Four years ago, Lucy Dathan moved to New Canaan, Conn., where she enrolled her three children in public elementary school. They met new classmates. Their teachers were attentive. But something was amiss: Recess was limited to a 20-minute break after lunch, or about half the time as at their previous school, in California.

Ms. Dathan said a shift in her children’s mood was palpable. They found it difficult to focus on homework. They were restless and sometimes cranky after school, which she attributed to pent-up energy. With so little time for schoolyard play, she worried they were losing the ability to navigate personal relationships. “It was hard for them to adjust to only one recess,” she said in an interview.

So Ms. Dathan, who was elected to the Connecticut legislature in November, agreed to support a state bill that would require schools to provide at least 50 minutes of daily undirected play for students enrolled in preschool through fifth grade. “I haven’t had one person ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’” she said of parents, students and teachers who have contacted her. “I think playtime fosters the creativity that we need to solve crazy world problems, like global warming, or other issues we need to face as a planet.”

Ms. Dathan is not alone in her observation. Last April, Arizona legislators passed a law that provided two daily recesses for the state’s elementary school students. Teachers have already seen encouraging results, reporting fewer disciplinary actions, enhanced test scores and improvement in children’s overall health. And just last week, youngsters from Arkansas, where a similar move is also being considered, sent letters to state legislators asking they be given a longer recess break.

The current discussion around playtime reflects an emerging body of thought about creativity and childhood. Neuroscientists and others say creative problem solving will be essential for the future as computers become more powerful and artificial intelligence commonplace. “Creativity in children involves the ability to make things up and generate ideas on their own,” said Sandra Russ, a professor in the department of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

That includes group play, storytelling and building with blocks and other toys that stimulate, not inhibit, wonder and curiosity. Robert Bilder is a clinical neuropsychologist and a director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity in Los Angeles who studies creativity and the brain. “What is valuable for children is freedom where they are solving problems with no predictable answer,” he said. “When it is open-ended, they retain the curiosity to learn more things. And that is going to be essential for their futures.”

Dr. Bilder headed the “Big C Project” at the University of California, Los Angeles, where researchers studied the brains of accomplished artists, scientists and others to understand how creative genius worked. “They showed a pattern of functional connectivity that was more random,” he said. “It’s not clear what promotes it. But it is established at an early age.”

One might surmise that highly creative people explore relationships that other people miss. Children who are given an open-ended problem are more apt to explore a variety of relationships and patterns, unlike when they are given a toy with preset instructions or uses. “The ‘thing’ should not be dictating the activity,” Dr. Bilder said of toys. “The person dictates the activity.”

Take, for instance, a cardboard fort made out of an old appliance box. Cardboard boxes were once so ubiquitous as play toys that in 2005 they were named to the National Toy Hall of Fame. Now, parents can buy a prefabricated cardboard kit on Amazon. Or their children can simulate building a fort in an online game.

“It is a shame that kids aren’t playing with cardboard boxes as much as they used to,” said Mark Runco, a researcher who studies creativity at Southern Oregon University and who is the founding editor of Creativity Research Journal. “Our whole world is changing now. There are people who think you can have digital or remote playtime. You experience it in different ways.”

There are trade-offs, of course, to replacing an outdoor playground with a digital one. “There is good and bad,” he said. “We now have a community all over the world. But there is a loss of face-to-face interactions.”

Dr. Runco, like Dr. Bilder, warned that more undirected free time at school does not guarantee that children will become more creative thinkers. What’s important is how they use the time they have. And home life and community play a part, too. “People are intrinsically creative,” Dr. Runco said. “But they need the environment. Creativity is most important when people are making choices. Getting dressed. Choosing alternative routes to work or school. Too often people align creative thinking with painting, writing or drawing.”

For Ms. Dathan, though, having Connecticut’s children spend 50 minutes on the playground every day is a good place to start. “It will be interesting to hear what people have to say in our upcoming public hearings,” she said. “Creativity does get stifled. You need to give kids an opportunity to learn social skills. It’s good for overall happiness. And playtime builds relationships.”



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