Play and Creativity: A Spiritual Side

by Professor James Johnson, CREN Contributor

Research on resilient children reveal that usually having an imagination is far from enough to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Among other factors research points to how very important having a mentor and role model is, someone who takes a special interest in a ‘hard luck’ kid. But still, having a playful spirit and being imaginative and creative are workable ingredients and can inspire the resourceful teacher who wishes to make a difference in such a child’s life.

What can strong play enthusiasts and researchers do? 

Early childhood educators can help promote play and creativity in children by relentlessly advocating for culturally or contextually appropriate or sensitive practices as well as developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) advanced by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Play and creativity are very important in socio-cultural frames and in constructivism epistemology and are clearly needed to begin tackling the socialisation and educational dilemmas of the 21st century; and the personal dilemmas and tragedies we all must face in living life. Play is an important engine of learning and wellbeing during the early years and beyond.  Early childhood education and a play and creativity-based curriculum must counteract the rigid test-driven curriculum that plagues so much of children’s early schooling.

What is play and what is creativity?

Play and creativity are illusive, exceedingly complex constructs. Each notion resists any attempt at precise definition. Two meanings for play I find useful when thinking about play in relation to young children and early childhood education include, first of all, the “to and fro movement of play”, and secondly, play’s separation from ordinary reality. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (noted in Gadamer, 1979) introduces the German word Spiel meaning ‘dance’ or ‘play’ as a backward and forward movement without effort and without goal or purpose other than its process itself.  Here we see that the essential quality of playing is akin to the dynamic self-generating mobile process of life and nature itself.  Play is an intrinsic self-renewing constant that, for humans, can enter into art, drama, games, language use and human actions and ideations in general.  Play in humans can also be said to be a separate mode of existing different from being in a reality state of mind used for adapting to ordinary life circumstances (Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005).

Creativity likewise has many denotations and connotations in the English language. Although computers themselves cannot create or be creative, play as a spontaneous ‘to and fro’ process may be viewed as the binary system language for creativity software. 

Creativity is hallmarked by originality and adaptability. The creative person does, or the creative act is, something brand new and technologically or aesthetically useful in a society. Original means it is not habitual and not routine; creative implies unconventional and intrinsically motivated, intentional actions—not actions governed by conventions or extrinsic rewards or blind luck.  Unambiguous creativity is difficult to pin down.  The creativity complex or syndrome, then, is comprised of intrinsic motivation, intentionality, adaptive and original to help distinguish genuine creativity from creativity-related processes such as discovering, inventing and innovating and pseudo-creative processes such as fantasising, daydreaming, being contrary and being disinhibited and impulsive (Runco, 2007).  It’s little wonder that creativity and resilience are naturally related. The very “to and fro movement of play” suggests the process of being resilient, that is the capacity to bounce back, to maintain form and function under stress, in essence to be able to move to and fro without breaking.

Two characteristics about creativity discussed in the extant literature on this broad topic are particularly important for early childhood specialists and practitioners. First, everyday creativity has been distinguished from eminent creativity.  For Howard Gardner, for instance, the criterion for adult or eminent creativity is that it must result in an original aesthetically or technologically useful product recognised and appreciated by mature members within a particular culture.  A societal criterion applies.  For everyday creativity, on the other hand, a personal criterion applies. The creative action, product or idea needs only to be original for that individual, and useful to that person and those in that person’s immediate life, such as the person’s parents, teachers, or peers. Clearly, creativity in the latter sense applies directly to early childhood education, but not creativity in the former sense.

As children or adults engage in constructive play for instance, and with an array of unusual open-ended objects “create” a new three dimensional form bringing with it a sense of self delight, we consider this as a create act, an expression of creativity. We can bestow the laurel of creativity on young children as well as on ordinary mortals in general but our meaning of creativity is quite different than the meaning of the creative accomplishments of eminent individuals. However, to the creating child or adult who experiences the flow of spontaneous creative energy and the joy of rendering an idea or feeling purposefully expressed, the sense of accomplishment is the same. That sense of accomplishment, a feeling of competence, strengthens the power of self-efficacy, or said another way resilience. In this way we see creativity as a wellspring for resiliency, a way of nourishing the spirit.

A second characteristic about creativity pertinent to early childhood is that it is domain specific and developmental. Parents and teachers need to recognise the many areas in which children (and adults) can express their creativity. These domains can be conceptualised in terms of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (e.g. logical mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, natural, interpersonal, etc.).  Moreover, effortful learning and discipline (i.e., time on task) propels the developmental progress that a child achieves in expressing his or her creativity in a particular domain.  Accordingly, instead of asking ‘What is creativity?’ and ‘Why is that child creative?’ one might more fruitfully ask ‘Where is the child’s creativity?’ and ‘What can be done to support and scaffold it?’ (Chen, 2005).  


Child and adult engage in playSpontaneity and playfulness are useful for creativity expression and development; they help one take intellectual risks. Photo credit: Cecil Cuthbert


Establishing links between play and creativity

Research has reported many correlates of play. One of the strongest findings is that imaginative play and divergent thinking are positively and significantly correlated. Both cross sectional and longitudinal research support this relationship (Johnson et al, 2005).  As noted above, divergent thinking is a characteristic of creativity. One might infer then that play is related to creativity. One must be cautious in jumping to this conclusion, however. 

Play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity, especially the development of domain-specific creativity. Play is a double-edged sword.  While play is life affirming it may not necessarily be a positive force for creativity. Play is at the same time expressive and affective as well as a process that can be cognitively controlled. Play is ordered but it is ordered flexibly and not rigidly. Only when play and imagination are controlled flexibly can they serve positive, socially useful creative functions. Play which serves creativity is flexible and not rigidly controlled; therefore, the child’s imagination is not being subdued but is harnessed for creativity.

Furthermore, in order to progress developmentally in any domain of potential creativity, the child must master a great deal of content knowledge and skills and acquire ability before the creative potential can become fully realised. Therefore, not only do parents and teachers need to support play and favourable learning dispositions in children, they must also provide developmental enrichment, social supports and learning opportunities to enable children to grow in their abilities, skills, knowledge and motivations to achieve. A related topic is how can we help parents understand, value and use the play process to promote and help sustain creativity and resilience within their children.

Needing Support

Psychology and child development theory might help teachers realise that creativity and play are related and that creativity is determined by forces from the child’s past, forces in the present here and now, and the force of the pull of the future. First, from the past, children’s inborn proclivities to become creative are one factor to realise. In addition, adversity and suffering to overcome difficulties is important for creative potential. A past brimming with emotionally charged memories can make one very determined and motivated to find solutions and to cope with challenges, indeed generate resilience, or the capacity to survive and overcome barriers to successful functioning. Sublimation and compensation and overcompensation are at work here as ego-function defense mechanisms operating full steam ahead in the service of building ego strength, self-efficacy, resilience, indeed spirit strength to believe and succeed (Miller, 2015).

Second, in the present here and now, teachers can help children by guiding them and scaffolding their learning experiences and by granting them open-ended activities to be creative and to then value their creativity. Conflict and challenges, even turbulence and stress, bring out creativity provided that the level or intensity is optimal; and what is optimal varies from child to child so teachers must have close relations with children and know each child very well.  Third, the future enters into the creativity equation combining with the force of the past and the force of the present. Teachers and parents must encourage hope in the future and help children to aspire and to envision possibilities in the days and years ahead.

Teacher education needs to train teachers to realise that all human capacity is flexible and that one can enhance creative talent. Creativity happens by intention and by choice. Teachers need to model and encourage creativity; they must show children and their parents that they value and enjoy new and original things and that they appreciate creative people. 

Parent and teacher training

Teachers and parents must remember the importance of creativity and playfulness when they are making choices for classroom or home activities, when they are in the toy stores or in the library. Creativity enhancement tactics such as brain storming, using analogies, restructuring, transposing and ‘synectics’ (make the strange familiar, make the familiar strange) should be used. Practicing taking the point of view of others is very useful because this can help a person think of alternatives.  Envisioning alternatives in specific contexts and assuming the child’s perspective is especially helpful in identifying and solving problems and in acting creatively overall.  

Spontaneity and playfulness are useful for creativity expression and development; they help one take intellectual risks. The threat of evaluation and external sanction are relaxed. Teacher education should include improvisation and preparation for dealing with surprises and unexpected events. “Play is training for the unexpected…” (from title, see Spinka, Newberry, & Bekoff, 2001). Teachers, like everyone else should have procedures and heuristics for dealing with challenges and problems in a creative, not routine or ritualised, manner.  Finally, staying true to one’s feelings, and being aware of one’s feelings and knowledgeable about them - all this is critical for creative emotions. Emotional authenticity is part of creation intention and action (Runco, 2007).           

Hopefully, early child teacher education can succeed in making early childhood programmes more conducive for building children’s creative potential by producing creative teachers. Creative teachers make creativity a top educational goal and have the means of achieving this goal. ECE can lead the way for the rest of the educational system since we have a head start by valuing child’s play - a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity.

ECE classrooms and children can become more playful and creative when teachers themselves can become more playful and creative. Teachers are rushed and multi-tasking all too often. The playful teacher and the even more important creative teacher must have administrative support for planning time. To accomplish creativity and renew the creative spirit, teachers need a retreat from the hectic pace of modern living. Creativity spawns from play and from incubation periods of time for rest and reflection. Note that Waldorf education hints at the importance of a return to quiet tradition without modern technology and an embrace of nature’s cycles and rhythms. Teachers need to be encouraged and supported in their quest to become more flexible and open - willing to imagine the possible outside the usual.  Teacher’s life-long experiences and their memories of their trials and tribulations, anguish and adversity, are seeds of will power and determination to be creative. Unconscious forces can be tapped for creative ideas, and worked on to yield creative results.  Mining these subliminal powers requires time for deep reflection and contemplation whereby improvements in creative teacher planning and creative curriculum development can result.


The disenfranchised and marginalised in any society can be viewed as a great and untapped resource of potential creative talent in a society. This is because many of them have suffered much and have endured adversity, experiences that can be important precursors to later creativity and wisdom (Hall, 2007).  To state this metaphorically, we must not overlook the royalty in peasant’s garb among us; for many of these unheralded people and children are wishing for a life that is an impossible dream for them now, but given a chance could make a big difference for all of society in the future - the minorities, the poor, the disabled. Many are hidden treasures of creativity capital so important for nation building and world improvement.  This is an important way for a nation to invest in its future.

Creativity also arises in collaboration and teamwork; creativity is not necessarily just a solo effort only. Group contexts can trigger creative problem identification, setting the parameters and generating problem-solving solutions.  Social creativity and social resilience can happen anywhere for the sake of children and families served by early childhood education.  Our world situation can use all the help it can get through joint enterprises in research and application and the sharing of ideas.

To conclude, effective adults working with children in ECE, and all adults living at this time of global stress and strife and information overload, need to be adaptive and resilient, and importantly in touch with creativity spirit.  Only in this way can we begin to achieve the goal of helping our children become more adaptive and resilient.  Karen VanderVen (1998) asserted that the kind of person who will be able to live successfully in complex and chaotic times, and the kinds of attributes we must instill in our children, can be predicated on Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms who changes to meet new conditions. Our Protean Selves have great human resilience and will be able to adapt to fast occurring and great and profound changes in circumstance. We can do this while remaining true to our inner core of being and to our internal sense of direction, Deo volente.    

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in: Johnson, J. (2011). Play and creativity: A spiritual matter. Play, policy, & practice CONNECTIONS 13(1), 6-9.   


Chen, J-Q.(2005).  The Project Spectrum approach to early education.  In J. Roopnarine & J. Johnson (Eds.), Approaches to early childhood education, Volume 4. Pp. 351-395. Columbus, Oh: Merrill.

Gadamer, H. (1989). Truth and method. New York: Continuum.

Hall, S. (2007).  The older- and wiser- hypothesis.  The New York Times Magazine, (pp. 58-66), May 6, 2007.

Johnson, J., Christie, J., & Wardle, F. (2005). Play, development and early education. Boston: Allyn Bacon.

Miller, L. (2015). The spiritual child: The new science on parenting for health and lifelong thriving. New York: St. Martin’s.

Runco, M. (2007).  Creativity theories and themes: Research, development, and practice. Boston: Elsevier.

Spinka,M.,Newberry,R. & Bekoff ,M.(2001).  Mammalian play:Training for the unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 76, No. 2), pp. 141-168.

VanderVen, K.(1998). Play, Proteus, and paradox: Education for a chaotic and supersymmetric world.  In D. Fromberg and D. Bergen (Eds.). Play from birth to twelve and beyond. Pp. 119-134. New York: Garland.

You have no rights to post comments.
Create an account to post comments.