In modern culture people typically associate imaginative play with children and consider vivid imagination to be useful only to individuals involved in arts. This is why children over time are implicitly and explicitly encouraged to lose the ability to engage in imaginative play, as they are deemed to be useless in one’s adult life. Toy Story 3, the Pixar movie released in 2010 is perfect example of a cultural artifact that corroborates our cultural expectations of imaginative play. The main premise of the movie is about a boy moving to college and having to let go of his old imaginary toy friends because after all, “playing with toys is for kids.”
Is the notion that engaging in imaginary play is useless for most adults actually true? Is having a vivid imagination useful only for individuals who get jobs in arts? In order to empirically test the consequences of imaginative play on creative endeavors in adulthood, Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein (2006), researchers at Michigan State University, conducted a study involving 90 Mac Arthur fellows and 262 students from Michigan State. For the sake of making the study more manageable, the participants were only queried about whether or not they played with imaginary worlds. Out of all different types of types of imaginary play in childhood, the act of creating imaginary worlds stands out the most because of their sheer complexity. Imaginary worlds are typically created over months and years, with their creators coming up with a background story or stories for the imaginary world, geographies, political and economic institutions, and even unique languages spoken only in the imaginary world (Cohen & MacKeith, 1991).
The aim of the study carried out by Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein (2006) was to test three different hypotheses. First, it was hypothesized that creative individuals would be more likely to have created imaginary worlds in their childhood than individuals from general population. Second, individuals with imaginary worlds would belong in all different types of professions. And third, individuals would consider their imaginary worlds to be an important part of their adult endeavors. Mac Arthur fellows were included in the study as they belong to wide variety of disciplines and are given a Mac Arthur fellowship in the first place in recognition of their extraordinary originality. Their responses were compared to responses from Michigan State students who were representative of members from general population. Both Mac Arthur fellows and Michigan State University (MSU) students were surveyed about whether or not they created imaginary worlds and whether that had any impact on their jobs as adults.
The results of the study confirmed all three hypotheses put forth by Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein (2006). The rate of imaginary worldplay in general population was found to be 3 to 12%. The rate of imaginary worldplay among the highly creative population like Mac Arthur fellows was found to be twice as frequent, 5 – 25%. While these rates may look low, creating imaginary worlds is as common as flying kites (3.2%), making models (1.7%), playing chess (4.6^), drawing (6.7%), or playing a musical instrument (7.6%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004-2005).
Both Mac Arthur fellows and MSU students were observed to belong to a diverse assortment of fields. For Mac Arthur fellows who engaged in imaginary worldplay, 22% belonged in arts, 33% in humanities, 19% in public issues, 46% in social sciences, and 19% in sciences. For MSU students who engaged in imaginary worldplay, 15% belonged in arts, 33% in humanities, 16% in public issues, and 6% in sciences. For the third hypothesis that individuals would consider imaginary worlds to play an important role in their adult jobs, 39% of fellows and 27% of MSU students agreed with such a sentiment.
Finally, it should be noted that the gap in rate of imaginative worldplay between the fellows and students was partially a product of generational differences. The majority of students in this study were born in 1980s who grew up in an environment of 24/7 TV shows, computers, internet, and videogames. In this kind of environment there is little need for imaginative play because all of our thinking is commercially sold to us. Why bother creating imaginary worlds that may take months to build when one has access to readymade virtual realities. The impact of living in such a technologically advanced culture on our ability to imagine is worth giving a pause, for the benefits of playing with imagined worlds on adult endeavors appears to be significant.
Cohen, D., & MacKeith, S. (1991). The development of imagination: The private worlds of childhood. London: Routledge.
Root-Bernstein, M., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2006). Imaginary worldplay in childhood and maturity and its impact on adult creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 405-425.
U.S. Census Bureau (2004-2005). Table 1232. Attendance rates for various arts activities: 2002 and Table 1238. Adult participation in selected leisure activities by frequency: 2003. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2004-2005, 768, 771. Arts, entertainment and recreation.