The best known secret to learning is _____________.
You might have filled this blank in with a number of responses such as (and not limited to) experience, persistence, building proficiency, being a good student, or having a great teacher(s). All are true, however, this post will focus on something that is often forgotten or neglected in many contemporary school environments: learning through play.
Learning through play essentially means that learning should be fun, engaging, and challenging, realized through the games and activities we all enjoy. Play enables us to think, create, and interact in a very natural and cognitive manner. One of the many benefits of play is that students eagerly develop social and emotional bonds as a result of collaboratively playing with their peers. Play enables us to communicate with each other more repletely and understand each other with greater empathy because teamwork is a large part of many games. Other essential habits of mind developed through playing include: persisting (the greater the challenge the sweeter the reward), managing impulsivity (developing metacognitive strategies to effectively solve a problem), and taking responsible risks (play embraces uncertainty and allows for calculated judgements in the absence of rules). Play is so developmentally important because it allows children to design a world uniquely for them and carve out a place where they can feel independent and in charge of their outcomes. In the classroom or school environment, play makes learning uniquely relevant to students, while strengthening their metacognitive, social and emotional, and practical (play is embodied/kinesthetic learning after all) skills. After playing or engaging in playful learning, students can reflect on what went well, what was most challenging, and what they would improve upon or change for the next time. Learning without didactic imposition is the crux of playful learning. Students learn far more by actively doing than they do by sitting and listening to a lecture.
Contemporary art embraces the element of play very efficiently. Artists seek out creative strategies to address aesthetic and conceptual issues in order to create engaging and entertaining works of art. While making art is serious undertaking, any artist will tell you that if it becomes too serious they’re not having fun anymore. Unless you’re painting by numbers, all art making combines a playful engagement with materials and subject matter. Some artists like Slow Art Collective (mentioned in an earlier post) fully utilize play in order to construct meaning in collaboration with the viewer. In fact, their work is largely conceived with the expectation that visitors will interact with it and construct new knowledge through explorations with a wide variety of materials.
No matter how old we are, the most wonderful thing about play is that it helps us all express our inner child. This is apparent in Nicolas Henry’s series of photographs The Playhouses of Our Grandparents, which enables participants (and viewers) to reflect on the joy of playful and dramatic storytelling. Henry traveled the world in order to meet older individuals (elders of the community) from a variety of cultures, and collaborated with them on building elaborate ‘playhouses’ that symbolize the spirit of imagination, innovation, independence, and cultural identity. In his description of the project, Henry declared: “Inside every one of us, lies the youthful spirit of a child who revels in creating with everyday items around him, a world invented entirely by his imagination.” Henry achieves this by encouraging his subjects, elders of the community, to envision their ideal playhouses, which are then collaboratively built to reflect the objects, memories, and experiences from their past and present. These playhouses are reminiscent of the forts that children imaginatively create with a variety of found materials. Looking at these playhouses, it becomes clear that, to paraphrase Walt Disney, if you can dream it, you can do it. Similar to childhood forts, these playhouses gave the elder participants a sense of sanctuary, protection, and social and emotional expression. It is so important for all of us to have a special place where we can feel safe to take creative risks, and express our autonomy from the confines of the physical and emotionally demanding world we live in.
Artists Miranda July and Nina Katchadourian also create playful works of art that break away from the mundane and stressful routines of daily life. Katchadourian’s work, realized through unique and surreal pairings of materials and subject matter might seem absurd at first glance. After all, her most famous work includes an ongoing series of in flight projects (Seat Assignment, 2010-ongoing) including a body of work bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. However, for each series of art she makes, Katchadorian carefully conceives a complex set of rules and balanced relationships for quotidian conditions. The results are playful and imaginative encounters with the banal and uninspired facets of life. Katchadorian utilizes play to reveal the creative possibilities of finding inspiration, excitement, and awe in everyday life.
In the online series Learning To Love You More (2002-2009), artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher posted playful prompts to engage participants (anyone who visited the website) in an artful game where they had the creative freedom to create unique visual, audio, or written responses. Learning To Love You More was structured enough to make art-centered projects accessible for a wide range of individuals who may or may not have any prior artistic experience. In other words, it was important for no one to feel left out. Each question addressed a specific and simple activity such as feeling the news, re-enacting a scene from a movie that made someone else cry, drawing a constellation from someone’s freckles, giving advice to your past self, or making a poster of shadows. Participants were also prompted to do assignments that built off of other participant’s responses. The artists even gave participants the option to create their own prompts and give a demonstration of the prompt (via text, video, sound, drawing, photography, etc) so that others can follow along and participate. The success of these assignments was the fact that they were very specific, yet left open ended enough in order to encourage a multitude of choice, which liberated each participant’s creative endeavors. July and Fletcher’s participatory based art project unleashed individuals’ potential to create symbolic and empathetic responses to the human condition. The participants in Learning To Love You More frequently took calculated risks that made them open to vulnerability, made creative judgements in the interpretation of the rules, and expressed their unique personalities in a metacognitive, social and emotional way. This project feels quite similar to the games many of us played as children where we assigned ourselves roles and situations that reflected the way we perceived ourselves in the world and guided us to our desired personal experiences. Learning to Love You More exemplifies the benefits of play as described by psychologist Peter Gray (Gray 2011):
“(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”
When play is supported in an art-centered learning environment, students make invaluable explorations, discoveries, and insights about themselves and the world around them. Play gives us the necessary freedom to construct our ideal social, emotional, and constructive experiences. When imagination is given free reign, we start to realize that materials are everywhere and compelling subject matter is simply dependent upon our playful and artful interaction with each other and the environment.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books.
Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.” American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.
Sobel, David. 1993. Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.