04/11/2013 02:53 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

Playing with Purpose

President Obama's call for universal early childhood education in his State of the Union speech is a common sense approach to shrinking the country's achievement gap and giving our children -- and our economy -- a chance at better outcomes. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the policy a game changer, saying that there's no better investment we can make. I cannot agree with this more, but what will no doubt ensure our children's success, and what is provided in early education, is greater access to creative learning through the opportunity for more imaginative play.

There's no shortage of research that shows the benefits of play. As Dr. Stuart Brown, MD, writes in Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009), our ability to play not only in childhood but throughout life is the most important factor in determining our success and happiness. His research, along with many others like his from the last ten years reach the same conclusions: that play is essential to a child's intellectual and physical development. It's crucial to developing social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity and the ability to negotiate and problem solve. Just as the Obama Administration is touting the advantage of preschool as a precursor to a successful and functional adulthood -- that which includes graduating high school, holding a job, sustaining a family and being an overall contributor to society -- the same can be said about play and creative learning. After all, a core component of any 4-year-old's school time is play and imaginative thinking.

But our kids aren't using their creative minds and playing the way they used to. According to Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, The College of William & Mary, creativity scores determined by the standard Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have been dropping since the 1990's. Psychologists speculate that in today's urbanized society kids are over programmed and enjoying less free play and time outdoors thanks in part to the increased time they spend in front of screens. They're over-eating, stressed out and not getting sufficient sleep, which can also hinder creativity.

It's no wonder our students are lagging behind their international counterparts in academic performance. But there's a lot that we can do to turn this trend around, starting with introducing creative education early in life. Until around age 5, a child experiences intense and rapid learning and significant brain development; the ideal time to spark learning and intellectual development through the vehicle of early childhood theater.

Matthew Reason's 2010 study, "The Young Audience," which looked at how children, ages 4 to 7, make meaning through the experience of watching live theater, determined that children are overwhelmingly focused on story and are able to distinguish between the character and actor; to understand what actions occur off-stage as well as what is only referred to or implied on stage. It's this type of imaginative challenge that motivates a young child to advance to higher levels of comprehension. The desire for story encourages young children to think symbolically, the essential precursor to literacy and future analytic capabilities.

In the same way early childhood education is an investment worth making in our effort to grow a functional and sustainable society, so is creative education. And our children's future success, as well as the country's, depends on it.

Janet Stanford is artistic director of Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD and a lecturer in Theater for Young Audiences at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.