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Despite overprogramming, kids today have bigger imaginations than previous generations: study

The overscheduled child finds time to cultivate a fertile imagination, according to a new study that claims youngsters are significantly more inventive than their peers a generation ago.

Tracking how six- to 10-year-olds have played over 23 years, the report, published in Creativity Research Journal, concludes that despite being busier than ever, children have a need for unstructured, whimsical play, and will find ways to squeeze it in between homework, piano lessons and soccer games.

"We thought that play ability would be decreasing given that we know children are playing less. When we found this, we thought, well, children are pretty resilient," said lead author Sandra Russ, a professor in psychological science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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After a 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found children were playing less than they used to, both at home and in school, Prof. Russ decided to re-visit and analyze 14 of her own play studies dating from 1985 to 2008.

Over two decades, she and her colleagues videotaped more than 700 children playing alone with blocks and two hand puppets, male and female, for five minutes. "It really demands that the child make something up," said Prof. Russ.

The researchers then rated the imaginative quality of the stories the children conjured on a scale of one to five using Prof. Russ's "Affect in Play Scale." They scored on make believe, fantasy, novelty, quality of storytelling and how unusual each tale was, be it a fierce karate showdown between two puppets or using your blocks as a telescope to explore the galaxy.

"We found that children in the later samples had higher scores than children in the earlier samples," said Prof. Russ.

How are kids, over-stimulated from birth and reared on iPhones, still able to dream up worlds using rudimentary building blocks?

"They can do it," said Prof. Russ, even as the children acknowledged they didn't play with simple toys at home, choosing to fiddle on their home computers instead. She argues that technological stimuli might in fact be enriching kids' cognitive skills when it comes to unstructured play.

"Maybe they're developing these imaginative skills through the Internet or video games, or maybe they are finding time to play and we just aren't seeing it," she said. "Or maybe children are just wired to develop this kind of imagination. All mammals play, so maybe there's a drive."

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Like many others in child development, Prof. Russ advocates for unbridled play: "Kids need down time, just as adults do. … They're able to make things up on their own without the story being dictated by somebody else. It's coming totally from them."

Playtime also helps children manage their own emotions. "They're expressing things that are important to them or that they're trying to work out," she said. "If there's a trauma in their life, especially with young children, they'll play it out."

On Gary Walters's street, "over-structured free time" is all the rage.

"You see kids get from home from school and their parents are zipping them off to some kind of structured activity – extra schooling, soccer or hockey leagues," said Prof. Walters, who lectures in psychology and child development at the University of Toronto. "It's a competition thing. They think that unless their kids are doing something that they can see and understand, that has a beginning and an end and someone supervising it, their kids are going to fall behind."

He recalls his own "stupidity" when his son showed a keen – and independent – interest in chess at the tender age of six. Prof. Walters ran out and bought him a manual. "He was reading by then, so I gave it to him. That just killed it. It turned it into schoolwork. There's a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic interest: the kinds of things you'd do on your own because they're self-rewarding, as opposed to somebody on the outside telling you, 'Okay, this is how you should do it.'"

Although he's optimistic about the newest findings on play, Prof. Walters suggests it's up to parents to eke out some time for kids to exercise their creativity – to "do their own thing," in other words, a good skill to develop for the future.

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"We value that in society," he said. "We hire people who can come in and chase down a story on their own, or solve an engineering problem without somebody giving them a protocol."

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