The importance of creative play for children is well known. Imaginative games help young kids to express themselves in a positive way, as well as learning empathy through the experience of pretending to be other people. Play helps them explore questions such as “How would this person react in this situation?” and “How would I feel if I were part of this story?”. It also allows them to develop their problem solving skills. Their stories and games might seem totally random, but when you delve a bit deeper, they are usually underpinned with some kind of logic. Unrestrained by conventional ways of thinking, children are able to find unusual, out-of-the-box solutions to the scenarios that they dream up. Children who engage regularly in creative play grow up to be smarter, more emotionally intelligent and more able to cope with stress than their non-playful counterparts. So why do we stop working on these skills as adults?
Growing up is often seen as a process of becoming increasingly more serious, until finally you represent little more than a knitted pair of eyebrows and a frown. Playing is seen as frivolous and time wasting. In a study by the University of Zurich, a massive 80% of survey respondents admitted that they avoid drawing attention to themselves for fear of being laughed at. With this environment in mind, it’s little wonder that adults feel embarrassed playing, even with their own children. A recent study by Chad Valley toys found that two thirds of parents lack the confidence to get creative while playing with their children, with a quarter of fathers too self conscious to even draw a picture with their child. If adults are too embarrassed to be playful in front of the people who think they are the greatest people in the world, what chance do they have of carrying creative skills into more vulnerable situations, such as their working life?
Another contributing factor to this imagination drought is that we have this conception of creativity being an innate quality, which some people have and some people don’t. In fact, creativity is a skill, a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. It may come easier to some people than others but everyone can, and should, be creative. The world moves so quickly now, with unpredictable, unprecedented developments and problems arising every day. If we are to hope to keep up with this ever changing world, we need flexible, imaginative minds, who aren’t afraid to do things a little differently. We need to create open, collaborative work environments where new ideas can be explored without fear of ridicule. Playfulness can be a great tool to encourage people to relax and give more of themselves. This is even the case with people who are meeting for the first time - remember the strangers in the ball pit? That’s right, all those cringeworthy teambuilding exercises you’ve tried to get out of actually serve a purpose. Nothing puts a stopper on the creative process like the stress of being judged, so learning how to build a positive, playful atmosphere can be so beneficial for imaginative thinking.
This reluctance to get creative is starting to trickle down and affect our children. Over the past 30 years, a focus on academic abilities at the expense of creative ones has meant that “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle”. Of course, academic aptitude is incredibly important, but it is being promoted to the detriment of these qualities which we simply cannot afford to lose from the next generation.
So, what in the world is to be done? Let’s start simple. If you are reading this article somewhere alone, stand up and give yourself a great big shake. I mean it, get out of your chair and give a big, enthusiastic wiggle. Giggle if you feel like it, let yourself enjoy doing something just for the hell of it because a girl on the internet told you to. I’d bet that a big chunk of you have skipped this paragraph, and of those that didn’t, a lot of your wiggles were sheepish and halfhearted. So ask yourself, what are you afraid of? I can’t see you. No one else can see you. The only person who can see you is you and take it from me, being judgemental towards yourself is the biggest waste of your time imaginable.
If you can’t be playful with yourself (stop sniggering, people in the back), you’ll never work up the courage to be playful with others. So shake out your body when you start feeling tense. Belt a song at the top of your lungs in the shower. Make up backstories for the people on your train.
Fears and benefits
I spoke to Sarah Owen, creator of parent and child drama group, Pyjama Drama, who saw similar fears and benefits arise within her classes. Parents would often come to their first class feeling apprehensive and nervous, the word “drama” conjuring all kinds of reactions. After a few classes, however, the parents realise that there is no right or wrong way to do drama, that there are no expectations weighing on them and they start to relax and do what comes naturally to them - playing with their kids. Getting involved in your children’s games gives you an amazing chance to see how their little mind works, and to forge a closer bond with them. Having these positive play experiences also teaches children and adults alike that it’s okay to get creative and a bit silly, in fact, it’s a lot of fun! Sarah suggests taking the pressure off of yourself and just spending time with your little one. Kids are usually happy to take the lead in imaginative games, and by following their example, you can show them that using your imagination is a wonderful way to express yourself, while learning from them and tapping into your own imagination.
The world needs people who aren’t afraid to shake things up a bit, who can look beyond the structures and solutions we already have, to build something better. It is our responsibility to be those people, and to set an example for the next generation coming along. We need to stop seeing “silly” as a negative, and start seeing it as a great jumping off point. We need to remember how to have fun.
After all, a great man once said life is far too important to be taken seriously.