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 key to successful learning is _____________.

You might have filled in the blank 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. But one key answer that is sometimes forgotten or neglected in contemporary education is learning through play.

Learning through play essentially means using enjoyable, fun games and activities to engage and challenge our social, emotional and cognitive skills. Play enables us to think, create and interact in a natural and critical manner. Through teamwork, we strengthen communication and understanding for each other. Other essential habits of mind developed through playing include: persisting (the greater the challenge the sweeter the reward), managing impulsivity (developing awareness and 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 establish scenarios where they can be independent and in charge of their actions. 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. Actively forming insights by doing things that are both fun and substantial, makes acquiring knowledge a memorable experience. The goal of playful learning should be to establish lifelong inquiry and the motivation to make discoveries through both pragmatic and outside of the box endeavors.

Contemporary art effectively embraces the element of play. 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 are not having fun anymore. Unless you are 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 airplane 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. For each series of art she makes, Katchadourian 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. Katchadourian 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 aimed to make art-centered projects accessible for a wide range of individuals, regardless of prior artistic experience. Each assignment addresses 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 choices, 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 judgments 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. 

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