TORONTO—All kids like to use their imagination, and many play fantasy games where they pretend to be characters in a made-up world. Some children persist in building especially elaborate imaginary worlds, with impressive depth in terms of histories, taxonomies, language and maps. This detailed, sustained "world play" may be an early marker of broad, general creativity (as opposed to creative excellence in one field such as music), according to two professors from Michigan State University.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein—he's a physiologist and she's in the theater department, and both are part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity—explained the importance of recognizing the breadth of creativity in children yesterday in a symposium here at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. When studying creativity, they explained, most scientists have traditionally focused on a person's main creative endeavor—Mozart's music or Picasso's art, for example. The truth is, however, that most highly creative people are polymaths—they enjoy and excel at a range of challenging activities. For instance, in a survey of scientists at all levels of achievement, the Root-Bernsteins found that only about one sixth report engaging in a secondary activity of an artistic or creative nature, such as painting or writing non-scientific prose. In contrast, nearly all Nobel Prize winners in science have at least one other creative activity that they pursue seriously. Creative breadth, the Root-Bernsteins argue, is an important but understudied component of genius.

For instance, one unanswered question in the science of creativity is how to spot early signs of such polymathy in children. The Root-Bernsteins may have found an answer in world play—their early data indicate a correlation between kids who delve into such rich imaginary worlds and those who grow up to be highly successful adults. They compared self-reports of childhood play among 262 Michigan State University undergrads and among 105 MacArthur fellows (recipients of the "genius award," as it is commonly known—a large sum of money given by the MacArthur Foundation to highly unique, creative individuals in various fields). They found that the incidence of world play was about double in the MacArthur fellows: 5-26 percent had engaged in world play as children or adolescents, whereas 3-12 percent of the MSU students had. The large ranges reflect the degree of stringency applied to the criteria—the higher number includes ambiguous cases that may or may not have been true world play.

Although the data are preliminary, the Root-Bernsteins may have illuminated an avenue for further research into creative breadth. “World play is one of the only early indicators of creative breadth, and also one of the only early predictors of later adult creativity,” they said, during their joint presentation.

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