschooler learning and development, 2022).
Educational Playground Equipment that promotes creative play
Nurseries, pre-school, and school playgrounds offer a gamut of creative play experiences for children. Schools are completely on the pulse concerning creative playground equipment as excellent opportunities are provided for creative play.
There is a huge selection of exciting pieces of equipment that enable creative play. Role-play equipment, sand and water play, musical play equipment, environmental play, mud kitchens and storytelling chairs all contribute to creative play.
Playtime provides opportunities to reinforce learning through free play. Outdoor classrooms give children space and freedom to spread their learning wings preparing them for flight in the future (Playdale n.d).
In conclusion, to quote, The Artful Parent (8.10.2017), ‘Children are naturally creative. It's our job to give them the freedom, materials, and space to let their creativity blossom to its full potential." Thus, creative activities are incredibly important, especially in the early years when the focus is on the development of students.
Whether it is arts and crafts, drawing, painting, building, cutting, modelling, or simply playing around with household objects, creative play is an easy way of getting children involved whilst having a very positive impact on their day-to-day development and experience (Winfield, 2023).
With this being said, children have a natural propensity to being creative which makes creative play a dynamic component of childhood education.
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The Big Picture. 2023. The Importance of Creative Play for Kids. [Online]. In The Little Gym International. Inc. Available at: https://www.thelittlegym.com/blog/2017/9/the-importance-of-creative-play-for-kids/ [Accessed on 23 January 2023]
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