Psychologist studies how pretend play helps coping and creativity

Kushagra Gupta, Staff Reporter

It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s the building block for a successful childhood. Psychology Professor Sandra Russ has shown that pretend play boosts creativity and coping mechanisms among children.

Russ is currently working on finding a way to get children to play in anxiety-inducing situations, in order to help them emotionally. She is collaborating with a group from the Uppsala University in Sweden.

Russ’ research shows that play gives children better emotional coping skills and helps reduce anxiety. According to Russ, play simulates emotion. Because they’re pretending, children are able to feel a full range of emotions and become comfortable with them. This, in turn, helps them to regulate their emotions better, a useful tool when it comes to handling a problem.

Russ teaches a class that requires students to volunteer at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, where they are able to play with children and learn the concept first hand. The playrooms at Rainbow Babies help Russ and her students watch children in emotionally taxing situations, and see how play helps them cope.

Russ realized that she wanted to be a clinical psychologist in eighth grade. Unfortunately, high schools, didn’t offer psychology courses at the time, so she had to wait to study the subject until college. Through her undergraduate and graduate studies, she honed her interests more specifically towards creativity.

Afterwards, she worked as a staff psychologist at a child guidance center, where she first realized the benefits of play. From this interest, she decided to start developing her scale.

“To study play, you have to be able to measure it,” said Russ.

Russ first developed a standardized scale to measure play in the mid-1980s. She encountered a number of obstacles in the design, mainly that she wanted to make sure that the test didn’t measure anything equating to intelligence. There were a few scales that measured play existing at the time, but they generally focused on cognition. Russ wasn’t looking for an IQ test, though. She was only interested in measuring play.

Russ began by looking at the quality of the story a child could tell. The form of the story and how engaged the child was were both important as well.

“I wanted to look at emotion, as well as cognition,” she said.

Russ’ test gives a child, aged 6 to 10, five minutes to play, that is, to come up with a story using the toys at hand. Children are taped, and the video is then scored later on. The criteria analyzed include the quality of the story, how much emotion there was in the story, both positive and negative. The viewers also scored on the amount of difficulty and interest the child had in their play.

“It’s practice with expressing emotion,” said Russ. “They express anger, they express sadness. They learn to feel comfortable with emotion. They learn to remember emotion.”