Given a couple of puppets, a few wooden blocks and five minutes, children today appear to play more comfortably and imaginatively than they did 25 years ago, a study by researchers from Case Western Reserve University suggests.

The report, published in the Creativity Research Journal, offers some consolation to those who worry that the fast pace of modern childhood stunts children's imagination, says psychology professor Sandra Russ, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University who authored the study with doctoral student Jessica Dillon.

"Even though children have less time to play in the real world, their imagination … seems to be getting better," she says. "That was a surprise."

The researchers compared 14 studies conducted in Russ's lab between 1985 and 2008. Each used the same scale to evaluate 6- to 10-year-old children's cognition and emotional expression during five minutes of unstructured play. Children who used puppets to concoct a complex, cause-and-effect plot ranked high on organization, for example. Those whose characters went to the moon — and not just to school — racked up points for imagination.

The researchers found that, over the 23-year stretch, children's comfort and imagination scores improved, their organization and emotional expression numbers stayed the same, and their use of negative imagery decreased.

Russ says the increase in imagination underscores children's resilience. "They are finding other ways to develop their imaginative abilities," she says.

Dillon theorizes that novelty might also account for why kids in more recent studies were more imaginative. "It's almost like they've been deprived of that time to play [freely] so they take more advantage of it," she says.

— Anna Miller

Watch a video showing more about the research.