The Art of Child’s Play

Educational materials include a variety of objects such as visual and auditory media, books, manipulatives (i.e. blocks) and toys that are utilized within curricula to provide hands-on learning and enhanced understanding of subject matter.

The lineage of many popular educational materials used in schools today can be traced through art history. A lot of the objects found in contemporary classrooms have roots derived from Friedrich Fröbel’s revolutionary framework for kindergarten. Fröbel is renowned for his contributions to pedagogy, but he was also an artist. It is the latter facet of his identity that played a large role in the development of Fröbel’s Gifts.

Fröbel believed in an experiential social, emotional and embodied approach to educating children, which was strongly directed through utilizing art and design as an active mode for interacting with the world. His Gifts (which are still produced today) include both two and three-dimensional materials that enable children to construct tangible understandings of abstract spatial relationships by making connections between the aesthetic objects and forms within concrete environments.

The artistic processes of many adult artists also involve materials-based explorations and use aesthetic objects and forms to communicate ideas and reflections about their environment and life experiences. In the post, Art Education: The Gift That Keeps on Giving, I wrote about contemporary artists who were influenced by Fröbel’s educational philosophy and materials.

Art also has a lot in common with play, whether it is serious, carefree or an amalgamation of the two. Play is an essential element of learning that reinforces critical thinking, imagination and socialization (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). It is not surprising that artists have concerned themselves with the creation of educational objects. Below are a few examples from modern and contemporary art history.

Paul Klee’s Puppets

Felix Klee in 1988 with a puppet made by his father, Paul Klee.

Klee is known for channeling a childlike aesthetic, which provided him with a vehicle to express the whimsy and wonder of human nature and the natural environment in a simple and direct manner. While Klee’s work is in museums throughout the world, his subject matter could just as easily have filled the pages of children’s books.

Between 1921 and 1931, Klee was an instructor at the Bauhaus school in Germany. The collegiate school, which trained adults for careers in both arts and craft fields, had an experiential and materials-based curriculum that art educator and historian, Frederick M. Logan (1950), described as, “stressing, as the kindergarten tried to do in 1852, that education through vision and the sense of touch, and by means of the great richness of materials and tools now available, is all important.” The curricular model was based upon a foundational study of form and materials. Students were exposed to a wide variety of tools and media, such as wood, glass, metal, textiles and clay. Through a sequential hands-on exploration of these materials, students gained insight into spatial relationships and how to representationally employ a variety of aesthetic forms within natural and material environments; a principle and methodology that is synonymous to children learning through Fröbel’s Gifts.

These core aesthetic and conceptual values are apparent in a unique set of hand puppets that Klee created between 1916 and 1925 for his son, Felix. The puppets are based off of characters from the Kaspertheater, a German puppetry movement that had similarities to both the Italian commedia dell’arte and the English Punch and Judy narratives.

It is evident that Klee understood puppetry’s importance for nurturing a unique form of play with educational outcomes. Puppets are vessels for social and emotional learning. Overall, puppetry is a way to communicate serious ideas and insights through a playful and accessible process. Through puppets, children are empowered to tell stories, which combine imagination and real world experiences. Puppetry strengthens children’s self-esteem and language skills, because they use puppets in a supportive role to project their own feelings and thoughts, which they might not otherwise be comfortable sharing in traditional peer-to-peer interactions (Zelas, 2020). Puppet shows are also beneficial for presenting instructional content in an upbeat manner that is likely to retain students’ attention and provide an outlet for students to reinforce what they are learning in a personal and fun manner (Belfiore, 2016).

The benefits of playful learning resonated in Felix, who brought his father’s puppets with him when he left the family home to study at the Bauhaus school. In fact, Felix continued to use the puppets as a vehicle for creativity and symbolic expression as a student at Bauhaus, while performing puppet shows with satirical social and political commentary (Lebowitz, 2018).

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s Aesthetic Building Game

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s shipbuilding game.
Photo: Axel Hindemith / License: Creative Commons CC-by-sa-3.0 de

Siedhoff-Buscher was a student of Klee’s at the Bauhaus school. The school’s philosophy of making art that had a functional and utilitarian purpose, inspired her successful career as a designer of children’s wardrobes and furniture. Within each of her furniture pieces, there were interactive design elements that prompted play.

One of her best known contributions to the field of educational design was a set of twenty two colorful (using the Bauhaus’ palette bold primary hues) manipulative blocks that when arranged would create the representational form of a ship. Her Kleine Schiffbauspiel (Little ship-building game) can be traced in lineage to Fröbel’s blocks. In fact, her design was widely acclaimed by preschool and kindergarten teachers.

Block play is fundamental to interdisciplinary learning. They are used to teach numeracy and geometry, spatial awareness, and making connections between aesthetic objects and their real-world implications. For example, when children play with educational manipulatives like Kleine Schiffbauspiel, they can construct stories about travel and form enduring understandings about cultural issues such as immigration.

Renate Müller’s Therapeutic Toys

A child interacting with Müller’s toy hippos. From the book Renate Müller: Toys + Design.

The production of pedagogical toys runs in the Müller family. Müller’s grandfather built toys for H. Josef Leven’s company, which were used in early childhood education, and her parents owned a toy company that specialized in making toys for art education purposes.

In the 1905s, after studying design at the Sonneberg College for Applied Arts, Müller began a series of stuffed jute and leather toys. The scale, colors and materials Müller uses to make the toys are intended to benefit children’s tactile and emotional responses. They depict the likeness of animals and are rendered large enough for the children to cuddle, and in some cases, sit or climb on.

Müller’s toys debuted at the 1967 Leipzig Trade Fair, where medical professionals noted that they could have ample psychological and orthopedic benefits for children. Sure enough, the toys were tested in children’s hospitals and clinics, and became certified for therapeutic use. The toys also were popular among early childhood educators who incorporated them in their preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Müller takes an intergenerational and accessible approach to thinking about toys and play stating that, “the role of toys in early childhood development is actually forever, also in the future. The effects reach far beyond childhood and into adulthood” (quoted in Kunsthall Stavanger, 2018).

Each of the aforementioned functional works of art exemplify the cyclical nature of artistic explorations and insight. A “lifelong kindergarten” mindset, if you will. Even though we grow older and acquire more advanced knowledge and skills related to our craft, the foundational experiences developed through playful learning during early childhood remain ripe for the picking.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Belfiore, Christie. Puppets Talk, Children Listen, TEACH Magazine, January/February 2013 Issue.

Lebowitz, Rachel. “From Paul Klee to Alexander Calder, 7 Artists Who Created Inventive Toys.” Artsy, 7 August 2018.

Logan, Frederick M. “Kindergarten and Bauhaus.” College Art Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 1950, pp. 36–43. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Jan. 2021.

Zelas, Cara. “Puppets in the classroom.” Big World of Little Dude, 29 April 2020.

“Interview: Renate Müller.” Kunsthall Stavanger, 2 May 2018.

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