Mother and daughter building Lego together

This second chapter in a literature review looking at the role of creative play in developing creativity in the digital age looks at what we mean when we talk about creative play. How is it different from other types of play? Why is it important? 

Play and creative play

The word play is used in many ways: to play a game, a sport, a musical instrument, a song, the odds, the stock market, with toys, with ideas (Resnick, 2017). Throughout history and across cultures, play has been an essential aspect of human life; (Whitebread, Basilio, Kuvalja, & Verma, 2012); a part of childhood, adulthood and adult work life ( (Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture, 1955) Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006).  Play can be self-directed, existing as a free, child-led activity (Yogman, Garner, Hutchinson, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2018) or guided which requires interaction with an adult or expert, and often involves more focused tasks (Arnott & Duncan, 2019). Play is intimately linked to learning – both, at their best, involve processes of experimentation, exploration and boundary testing (Resnick, 2007), and is widely accepted as a fundamental, critical part of human development, vital for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development (Singer & Singer, 2005) (Play England, 2019).

Over the years, many theorists have attempted to codify or systematically analyse the role of play in society. One example of this is Huizinga’s work Homo Ludens. Huizinga conceives of play as being made up of five distinct characteristics: it is voluntary, rule-ordered, boundaried, different, and non-purposeful (Huizinga, 1955). Ultimately, whilst establishing play as having a clear societal role, Huizinga also emphasises how challenging it can be to conceive of play as a singular entity.

The multifaceted nature of play is highlighted by the many definitions that exist: a non-serious fun activity; recreational engagement providing enjoyment; the work of children; a physical or mental leisure activity undertaken purely for self-amusement. Definitions of play consistently include personal choice and control, intrinsic motivation, positive affect, flexibility and adaptation (Lester & Russell, 2008) (Zosh, et al., 2017). Ultimately, most definitions are insufficient, as they inevitably focus on one or several types of play and fail to include all aspects. For example, a focus on fun and enjoyment excludes rule-governed sports play that may not always provide enjoyment and is often serious.

As a result of this complexity, many theories have emerged that attempt to classify and categorise types of play. Early theories focus on the physical features of play and their functions, (expelling surplus energy from the body) and later theories focus on the internal emotional purposes of play (developing problem-solving skills) (Bergen, 2015).

The ‘Six Stages of Play’ model was developed in the 1930’s and explained that the purpose of play was learning to relate to others and to facilitate socialisation (Parten, 1932). The six stages mirrored an infant child’s stages of development: unoccupied, solitary, on-looker, parallel, associative, and social. Play has been further categorised into four specific cognitive types (functional, constructive, symbolic/dramatic, and games with rules), explaining the essential role of play from a cognitive perspective of child development (Piaget, 1962). As a child grows, play enables the development of cognition structures or linked concepts, which help a child to understand and respond to their environment  (Piaget, 1962). Another type-based theory is the 'Sixteen Play Types' (symbolic, rough and tumble, socio-dramatic, social, creative, communication, dramatic, locomotor, deep, exploratory, fantasy, imaginative, mastery, object, role play, and recapitulative) (Hughes, 2006). The sixteen play types provide an expansive list, reflecting cultural, cognitive and sociological elements of play.

Until recently, creative play has been distinguished from play based on the nature of the players (usually children), the requirement for creative materials to be used (modelling clay, paint, dressing up props), the development of manual 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 unhindered exploration without fear of judgment, especially when immersed in imaginative play and role-playing (Piaget, 1951) (Hurwitz, 2002). As more learners 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. A number of specific processes, behaviours and traits have been linked to creative play, which can help us understand the skills and benefits engagement in creative activities can bring.

As can be seen in Table 1, specific processes modelled in children’s social pretend play have been used to help identify some distinctive features of creative play: divergent thinking, broad associations, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, imagination, improvisation, pleasure, and absorption (Vygotsky, 1976) (Russ, 2014). Creative play is increasingly recognised as an interactive process that facilitates experimentation and improvisation, risk-taking, reimagining and reusing, and exploring possibilities in a playful manner, where freedom to participate lies with the player(s). 

Table 1 - Creative Processes in Pretend Play (Russ & Doernberg, Play and Creativity, 2019)

Creative processes in pretend play Examples in play
Divergent thinking Block transformations
Broad associations

Different story ideas and elements

Wide fantasy and remote images

Cognitive flexibility/Recombining ideas

Use toys in different ways

Manipulating story elements

Loosening of time and space

Insight and problem-solving

Building novel objects

Playing with mechanical objects

Perspective taking


Pretending to be other characters

Narrative development Story plots and sequences
Affect themes and symbols

Monsters; Cops and robbers

Yummy food

Emotional expression Dolls fighting; Dolls hugging
Joy in pretending  Pleasure and absorption in the play
Integration of affect/Affect themes  Placing emotion in an appropriate narrative

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). The experimental and reflective elements of creative play enable hypothesis testing and convergent thinking. The improvisational aspects include contingency (playful actions need to be both appropriate and new to move the play forward), inter-subjectivity (working together to create a shared play world), and emergence (the shared play world emerges incrementally) (Sawyer K., 2012). Essential elements of the creative process, such as risk-taking, reimagining and exploring possibilities are replicated during creative play, facilitating divergent thinking processes (Bateson, 2014). Playful (creative) play may remain without purpose, but it has the potential to provide the experience, environment and insight that can generate new forms of expression or problem-solving techniques (Bateson, 2014).

The paradoxes inherent in creativity are also embodied in creative play. The parallels include knowing the rules of the game but being open to improvisation; taking place in an imaginative world, but firmly grounded in reality; and activating functionally diverse regions of the brain to synergistically integrate their function (Brown, 2009). Dealing with these paradoxes, liminal states, and the unpredictability is part of the problem solving and creative process, helping to build a plurality of identities, practice possibility and empathetic thinking (Craft, 2013), and reimagine future selves (Gotlieb, Jahner, Immordino-Yang, & Kaufman, 2017). The tension between the divergent freedom of play and the convergent demands of making sense of experience is a positive dynamic that stimulates innovation and transformative change. 

Based on these observations, the following definition may be useful in identifying creative play mechanisms across the life course and within different contexts such as education, work, health, and in analogue and digital media.

Creative play is an intrinsically motivated, autonomous and interactive process, which facilitates:

  1. Democratic participation and collaboration
  2. Improvisation, risk-taking and emergence
  3. Plurality of identity and possibility thinking
School children building with Lego
Young boy showing a structure he has made with Lego
A man and a girl building Lego

Outcomes of creative play

Creative play as a process has been seen to contribute to a series of outcomes. These relate to the acquisition of knowledge, developments in social skills, and improved health.

Knowledge outcomes

Empirical studies on creative play were most frequent in educational settings such as preschool and primary education, reporting a number of outcomes with regards to increased knowledge and skills. It was observed that social and motor skills were developed through free physical play (Hyndman, 2015) (Ragen, 2015). Using simple open-ended toys such as bricks and tyres provided greater opportunities for divergence and creative imaginative play as the toys could be easily reimagined, repositioned and repurposed during episodes of play (Thiessen, Gluth, & Corso, 2013) (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle, & Herrington, 2017) (Arnott & Duncan, 2019). As well as these general skills, there are also many examples of creative play such as social play and role-play linked to increased domain-specific knowledge, and theory creation (Wingate, 2011) (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017) (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018).

Domain-specific knowledge transfer was reported when play-based hands-on learning was used in Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) projects (Webb, Rule, Cavanaugh, & Munson, 2014) (Howe, 2015) (Thuneberg, Salmia, & Bognerb, 2018), and in serious gaming techniques (Stege, van Lankveld, & Spronck, 2011) with older children and students. STEAM projects also focused on the use of visual creativity to improve understanding amongst learners (Segarra, Natalizio, Falkenberg, Pulford, & Holmes, 2018). Although the aim of these projects was generally domain-specific, studies highlighted similar aspects of creative play as conducive to learning, i.e. hands-on experimentation or experiential learning, collaboration, autonomy and ownership of the process. Autonomy and personalised study reportedly gave learners freedom to build and explore as they chose, which in turn raised motivation and feelings of creative flow (Gordon, 2015) (Howe, 2015) (Thuneberg, Salmia, & Bognerb, 2018).

In higher education, notions of creative play were used to stimulate domain-specific knowledge, collaborative skills, and theory creation (Wingate, 2011) (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017) (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018). Here there was a greater emphasis on product and a more clearly defined interdisciplinary and experimental approach to stimulating the creative process (Wingate, 2011) (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017) (Segarra, Natalizio, Falkenberg, Pulford, & Holmes, 2018) (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018). 

Creative play is also referenced as a component of design thinking, LEGO Serious Play (LSP), and Serious Gaming. These approaches are creating more democratic modes of participation that are enabling students to explore a plurality of perspectives and aspects of identity (James, 2013), domain-specific possibility thinking, and to be playful with theoretical ideas.  In these ways, creative play assists in developing the skills necessary to move along the creativity continuum from ‘little-c’ insights to ‘pro-c’ creations required in the workplace and in wider research environments.

Learning and skill development through creative play also occurs in informal educational settings. The key to creative play experiences is the allowance to tinker, such as using basic building blocks in unexpected and innovative ways. LEGO bricks are a classic example of this functionality used not only in educational environments, but also in informal settings as part of the LSP approach, and in collaborative projects (Schulz & Geithner, 2013) (James, 2015).

Within community and workplace settings there is little research that focuses on knowledge acquisition through creative play. However, one study focused on how providing low income and disenfranchised communities with access to 3D printers and technology within a supportive social environment enabled creative play and skills development (Symons & Hurley, 2018).

Social outcomes

Creative play can help change perspectives on identity and increase trust and autonomy in marginalised and disempowered groups. Skill development and collaborative projects require teamwork, bringing people together in new communities of practice (Symons & Hurley, 2018). Within new communities, trust building is an essential part of the process, and there is a need to engage with narratives of failure, democratise the notion of creativity and reduce the feeling that creativity is ‘not for me’ (Gross, 2018) (Symons & Hurley, 2018). This requires safe play to build trust; open play to express ideas; setting realistic parameters to focus action and build confidence; and allowing participants to control the pace. Purposeful meandering describes this general approach to creative development that gives participants the freedom to control pace and explore choices that interest them as part of a self-determined, creative process.

As such, creative play can often counteract come aspects of unconscious bias, by diverting participants’ attention away from factors such as cultural background, educational ability, generational difference, and allowing them to focus on engagement and creation. Creative expression workshops utilising sandplay showed greater levels of positive social behaviour amongst pre-school participants from a multi-ethnic neighbourhood after taking part in the workshops. (Rousseau, Benoit, Lacroix, & Gauthier, 2009), with additional studies finding creative play promoting inter-generational and cross-cultural interaction (Price & Tinker, 2014) (Piscitelli & Penfold, 2015) (Gross, 2018).

Engaging mixed-ability children and teachers in collaborative creative activities contributed to creating a positive, vibrant atmosphere, emphasising social behaviours (empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation). ‘Levelling the playing field’ and placing the spotlight on the process of co-creation and collaboration, and not on difference and ability, helped create an inclusive environment. Inclusion and resilience were key aspects required to promote mutual understanding, collaboration and empathy in classrooms mainstreaming students with special educational needs (SEN) (Vitalaki, Kourkoutas, & Hart, 2017).

Amongst students and researchers, creative play interventions and performative tasks were found to develop collaborative skills and enable self-expression (Wingate, 2011) (Loudon, Deininger, & Wilgeroth, 2012) (Gordon, 2015) (Mougenot, Detienne, Pennington, Baker, & Corvin, 2017) (Arnab, Morini, & Clarke, 2018). The social benefits of LSP were found to be changed expectations and interactions in student participants, empowerment, and increased agency. Sharing experiences in a safe space built cohesion and understanding (Nerantzi, Moravej, & Johnson, 2015) (Yates & Twigg, 2017). LSP has also been used to enable multiple-perspective and tacit understanding to be expressed non-verbally, helping facilitate individuals with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (James, 2013).

Supporting a sense of freedom and using humour sensitively to help people accept ‘failing gladly’ (Symons & Hurley, 2018) can provide a safe, exploratory-rich environment, especially for persons with lower levels of creative confidence.  Focusing on exploration, and reframing what creativity looks like can tackle anxieties around creative production and a lack of confidence and self-belief. The research emphasised the need for inclusivity in creative play, and the requirement to think of all people as cultural producers (Symons & Hurley, 2018). Additional studies also reported increased social interaction (Hur, 2010), (WIlson, 2012; Lu, Petersen, Lacroix, & Rousseau, 2010)  (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle, & Herrington, 2017); (Teksoz, Bilgin, Madzwamuse, & Oscakci, 2017) (Vitalaki, Kourkoutas, & Hart, 2017) and a sense of inclusion (Vitalaki, Kourkoutas, & Hart, 2017) through creative engagement.

Research provides evidence that the multi-perspective lens provided by role-play activities leads to more dialogic and open interactions, creating more nuanced and coherent viewpoints and more effective problem redefinition (Wingate, 2011). Pro-, contra- and neutral role-play during activities enables beneficial socio-cognitive conflict, reducing ownership of ideas and the potential for arguments to be taken personally. The introduction of a creative play space on a children’s hospital ward found that the children who engaged creatively with the materials provided were able to express their individuality and autonomy in the process of making. Furthermore, nurses changed their perspectives on the children in their care, seeing them as individuals and developed greater levels of trust (Teksoz, Bilgin, Madzwamuse, & Oscakci, 2017).

Health outcomes

There is strong evidence that participation in community-based arts activities such as music, dance, creative writing, crafting and drama can promote recovery for mental health service users (Stickley, Wright, & Slade, 2018). The cited research emphasises the value of connectivity with others, and the increasing feelings of hopefulness experienced by participants. The benefits of participation in creative play include enhanced mental health, a means to help reintegrate excluded persons back into society and draw in those at risk of exclusion, as well as being a protective factor for well-being (Gilham, 2018). The key impacts of arts in healthcare include improved patient health, recovery and well-being in clinical settings, better run healthcare environments, and participation to improve patient health and well-being (Public Art Online, 2010).

The National Alliance for Arts, Health and Well-being was launched in 2012 with the aim of raising the role of creativity in health and well-being (National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, 2019). In addition, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), a charity informing public policy and practice, advocates that a key component towards building sustainable resilient community is the relationship individuals and communities have with creative arts (Royal Society for Public Health, 2019).

Appropriate creative materials and supportive environments with nurturing adults was seen to facilitate the creative play process amongst participants with special needs or vulnerabilities. These approaches increased child agency through creative processes (Matthews & Rix, 2013), the capacity for children to cope following bereavement (Purswell & Taylor, 2013), increased dialogue to address community issues (Greatorex, 2011) (Muspratt & Apperley, 2012), promoted successful aging (Price & Tinker, 2014) (Gross, 2018), and increased capacity in children following traumatic events (Rousseau, Benoit, Lacroix, & Gauthier, 2009). Following a programme of sandplay introduced within special education classes to stimulate creative and symbolic play amongst children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), professional observations from psychologists, teachers and therapists reported increased participation, especially from previously avoidant children (Lu, Petersen, Lacroix, & Rousseau, 2010). Higher concentration levels and progression from functional play to symbolic/representative play, from rigid play to more flexibility was also observed. The children showed enthusiasm, joy and pride according to their class teachers. The metaphorical or symbolic exploration of tensions was particularly useful when children lacked the linguistic skills to articulate their ideas, or fear[ed] talking about them directly (Lowenstein & Sprunk, 2010) (Purswell & Taylor, 2013) (Howe, Abuhatoum, & Chang-Kredl, 2014).

Community engagement draws together multiple contexts of people’s lives, provides a direct voice to citizens in public decision-making, and raises commitment levels to proposed ventures. The Engaging Communities in Play, a programme commissioned by the Department of Education, UK, provides valuable evidence of the impact of community engagement in local play provision (Greatorex, 2011). Furthermore, the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s And Adolescents’ Health, 2016-2030 acknowledges the unique challenges facing young people’s health outcomes, but also their vital role as change makers. (The Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030)., 2015), especially considering that by 2030, 60% of urban dwellers will be under 18 years of age (UN-Habitat, 2012).

Encouraging creative play

Based on the literature that was reviewed for this project, we have developed a series of guidelines for encouraging creative play.


Simple materials that can be reimagined and repurposed easily can promote inclusive play. They can enhance the flow of narrative and gameplay, and promote autonomy as the players create.


Game structures that enable user autonomy to build meaningful narratives will help prolong creative engagement. Conversely, rigid structures or rules can lead to frustration and disengagement.


A movement from gamer to constructivist can encourage individuals and groups to be proactive and see themselves as ‘creators’. Participant autonomy allows players to create works or products that they feel are meaningful.


Cultivating trusting social environments in which participants are willing to take risks is integral to the creative process. Sharing creations as part of a peer-to-peer community enables collaborative learning, and critical and constructive feedback, but also requires safe non-judgmental space.


Environmental cues can make it easier to manage social interaction in analogue contexts.

Encouraging vulnerable participants to get involved requires building democratic environments, which help build confidence and alleviate self-doubt regarding perceived levels of creativity. Providing appropriate support and encouragement is vital to promote engagement.

Digital creative play

Digital technologies are also changing the way in which we play and experience playing, and here we consider whether digital play can be considered Creative Play, and if so, if it provides the same outcomes and benefits. One of the key characteristics of analogue play is that low cost, simple materials allow ‘players’ to engage with the materials in myriad ways. Open-ended analogue toys like bricks and sticks provide endless opportunities to be reimagined and repurposed (Wilson, 2012) (Thiessen, Gluth, & Corso, 2013) (Zamani, 2016) (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle, & Herrington, 2017) (Arnott & Duncan, 2019), which is related to the expression of divergent thinking and broad associations (Russ & Doernberg, 2019). The fluidity of analogue play allows for the creation of meaningful narratives and easy reconstruction (Thiessen, Gluth, & Corso, 2013). Simplicity and contingency allow the players to control the rules of engagement and opens up the possibility for creative exploration and improvisation (Sawyer K. , 2007). However, closed-structured toys reduce divergent use and focus the players on convergent thinking, task-planning and task completion (Arnott & Duncan, 2019).  The type of structure in any play-based task can therefore determine whether or not something counts as creative play, and has an effect on the outcomes of that play.

One of the key elements to understand before considering this type of analysis are the different types of play that have emerged in the digital age. Digital creative play systems include screen-based approaches like pervasive games (Craft, 2012) and augmented reality, or non-screen based approaches like Heads-Up Games (HUGS) (Zund, Ryffel, Magnenat, Marra, & Nitt, 2015). HUGS use smart toys that have digital feedback capabilities in outside play areas. These objects aim to be transparent (al. T. H., 2018)(al., 2018), i.e. as intuitive to use and as amenable to re-imagination as conventional outdoor play objects such as sticks or Frisbees. In order to make these toys effective, research requires empathy-based design techniques and should include children as co-researchers and co-creators (Reitenbach, van Dijka, Hochstenbacha, & Resinka, 2011) (al., 2018). However, these so-called ‘smart toys’ have difficulty replicating the benefits of open-ended, analogue toys. For example, a research study that tried to reinvent a stick-like toy with light based counting and expressive modes found that smart toys with counting technologies preserve the social and physical activity of more conventional toys. However, non-competitive smart toys underperformed conventional toys in terms of collaborative interaction and creative rule invention, as children struggled to work out how to make use of the digital capabilities of the toy (al. T. H., 2018). In a sense, the children ‘followed the lead of the toy’ (al. T. H., 2018), which reduced their own levels of creativity and autonomy.

Ultimately, in pure creative play, players are the key stakeholders in all aspects of the process. The players create the game themselves, or rather it emerges through their actions. Learning and self-development are not aims but benefits that emerge naturally from the process of engagement in a meaningful activity. There is no pre-ordained plotline or specific aim, and this complete lack of extraneous material and functionality reduces unnecessary cognitive load (Fisch, 2017). It is important to design modes of interaction and narratives flexible enough to be repurposed in ways that keep them meaningful to the players (Vear & McConnon, 2017) and keep the critical content as close to the gameplay as possible (Fisch, 2017). 

However, other forms of digital play appear to come closer to replicating these analogue experiences and the outcomes of creative play. Another form of digital play that can be considered here is collaborative pervasive gaming, which appears to have more similarities with analogue creative play as it conceives of players as ‘gamemakers’ not ‘gamers’ (Vear & McConnon, 2017). Research into collaborative pervasive gaming found that teams had higher levels of engagement when they could exercise autonomy, and control the development of the narrative and game play. In this environment, players naturally switched between a variety of roles both within the digital engagement of gameplay, and the offline engagement as observers of gameplay who advise and direct play (Vear & McConnon, 2017).  Team players interchanged roles, taking on a variety of different identities during sessions to assist the team.  

Participants appeared equally immersed and absorbed in the game, regardless of whether they were ‘actively’ playing or observing (Vear & McConnon, 2017).  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 similar outcomes to analogue creative play, but certain structures and possibilities must be considered to ensure this is the case.


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See also