Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

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Nicolas Henry, Kazuko Shiriashi in her forest of poems, Tokyo, Japan, from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

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 certain contemporary school environments: learning through play.

Learning through play essentially means using enjoyable, fun games and activities to engage and challenge children. 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 set goals and stay on track) 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, emotional and practical 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 a 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.

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Nicolas Henry, Woo Kwong Hou doing his Tai-Chi on the rooftops of Hong King from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

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 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. Her work includes an ongoing series of in flight projects (Seat Assignment, 2010-ongoing), including 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 via playful and imaginative activities. The participants in Learning To Love You More frequently took calculated risks that made them open to vulnerability. They also made creative judgements in the interpretation of the prompts and expressed their unique personalities in a metacognitive, social and emotional way. 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. 

Tapping into who we are, what we know and who we know

What is the role of the artist in today’s global and multicultural civilization? How can we make art to express our multifaceted identities? Jeffrey Gibson is a contemporary Native American artist of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, whose art practice seeks creative answers to these complex questions.

Gibson was working as a painter and sculptor when he realized that the myth of the artist and genius does nothing more than perpetuate specific art world and cultural privilege. For Gibson, being artist is not about embracing an esoteric practice of creating objects of desire for an elite audience, but rather embracing the role of a member of society who cultivates multicultural relationships by collaborating creatively with the people around him. This collaboration results in a visual communication of intersectional identity and ideas, which are explored through traditional and non-traditional materials. Gibson’s materials and inspiration for his artistic practice come from the relationships he builds with people from his own multicultural background. He has reached out to other Native American artists and craftspeople in order to develop powerful objects that symbolically expressed the shared cultural experiences and personal narratives of indigenous artists.

Traditionally, visual imagery and cultural objects from the indigenous Americans have been taught and re-presented through a historical lens. This relegates Native American culture as a totemic or fetishized discipline for our colonialist scrutiny, and most importantly, it fails to recognize the fact that Native Americans have existed and thrived to this day.  Furthermore, art museums are well behind the times in collecting and presenting modern and contemporary works by Native American artists. Integration between Native American and Western American artwork is too few and far between and/or problematic and controversial. The latter is exemplified by the work of Jimmie Durham, an American artist who appropriates Native American (specifically Cherokee) themes, while his identity as a Cherokee is highly contested by Cherokee curators and artists. Regardless of the facts surrounding Durham’s cultural identity, there are large gaps and blurred lines between modern and contemporary Native American art and modern and contemporary American art, which Gibson’s work seeks to address.

Through an interdisciplinary discourse around his intersectional identity as a Native American growing up enveloped by Western consumer culture, Gibson fuses contemporary Western and non-Western perspectives within his works of art. Dance and fashion are some of the creative elements that Gibson transforms to express an interconnectivity between his identity as a LGBTQ Choctaw-Cherokee man and the popular traditions of both indigenous and colonial America. For example, he has created vibrant sculptural outfits used in performances, which are inspired by Native American pow wows, as well as nightlife and club scene culture. The outfits are indicative of an eclectic mix between native American regalia and the New Romantic club movement, which included the enigmatic fashion designer, club promoter and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Gibson’s sculptural costumes, which are created through intricate patterning and layering of found objects, entice our sensory perceptions (specifically sight and sound), while drawing upon a wide variety of archetypal themes.

Gibson’s collaboration with contemporary Native American individuals, some of which are described in the TED talk video at the top of this post, have yielded works that blur the lines between craft and conceptual art. The realized objects re-present Native American culture in an ongoing discourse, which stays true to tradition while embracing the complexities and interpersonal relationships of contemporary life. For example, Gibson collaborated with Native American choreographer, dancer, musician and activist, Jesse McMann-Sparvier, who created eight traditional elk-hide drums, which Gibson then painted and arranged as a hanging sculpture. The sculpture resembles a twelve foot totem suspended by rawhide lacing, and can be easily transported from one space to another. Gibson has also re-appropriated objects of personal significance from individuals like David Rowland, whose passion for skateboarding helped him persevere through tough times. Gibson re-presented Rowland’s worn in skateboard as a sculpture, wrapped in hand painted animal hide that alludes to traditional Native American rawhide containers known as a parfleche. He called the sculpture Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard (2012), as a preservation of Gibson’s memory about Rowland’s triumphant personality.




With a steady growth in student diversity in many school districts throughout the United States, multicultural educational curricula is essential, in order to provide each student with relevant and relatable learning experiences. Ensuring that students develop the skills and knowledge to become competent participants in multicultural communities enables them to contribute to interpersonal societal relationships, which influence the continual creation of culture (Kuster 2006). Showing a diverse range of examples of artwork that spans across time and place, is a great way for educators to keep students engaged with the visual culture that encompasses our current era of globalization. Students can analyze art objects from an extensive group of cultures, and be asked to think about who made the objects, where they come from and what their impact might be within the culture where it was made. Added contextual background, provided by the teacher, about the artist(s) and artworks, will facilitate students’ understanding about how an artist imbues an artwork with significant meaning related to social, emotional and cultural conditions. For example, students might be shown Jeffrey Gibson’s Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard), watch a video clip of Jeffrey talking about his relationship with David Rowland, and interpret which aspects of the work are reminiscent of different cultures and the personal connections that the sculpture expresses.

In response to their understanding about how visual art symbolically represents a personal and/or collective narrative, students can share objects that have personal significance to them and express why they are meaningful and how they might signify the culture and environment that they are a part of (Tavin and Hausman 2004). Students can map out traits that represent who they are and create works of art that express their aspirations, dreams and experiences using their personal object as a starting point of reference.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Kuster, Deborah. 2006. “Back to the Basics: Multicultural Theories Revisited and Put into Practice.” Art Education, 59(4): pps: 33-39.

Landry, Alysa. “‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children.” Indian Country Today, 17 Nov. 2014. https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/all-indians-are-dead-at-least-that-s-what-most-schools-teach-children-6Hk8Ahnr0EG0dsV4MssWcg/

Tavin, Kevin and Hausman, Jerome. 2004. “Art Education and Visual Culture in the Age of Globalization.” Art Education, 57(4): pps. 47-52.



Art and Education, Not Jails

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Cover of Die Jim Crow E.P. Book (2018), featuring a profile portrait of musician B.L. Shirelle. Cover design by Fury Young.

Prisons, jails, and detention centers may seem like the least likely venues for art-centered learning, however, these sites, which account for nearly 1% of the U.S. population, are in dire need of social, emotional, and creative reform. Serious prison reform includes: pardoning prisoners with long sentences for non-violent crimes (i.e. drug use and personal possession charges); releasing prisoners who are serving life sentences, but have shown that they are empathetic, responsible, and able to contribute positively to society; strengthening community based treatment programs for those with mental illness; and developing educational curricula within prisons and restorative justice initiatives in communities and schools across the country. The overarching goal for our society should be abolishing mass incarceration, and life sentences, in favor of finding alternative justice related practices. It is ironic that prison agencies are called “Department of Corrections,” while there is too little restorative and compassionate rectification that actually goes on within prisons.

The arts and education can play a role in making this solution more attainable. Artist and activist, Benny Andrews, understood this. In 1971 he began teaching an arts education program inside of The Manhattan Detention Complex, which is infamously known as The Tombs. The “Prison Art Program” was further developed by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which Andrews co-founded to advocate for the rights of African Americans within the cultural sector. Reflecting on the need to bring serious attention to arts and humanities programs in prisons Andrews said: “along with losing many of their basic human rights, it seems that prison artists have also lost their right to be considered fine artists, regardless of their artistic accomplishment.” (Bernstein 2010). BECC’s model for prison art education eventually grew to 37 programs in 14 states.

Die Jim Crow and Humanize the Numbers are two current projects that incorporate art and education to address the epidemic of mass incarceration and systematic racism in America. Humanize the Numbers uses interdisciplinary creative practices to connect Michigan state prisoners with college students, activists, and artists. Through the medium of photography, incarcerated individuals are able to reclaim their individuality by symbolically presenting their stories to the general public.

The benefits of photography workshops held within prisons are twofold. First, the incarcerated individuals learn photography skills and the artful ways they can express themselves visually through the camera’s lens. They are given a powerful tool to relate their personal narrative to their intended audience. While they may be held back physically behind concrete walls, their artwork transcends the confines of the prison into society at large. This has enormous transformative benefits because it humanizes these individuals while instilling in them a sense of self-efficacy for creating such powerful work in the face of adversity. Second, the college students and other outside collaborators assume the role of allies, actively listening to the prisoners who are sharing their personal experiences. After time, due to the collaborative aspects of the project, inmates and students form a sense of trust and understanding for one another. Bonds are made between two sets of people that wouldn’t likely have had the chance to share these experiences in the community outside of prison.

Die Jim Crow, shifts the power dynamic back to those affected by the criminal justice system by utilizing the strength of song. Die Jim Crow is an ongoing conceptual art project (full length album will be released in 2020) featuring current and formally incarcerated individuals who write, perform, and record songs and poetry about the criminal justice system and their personal experiences dealing with the harsh realities of life in jail and on the streets.

Much of the pain and suffering described in the songs is a result of sociocultural inequality and systematic racism within American culture. Songs address the inhumanity of the prison system, as well as the distressing realities of the streets, where people of color are disproportionately affected by violence and institutionalized discrimination. In the song Headed To The Streets, songwriter and co-vocalist B.L. Shirelle, who was released from prison in 2015, expresses her concerns regarding the lack of resources, empathy, and basic civil rights for formally incarcerated individuals:

“Tell me what this liberty means / Now that I’m out can I live and be free? / Can I work for a company that pays more than minimally? / Will I give up before I see what’s in it for me? / This ain’t about material it’s about looking in the mirror seeing inferior” 

For many of us outside of the criminal justice system, we learn about prison via sensationalized media stories, television dramas, and statistics, however, we miss the most important element, which is the actual accounts of the people within the system. We generally only see prisoners in relation to their mugshots or other negative images spread across media outlets. Sharing their unique personalities through moving works of art is an important and essential step in restoring the civic participation of individuals who have had their voices silenced by the criminal justice system. It is also essential in ending the systemic injustice and destructive stigma that contributes to vast differences in power and privilege.

The personal experiences of artists in Die Jim Crow, as well as Humanize the Numbers, enlighten those of us outside of the criminal justice system about pre-prison –the sociocultural, economic, patriarchal (to name a few)– conditions that oppress individuals; the lack of actual corrections and behavior modification that happens inside of prisons (i.e. basic rights including steady and sufficient access to education, physical, and mental health care); and the societal prejudice against formerly incarcerated individuals (which leads to heightened rates of recidivism).

Fury Young, the founder and producer of Die Jim Crow, reflects upon why artistic endeavors around prison reform are essential:

“I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.”

Additionally, about Die Jim Crow, Civil-Rights activist Michelle Alexander (see: Alexander, 2010) writes: “The beauty of this project is that people behind bars are making music to educate and liberate.”

In our schools, harsh responses to discipline related issues are problematic in many instances and may contribute to the school to prison pipeline. The process of suspending or expelling students as the first form of recourse (see: zero tolerance policy), without any thoughts of rehabilitation, is damaging on the student. Just like with inmates in the prison system who are made to sit alone in a cell for 23 hours, handing down strict punishments to students without mediation and reflection benefits no one. Not focusing on the larger issue of why the student is acting out and how they can modify their behavior more positively, can ultimately lead to future run-ins with the law for the student.

Restorative justice is a good approach to positive behavior modification because it allows for the accused and the accuser to come together in a safe environment in order to discuss their issues and reconcile their differences. The offender takes accountability for their actions and through engaging in discourse with the victim and other members of the community, finds common ground to make amends for their transgressions. In other words, everyone finds justice being served because the systematic barriers of inequity have been removed and the issue is addressed in a communal and fair manner.

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Meme explaining different ideologies for basic human rights. Courtesy of Marieke Altena (@KikiAltena) on Twitter.

It is important to understand the definitions for equality, equity, and justice. Each of these ideologies seek to solve complex issues of social, cultural, and economic differences in order to give everyone the same inalienable human rights. In schools, equal learning opportunities means making sure everyone has the same resources such as free nutritious meals, textbooks, supplies, and materials. Equitable learning means that all students get individualized, student centered supports that they need to learn. A justice centered education goes even further in addressing the systematic issues and barriers that limit our human rights by taking on the roots of inequality and inequity. Restorative justice is the key to finding a just solution for the glaring inequality, inequity, and injustice, that exists in our schools, prisons, and marginalized communities.

Theater of the Oppressed is one particular example of art-centered restorative justice. This method of theater enables actors and audience members to be equal and active participants in the theatrical process. Participants become what Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed’s founder, called ‘spect-actors,’ a dual role where actors and audience members take simultaneous control of a dramatic narrative that focuses on social and political transformation. As a result of spect-actor-ship, the hierarchy between the people on stage and those who are seated in the audience is shattered. Through the arts, the strive for justice is expressed in a poignant and evocative manner, which humanizes individuals’ social and emotional experiences and gives all voices a platform to be heard and understood. This humanization acknowledges the traumatic situations that affect us and activates creative and effective ways to cope with these traumatic experiences (Levosky 2017).

This is precisely the type of positive reinforcement that keeps students engaged in school and builds much needed trust throughout the school community. There is much work to be done with breaking down oppressive institutional systems in order to end the street of school to prison pipeline. However, the aforementioned art projects and pedagogical models, indicate that restorative justice is working and should continue to be expanded.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010)

Bernstein, Lee. 2010. America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Gee, Mike. 2010. “Restorative Justice and Participatory Action!” Theater of the Oppressed NYChttps://www.tonyc.nyc/mikeandpar

Gonzalez, Jennifer. 2018. “Restorative Justice in School: An Overview.” Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/restorative-justice-overview/

Levosky, Alison. 2017. “Restorative Justice through Arts Programs.” Education Studieshttp://debsedstudies.org/restorative-justice-through-arts-programs/ 
Young, Fury (Ed.). 2018. Die Jim Crow E.P. Book. New York: Die Jim Crow.