PLAY and CREATIVITY: 3 Question interview with Play Expert, Jeff Smithson

by Matthew Worwood


‘Play is a space of discovery. It is how we originally approach the unknown: with a sense curiosity and wonder.’

– Jeff Smithson

Our writing on this blog primarily centers on the recognition and celebration of childhood creativity. We look for ways to identify and nurture creative thinking skills at home, and often find that many of these characteristics will manifest when kids play. In this 3 Question Interview with Play Expert Jeff Smithson, we explore what we mean by play, and how we as parents might better create the opportunities where it can flourish.

What do you consider Play? For instance are we talking about rough and tumble play, imaginative play, and the ‘playing’ of video games in the same sentence?

The word Play is similar to the word Love in that it covers an enormous spectrum of possibilities: from the mundane to the sacred. Like the word Love there is great value in a person or a family examining what Play means to them.

Play is a space of discovery. It is how we originally approach the unknown: with a sense curiosity and wonder.

My definition of the word Play changes depending upon who is in the room. Play has an openness that encompasses what and who are present in the moment. While it may be helpful to learn the appropriate developmental (play) stages for a specific age, learning to be in the playful space for one’s self, discovering Play as a state of being is of great benefit; you teach play through sharing your own playfulness and through mirroring what your child shares.

Optimally, Play is a space of freedom, a space of discovery that allows you to both be who you are AND, simultaneously, who you are becoming. In imagining, pretending, stretching and striving kids and adults develop themselves and each other. 

In what ways does play support childhood development and the cultivation of creative thinking skills in your children?

In working with professionals in the field of Early Childhood Education I learned about 3 ways that parents/educators can engage their children in play (in increasing levels of involvement):

  • Observation: Set up a safe play area and allow the child to explore and discover on their own. Self-facilitated play offers opportunities for self-discovery. While they play ask yourself some questions:
    • What if your child is your teacher?
      • What are you able learn from your child?
    • How do they approach new experiences?
    • What have they learned from you? vs. What have they discovered on their own?
  • Direction: Most children appreciate structure and rules. From the sidelines we can offer instructions, suggestions or encouragement. In instances of play, I believe it is important that we share without an insistence upon it being done the “right” way. I once met a poet from Northern Ireland who’s goal as a parent was to pass as few of his own neurosis on to his children.
  • Participation: Be a partner in Play. Take off the “Parent hat” and get on the same level as your kiddo. Shifting your physical perspective to that of the child is not only helpful in bonding it also offers insights into how they see the world.
  • Feigned Ignorance is a fun way to empower your child to be your teacher. Try using an object for something it is not (think banana as a telephone); This can elicit both laughter and learning.
  • Don’t be afraid to be Silly! Play with sounds, facial expressions, repeated gestures.
  • Use “I don’t know. What do you think?” or “Let’s figure it out together.”
  • And, keep in mind, the wonderful “What if…?”.

SEE ALSO: Creativity for Everybody: 3 Question Interview with Kathryn Hayden

How might parents better facilitate and guide the type of play that is particularly conducive for Creativity?

Imagine Play as a state of being accessed by a connection with breath, a deep listening and curiosity without agenda.

  • Alphabet Animals (“the car ride game”):
    • An Angry Ant in Atlanta that Ate Apples at Airplane school.
      • It doesn’t have to make sense!
      • [Structure: adjective, animal, (job?) who verbs in a place]
  • Story structure:
    • Once upon a time there was a _________.
    • Every day ___________.
    • One day ____________.
    • Because of that __________.
    • Because of that __________.
    • Because of that __________.
    • Until finally: ____________.
  • What’s in the Box?


As parents we are both conscious and unconscious models of behavior for our children. Play allows us to highlight transparency in our own learning process. By sharing both what and how we discover our kids will witness a parallel to their own experience of learning and becoming.

For many years Jeff has worked with kids with chronic and life-threatening illnesses as part of The Big Apple Circus Clown Care program and Paul Newman’s The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp: Hospital Outreach Program. He also teaches in the Physical Theater department at Trinity Rep/Brown University, and founded Proponent of Play in 2011. You can more about Jeff and his work at, or alternatively check out his awesome TEDX talk below.

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Matthew Worwood
Matthew Worwood is an educator, Creative Studies scholar-practitioner, and co-host of the Fueling Creativity in Education podcast. He is a professor of Digital Media Design at the University of Connecticut and a husband and proud father to three young boys.

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Joining in with my child's PLAY and IMAGINATION September 4, 2015 - 2:08 am

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