What is the link between creative play and creativity? How can we understand the link through the academic models of person, process and product?
The relationship between creative play and creativity
Creative play has significant potential for catalysing creativity. For instance, creative play processes share parallels with creative and collaborative groups of adults (Sawyer K., 2007).
As players define and change the rules to create a meaningful challenge, play promotes a sense of autonomy. Rule creation and amendment requires the imaginative reinterpretation of roles and events, which also develops cognitive flexibility and perspective-taking. What is notable about creative play is that these are not specific aims, merely positive by-products of engaging in an ‘intrinsically motivated’ activity. Intrinsic motivation is essential to both creativity and play as it drives exploration of new pathways, whereas extrinsic motivation directs attention towards reaching an extrinsic goal (Amabile, 1996).
Here we examine the relationship between creative play and creativity using the notions of person, process and product:
- A person-based approach to assessing the relationship between creative play and creativity measures the effect of creative play on the development of creative traits and psychological capabilities
- A process-based approach identifies whether creative play leads to greater expression of creative behaviours when people work on creative projects
- A product-based approach measures whether creative play leads to increased creative output and an increase in the quality of work produced.
Over time, approaches to testing creativity have shifted from paper-based tests measuring the quantity of responses, to more nuanced approaches measuring the quality of responses across a range of interactive settings. In the following studies, pre- and post-test changes in creative behaviour were used to assess the impact of the creative play interventions.
Examples of measurement tools used in reporting included creative behaviour tests such as the Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) (Torrance, 1974), Torrance Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement Test (TCAM) (Torrance, 1981), as well as self-designed tools. Studies also employed measurements of creative products with assessment criteria such as the Consensual Assessment Technique (CAT) (Amabile, 1982), and Distributed Creativity in Organizational Groups assessment – (DOG) (West, 2014) in work settings. Recently, observational tools have also been developed for naturalised behaviour among children, such as the Analysing Children’s Creative Thinking (ACCT) Framework (Robson, 2014).
Many studies reviewed used creative process as a measure which emerged through participation in the creative play activity, with a few studies reporting on the generation of creative products. The majority of studies looking at a play/creativity link have involved either laboratory training in play, or opportunities to engage in play followed by creativity testing. There has been little naturalistic evidence linking playful behaviour and creativity and limitations remain regarding the lack of longitudinal measures reported. Furthermore, the lack of standardisation in assessment criteria and methodologies problematises the generalisation of results.
Overall, the studies in the review do not confirm that creative play develops creative traits or the quality of creative ideas. However, they suggest creative play may facilitate the expression of creative behaviours and lead to increased ideation.
Review of studies measuring the creative person
A previous comprehensive review of studies on children’s pretend play explored the potential link between creativity and pretend play (Lillard, et al., 2013). Twenty-four studies were considered dating from 1976 – 2004, mostly employing task-based measures such as TCAM (Torrance, 1981). No consistent correlation was found that pretend (creative) play facilitated the development of creative traits, and the limited nature of the studies was raised as a concern that needed addressing through higher quality research (Lillard, et al., 2013).
A more recent review of children’s pretend play presented a counterview to Lillard’s conclusion, reporting that creativity was probably facilitated by pretend play (Silverman, 2016).
The evidence is mixed for pretend play developing social skills, awareness of others and emotional regulation (Whitebread, et al., 2017). Some recent research based on fantasy play showed a correlation between a child’s likelihood or ability to engage in fantasy play and their emotion regulation skills (Gilpin, Brown, & Pierucci, 2015).
Overall, the research reviewed above suggests participation in creative play may develop personal traits, creative behaviours and creative productivity across a range of contexts, but a causal relationship remains unproven.
Review of studies measuring creative processes
Creative processes modelled in creative play include divergent thinking, broad associations, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, imagination, improvisation, pleasure, and absorption (Vygotsky, 1976) (Russ S., 2014).
Fifteen studies engaged child participants, mainly of pre-school age and adopted a process-based approach to measuring creativity. Techniques ranged from introducing a fun soft toy character in a classroom, experiencing an immersive museum exhibition, outdoor play using natural and digital play props, sibling pretend play themes, constructing personalised structures etc.
Adults participated in five of the studies that reported on creative process, with interventions ranging from the introduction of play cues during work meetings, student learning in an elective module on design thinking and game making, employee participation in improvisational theatre in the workplace, etc. The findings are summarised in Table 1 below.
Table 1- Findings from Reviews of Studies Measuring Creative Process
Repurposing simple open-ended toys
Increased creative, imaginative and novel expressions (i.e. verbal, graphic and written)
Increased symbolic play
Increased spontaneous play
Reimagining (i.e. transference of creative ideas from one setting in another)
(Lu, Petersen, Lacroix & Rousseau, 2010)
(Garagorbil and Berrueco, 2011)
(Thiessen, Gluth & Corso, 2013)
(Howe, Abuhatoum and Chang-Kredl, 2014)
(Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle and Herrington, 2017)
(Arnott and Duncan, 2019)
Using close-structured toys
Creative problem solving
(Arnott and Duncan, 2019)
|Engagement in process||
Hands on experimentation
Autonomy and ownership of the process
(Hunter, Maes, Tang and Hessey, 2014)
(Piscitelli and Penfold, 2015)
(Howe D., 2015)
(Thuneberg, Salmia and Bognerb, 2018)
Demonstrated in teams
Increased climate of creativity, excitement and pleasure
(Lu, Petersen, Lacroix & Rousseau, 2010)
(West, Carlsson and Hoff, 2016)
(West, Carlsson and Hoff, 2017)
Creative play activities facilitated the creation of an environment in which individuals and teams were able to express a range of behaviours that are linked with the creative process. Findings from one study pointed to the unique emergence of creative play across pedagogic cultures, and the interplay between person, process and place (Arnott & Duncan, 2019). This study identifies differences in the play observed in distinct pedagogic cultures. This is a result of adopting a broader approach to the context in which it was occuring.
Arnab and colleagues reported increases in creative behaviours such as design-thinking, problem-solving and inspiration amongst university students following participation in an elective module on design thinking and game making, where the focus was on co-creativity (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018). This was one of the few studies that specifically drew on the employment skills challenges lying ahead, drawing together arts, design, computation and engineering into a multi-disciplinary collaboration that could help cultivate creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.
It was reported that participants grew with regards to empathy, meaning, art, creativity, and teamwork, but the sample size was small, with only subjective self-reporting from feedback and reflections over a short period of time.
However, it provides a replicable example of a multi-disciplinary learning process that has the potential to cultivate 21stcentury skills, where the emphasis is taken away from end-product and measurable attainment, and the process of experimentation, (re)design, collaboration and empathic learning are privileged.
As modern organisations focus on fostering more playful cultures and practices in order to promote the kind of creativity and innovation that will enable them to compete in the global economy, there have been calls for play at work to receive greater research attention (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006).
New economy commentators identify play as an essential aspect of entrepreneurship and innovation (Ashton & Giddings, 2018). Examples of inspiration from children’s play being used to foster a playful workplace culture include Google’s HQ - the Googleplex - and the use of LEGO Serious Play (LSP) as a medium to invigorate imagination and creativity (Schulz & Geithner, 2013) (Ashton & Giddings, 2018).
With the aim of addressing the lack of research on team-level processes, a model of the social and psychological mechanisms through which playfulness enhances creativity in work teams has been developed (Rosso, 2016). The model proposes that playfulness in teams promotes the following three mechanisms, which in turn promote creative team processes and outcomes: positive affect, psychological safety (trust increasing the freedom to experiment), and intrinsic motivation. Rosso’s model potentially illuminates important psychological underpinnings of the playfulness-creativity relationship, providing a testable model for empirical research (Rosso, 2016). Its focus on playfulness (the trait) rather than play (the activity) gives the model broader usefulness for exploring and theorising organisational behaviours that contribute to creative outcomes in organisations.
Playfulness and its impact on workplace climate and atmosphere was the common theme amongst all four studies situated within work environments. Improvisational theatre workshops were introduced to a group of diverse organisations where the research focused on the relationship between workplace playfulness and creativity at the team- and individual-level (West, Hoff, & Carlsson, 2013). Increases in workplace playfulness, individual creativity and group creativity were reported using a newly developed matrix ‘Distributed Creativity in Organisational Groups’. After introducing play cues during work meetings, participants’ opinions on the creative climate, playfulness, and meeting productivity were gathered (West , Carlsson, & Hoff, 2016). The results confirmed an increase across all three areas when compared to the control group. Taking part in an improvisational play intervention before a work task resulted in increased creative thinking and ideation (West , Hoff, & Carlsson, 2017).
The finding that improvisational play is a promising enhancer of organisational creativity is consistent with Sawyer’s identification of improvisation, collaboration and emergence as key features of the group creative process (Sawyer K. , 2012). Given the frequency of meetings in today’s workplace, these findings are a useful starting point for empirical investigations of how organisational playfulness might be enhanced to help facilitate creative processes (West , Carlsson, & Hoff, 2016). At the individual level, research across a number of organisations examining the relationship between playfulness, work engagement and individual-level innovative performance found that playful attitude and atmosphere related positively to work engagement, which in turn showed a positive relationship to innovative work performance (Tunkkari-Eskelinen & Aaltio, 2016).
Workplace-based studies also supported the notion that play and humour fostered divergent thinking, increased workplace morale and promoted trust within the team (Weinlick, 2010) (West, Hoff, & Carlsson, 2013) (West , Carlsson, & Hoff, 2016).
Applying play as an engagement tool rather than play as diversion (i.e. workplace celebrations or shared jokes) fosters creativity directly, by facilitating the cognitive and affective dimensions of the creative process, whereas play as diversion fosters creativity in more peripheral and indirect ways.
Although it has been suggested that organisations need to embrace both these forms of play in order to facilitate creativity (Mainemelis, 2006), the studies considered here only provided examples of play as an engagement tool. Only one study took a longitudinal approach within a work environment, taking place over a ten-week period with ten participants engaged in the design of services for people with disabilities (Weinlick, 2010). Through storytelling, focus groups and interviews, the researcher explored the use of serious play, playfulness and humour within their work setting.
Serious play approaches use hybrid thinking (divergent and convergent) to solve specific real world challenges. Furthermore, approaches inspired by serious play can generate solutions to management problems that are more imaginative (Oliver, Heracleous, & Jacobs, 2014). Interventions focused on hybrid thinking have significant potential for the cultivation of workplace creativity, as the divergent components encourage novelty, whereas the convergent components ensure that the discoveries will be valuable to the organisation (Oliver, Heracleous, & Jacobs, 2014) (Amabile, 1996).
However, for the creative benefits of hybrid approaches to be realised, insights may often need to be operationalised using more conventional frameworks, to ensure they make the transition from the realm of imagination and creativity to the realm of action (Oliver, Heracleous, & Jacobs, 2014).
Review of studies measuring creative product
Creative productivity was used as a measure of creativity in only four of the studies reviewed, where measures of quality or quantity of ideas generated were taken (Wingate, 2011) (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017), or imaginative content of a product was assessed using TTCT (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010). In higher education, a large variety of experimental techniques are being developed to increase the quantity and quality of ideas during ideation (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017) (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018). These include the development of interdisciplinary approaches to scientific thinking (Wingate 2011), the introduction of time, physical and interaction-based constraints to create positive group tension and emotivity during collaboration (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017), and empathy-based design processes to develop interdisciplinary teams and learn how to modify design systems (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018).
The effects of introducing time-, physical- and interaction-based constraints to create tension within creative play interventions provided interesting insights into the possible effects of workplace conditions and their impact on productivity (Mougenot et al. 2017). Interaction-based constraints such as role-play, where pro-, contra- and neutral positions were taken proved more effective for quality idea generation, positive tension and group emotivity compared to time- and physical- constraints (Mougenot et al. 2017). multi-perspectival role-playing and interdisciplinary approaches had positive outcomes when applied to creative problem-solving (Wingate 2011), which speak to the importance of plurality of identities, recognised as a core competence for the digital age (Craft, 2011).
The importance of place
Although not taken as a measure of creativity, most of the 25 studies reviewed specifically mentioned physical space (place) as a contributing factor in facilitating creative play (Thiessen, Gluth, & Corso, 2013) (Howe, Abuhatoum, & Chang-Kredl, 2014) (Piscitelli & Penfold, 2015) (West, Hoff, & Carlsson, 2013) (Zamani, 2016) (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle, & Herrington, 2017) (Arnott & Duncan, 2019) (Hitron, 2018).
Four studies highlighted the need to ensure that the play space allowed participants to feel safe in a non-judgemental climate in order to engage fully in creative tasks (Lu, Petersen, Lacroix, & Rousseau, 2010) (Symons & Hurley, 2018) (Arnott & Duncan, 2019) (Berrueco & Garaigordobil, 2011). The concept of psychological safety was raised in a couple of studies (West, Hoff, & Carlsson, 2013) (Symons & Hurley, 2018), enabling group members to explore, take risks and push boundaries in a tolerant, accepting space. As discussed above, how individuals engage with their environment during the creative process impacts on the products created (Rhodes, 1961), and the process of creation.
In the following section, literature on the relationship between creative play environments and creativity are reviewed. Particular attention is paid to how the potential of analogue and digital modes of creative play affect its efficacy and relationship to creativity in the digital age.
Creative play, creativity and the digital age: A changing context
In the digital age, the need for creative skills is increasing, as are the ways in which people of all ages can develop those skills. In this section, we examine how this relationship between creativity and creative play is being both facilitated and challenged by technological developments.
The digital age is characterised by economic and social developments founded on digital technologies. There are significant opportunities to support sustainable development and inclusive economic growth by engaging with new technologies. Indeed, creative and digital economies now rely on developing services that utilise big data analytics and advancements in hardware and software technology to generate business (UNCTAD, 2017). However in order to make the most of these opportunities it is essential to have not only higher level cognitive and technical skills, but also creative skills (UNCTAD, 2017). As discussed in part one of the literature review, the digital age has changed both the nature of creativity and how individuals draw on and express their creativity.
At the same time, as discussed in Part 2 of this Literature Review, the role and nature of creative play is changing. Companies are producing a range of analogue and digital tools to attempt to replicate creative play experiences, but only some of these have been shown to lead to the same outcomes as analogue creative play.
Redefining the four Ps
As noted in part one of the literature review, the new types of creative expression and new user groups associated with the digital age are challenging the traditional typologies and assessments for creativity. Digital technologies have provided platforms that enable consumers to embrace the notion of a dialogic and egalitarian form of creative performance in which diverse members can participate freely. This resonates with the reciprocal, collaborative and ‘wise, humanising creativity’ proposed by Chappell & Craft (2011). Wise, humanising creativity is guided by ethical action and is based on a questioning engagement with the world; collaborators pose meaningful questions and try to create meaningful responses (Chappell & Craft , 2011). Craft uses this conception of creativity to build a model to inform educational policy and practice based on a vision of digital participation that is collaborative and empowering, not individualising and exploitative (Craft, 2012).
Ultimately, the model Craft has developed - also called the 4Ps - posits a new way in which to understand creativity in the digital age. It is based on the notion of possibility thinking, i.e. asking what-if questions about the world and moving towards what might be. Possibility thinking involves collaborating with others, opening up conceptual space and finding mutually beneficial solutions. In order to carry out possibility thinking collaboratively, playfulness of engagement is required. Playfulness is the experimental drive to explore spaces in online and offline environments to connect with others and express yourself. In order to explore the range of online spaces plurality of identity is required. Plurality of identity requires the flexibility to engage with a wide range of places (virtual spaces) and people, as well as being able to communicate across a range of visual, text-based and video-based media. Finally participation is welcoming collaborators in a democratic and dialogic voice (Craft, 2012).
Table 2 - Craft's Four Ps and their relation to creative process and behaviours
|Crafts's Four Ps||Creative process and behaviours|
|Playfulness of engagement||
Desire to improvise
|Plurality of identities||
Constructuve internal reflection
|Democratic and dialogic participation||
Egalitarian participation in collaboration
As can be seen in Table 3, Craft’s 4Ps model can be used to highlight characteristics of the creative process. Possibility thinking involves opening up and constructively exploring conceptual space. Hence, possibility thinking shares similarities with divergent and convergent forms of thinking in the creative process. Playfulness of engagement references the experimental drive, risk-taking and intrinsic motivation found in exploration and improvisation. Plurality of identity requires reflexivity and empathy, and so requires socio-emotional imagination, constructive internal reflection and polycultural thinking. Democratic and dialogic notions of participation resonate with the egalitarian modes of participation, contingent engagement in collaborative creativity (Sawyer K., 2018).
Hence, Craft’s 4Ps model provides an ethically informed way of framing discourses related to creativity in the digital age. Whereas systems models of creativity are useful for understanding creative productivity within specific domains, Craft’s model may be more beneficial in characterising creativity in community, welfare and educational settings.
Digital creative play
As discussed in part two of the literature review, digital play can replicate analogue experiences, provided that players are treated as game makers, and the digital world in which the play is occurring lends itself to creation and re-imagination. However, a more in-depth review of whether such play can directly lead to creativity is required.
In the literature, there were some studies that reviewed digital play experiences that do clearly contribute to the development of creative skills. One example of this is the programming system Scratch 3.0 created by Resnick (Resnick, 2017) and colleagues at MIT which allows children to use a graphical interface to perform open-ended programming. The children are able to choose projects themselves and make unusual creations such as hip-hop dancing hippopotamuses and French speaking hedgehogs (MIT Media Lab, 2019). LEGO have also teamed up with Scratch to create a hybrid system in which motors, lights and sensors can be programmed to function in creative ways.
Even fully screen-based games like Minecraft, a popular virtual brick building game, allows individuals to create their own imaginary worlds through a programme-based approach to role-play in which items are collected and combined to create possessions in the virtual world. One project presented a compelling combinatory methodology using Minecraft which brought together game-based learning, co-creation, simulation modelling, and design thinking (Rexhepi, Filiposka, & Trajkovik, 2018). In this instance, Minecraft provided a familiar pathway for young people to engage in community initiatives, promoting inclusion, and inter-generational learning.
Within serious gaming there has also been a movement from instructionist modes of gaming, where playing the game results in learning, to connected and constructionist modes of gaming in which learning emerges as an outcome of creating games (Kafai & Burke, 2014). The notion of creative coding is a growing area of creative expression, especially in educational environments (Kafai & Burke, 2014) (Resnick, 2017). Connected gaming doesn’t draw boundaries between players and designers as participants and makers of digital media culture, but rather sees individuals as occupying both roles. There is a strongly democratic approach to game building. Hence, there is the potential for groups that have been marginalised within coding and gaming communities, such as girls, to construct their own games as a way of building new communities of gamers that are more inclusive and representative. (Kafai & Burke, 2014).
The core skills for connected and constructivist gaming are coding, collaboration, creativity and criticality. There is a greater focus on the relationship between stories and games and conceiving of the game making process as a matter of crafting pathways rather than simply responding to stimuli (Westecott, 2012). Hence, there is a need for both divergent and convergent thinking to create novel and appropriate games for specific groups. Opening access and participation in serious games is not solely a matter of making better games for the end user, but also allowing users to make the games they would like to see and play (Kafai & Burke, 2014). Furthermore, being part of a community that offers constructive feedback is seen as an essential aspect of expressing and developing creativity. The Scratch coding community enables participants to create block-based coding, share their creations and get peer feedback from a global network of fellow creators (Resnick, 2017). Hence, these technologies enable collaborative and inclusive modes of creative engagement (Kafai & Burke, 2014) ,(Resnick, 2017).
It is important however to review the contexts in which these digital, creative play experiences are being assessed. Much of the literature focuses on their applications in education or community settings. Two youth e-participation projects were reported in the literature that demonstrated using e-games, in these instances Minecraft, to improve local government and youth interaction (Cilauro, 2015) (Rexhepi, Filiposka, & Trajkovik, 2018). Other studies reported increased social interaction (Hur, 2010) (Lu, Petersen, Lacroix, & Rousseau, 2010) (WIlson, 2012) (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle, & Herrington, 2017) (Teksoz, Bilgin, Madzwamuse, & Oscakci, 2017) (Vitalaki, Kourkoutas, & Hart, 2017) and a sense of inclusion through creative engagement (Vitalaki, Kourkoutas, & Hart, 2017). Online game platforms are being used to develop intercultural competencies in school children, a creative example of digital learning within compulsory education. A study reported on primary school children using Minecraft to construct a global virtual world to facilitate intercultural learning, making use of the easy modification and integration of many elements that this platform provides (Balnaves, 2018).
Ultimately, therefore, it would appear that Craft’s version of the 4Ps is most applicable to these inclusive, community based studies and reflects the model of creativity with which they are most aligned. In many ways this is to be expected – digital creative play experiences have been expressly developed to respond to opportunities and possibilities in the digital world. However, it does suggest that there is a gap in the literature and that there is an opportunity to explore in greater depth the role that digital creative play may have in developing creativity as it is understood in a more traditional sense.
Creativity is the expression and invention of novel and appropriate ideas. In the digital age, however, it is a concept that is in flux. Though the digital age is providing both the incentive for and the opportunity to become more creative, there are complex dynamics within these processes. For instance, our continuous connectivity is increasing creative output but also becoming distracting and reducing deeper levels of creativity. The networked and viral nature of dissemination also brings new dilemmas over authorship and how creative work is shared.
Ultimately, the ways in which we assess and understand creativity are changing as our understandings shift and our priorities change. As creativity is becoming more important and is increasingly valued as a transferable skill, it is also becoming an increasingly complex concept.
Creative play has been defined as an intrinsically motivated, autonomous and interactive process, which facilitates democratic participation and collaboration, improvisation, risk-taking and emergence, plurality of identity and possibility thinking. It can facilitate different aspects of divergent exploration and personal discovery in early years education settings and enable more collaborative problem solving that blends divergent and convergent thinking as the life course progresses. Creative play, due to its adaptive nature can be easily replicated across diverse cultures, varying age and ability groups, and in high- and low-resource settings. Creative play can exist in digital environments, however only in a very particular type of game with a specific play experience.
Overall, the research suggests that there is not a clear causal relationship between creative play and creativity. However, research does suggest that participation in creative play can develop personal traits, creative behaviours and creative productivity across a range of contexts. Participation in creative play activities allows for engagement in a cooperative and collaborative process, where the interplay of possibility thinking, improvisation and risk- taking leads to the emergence of new possibilities and pathways. By exploring and reflecting on these experiences’ individuals can develop a broad range of communicative, socio-emotional, collaborative, cognitive and creative skills. These attributes align with the core 21st century skills necessary for effective navigation of the rapidly changing marketplace of information, attention-based economies and digital entrepreneurship. The creative skills cultivated through creative play will prove advantageous in navigating the changing landscape of work, production, social connection and communication.
This is true in both digital and analogue creative play, though the type or nature of the creativity that may be developed may differ. Indeed, studies showed that rather than emphasising a dichotomy between analogue and digital media, it is preferable to identify aspects of playful engagement and playful environments that can facilitate the development of creativity through creative play.
Hybrid thinking interventions such as serious play, an approach that combines divergence (the play in serious play), and convergent critical thinking (the serious in serious play) have significant potential for developing creativity through creative play. Considering the transition from education to the workplace, designing creative play/serious play interventions that begin to bridge educational and workplace domains, will facilitate the development of 21st century skills, fostering future preparedness and enabling full engagement in a rapidly changing future. Creative play techniques such as LSP - which is already being implemented in higher education, work and community settings - could provide such a bridging solution.
Indeed, the development of creativity through creative play appears to ultimately depend on the environment, digital or analogue, in which this takes place. Key design principles for environments which facilitate creative play and creative behaviours include: simple and flexible materials; structures allowing participants to exercise autonomy and flexibility; facilitating creating as well as playing to enable meaningful engagement; creating safe, trusting and democratic spaces to promote risk taking, build confidence and promote creative expression.
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