Olivia Gude (2007) brought the term into active contemporary use when she included play in a list of recommendations for revising the principles for 21st century art education. Her list was a response to calls for curricular guidelines to replace modern, formalist elements and principles of art and design. Play tops the list and speaks in direct opposition to lessons devoted to color study exercises and linear perspective.
“Students of all ages,” she wrote, “need opportunities to creatively mess around with various media, to shape and reshape lumps of clay or to watch as drops of ink fall upon wet paper and create riveting rhizomatic rivulets…These students have learned the important artistic lesson that artists do not know the outcomes of their work before they begin. Artists immerse themselves in a process of making and interact with images and ideas as they emerge” (p. 7-8).
How often do we get to do this as adults? When was the last time you let yourself get lost in a process of pure, and playful, exploration?
If you are lucky enough to have a young child in your life, you have a built-in play mentor. “Play with me, mamma,” Cora calls to me throughout the day. While I’m not always in a position to drop what I am doing, I try to fulfill her request as often as I can. Not all parents take advantage of such opportunities, but we should.
This afternoon Cora and I found ourselves in the basement playing trains. I can honestly say we both love this activity. Naturally, she enjoys rolling the trains over the track, narrating as she goes. However, since Cora’s not quite ready to assemble the track, it’s up to me to determine where the course will bend and curve and where to place the bridges. I personally work for a unified path that includes some criss-crosses and has purposeful beginning and endings. Each time is a new challenge.
Such expernences illustrate Peter Gray’s (2008) five characteristics of play.
While Cora is the instigator, my participation is self-directed. While building the track serves the function of creating a space for us to play, the building is intrinsically valuable. My goals of making the track loop back and close on itself constitutes rules I follow in playing the game. And while I’m playing I am fully engaged in, but in no way stressed out by the activity. There is no pressure for me to perform in any particular way.
I’m still wondering about the importance of play in art education, student learning, and intellectual and creative development. I know, however, that it holds an important place in my own life, and for that I am grateful.