Children today have less time for free play, but their imaginations are sharper than ever, according to new research from Case Western University in Cleveland.

In an analysis published in May 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal researchers found elementary school children in 2008 were significantly more imaginative and more comfortable playing make-believe than their counterparts in 1985 despite having less time for free play.

“We did think everything was going to get worse, because if play time is going down, you’d think children wouldn’t be able to engage in play as well as they used to,” said Sandra W. Russ, who co-authored the study in an interview with Sarah Sparks of Education Week. “We knew from talking with children that they didn’t play with toys as much as they used to. So we were surprised by the finding, and we think it’s important.”

Many parents and educators are concerned about shrinking free play time for the nation's children. According to 2008 data from the National Center for Education Statistics public school students have on average 1.7 hours of recess time each week. Approximately 10 percent of public school children have no recess at all. American children have eight fewer hours of unstructured playtime after school each week than they did 25 years ago, according to research by David Elkind, a professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Research suggests considerable social and emotional benefits of children playing make-believe. Children who rate highly in measures of imaginative play have above average coping skills, creativity, and problem-solving ability compared to students who rate lower on the play scale.