Art and Play: The Center of Creativity

photo 1Anyone who works as a contractor from home knows it is often a blessing, sometimes a curse. I enjoy working on my own, but at times I long for others with whom I can casually bat around ideas on a professional level, without one of the kids asking something of me. Facebook is a nice substitute, but sometimes I long for flesh and blood and voices excitedly exchanging ideas back and forth, cutting one another off as we make connections in real time.

Last night I got that thanks to my colleagues at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Cindy Foley and her team put together a rich and spirited conversation on play, art, and learning with guest panelists Flossie Chau (Harvard’s Project Zero), Jessica Hamlin (Art21), Oliver Herring (artist). They filled a room full of early childhood and classroom teachers, university faculty, parents, non-profit arts leaders, museum staff and board members, and policy makers. I could hardly think of a better way to begin the weekend. Until a few of us went for cocktails and dinner afterwards…

Some of the questions we began to explore during our Conversation with ART21: Play=Art included:
What does it mean for art to play a role in teaching for 21st century skills?
How do we know when play is happening? What do we see? hear? feel?
How does play begin?
What is the relationship between play/process/object?
What is one thing you could do tomorrow to promote play in education?

So much of what I heard resonated with what I have been working through with students in my courses and in my experiences as a parent of a toddler and teen-aged children. Here are a few key phrases I took away from the conversation.

“Play is a state of mind.”

“Play requires some catalyst to get it going.” There must be some parameters. “It can’t be infinite or my head would explode.”

“Play is purposeful.”

“Play can be really loud or really quiet.” “Play can be individual or collective activity.”

“Play feels: addicting, releasing, competitive, energized, uncertain, promising, fully engaged…”

“Go back in your mind to when you were a kid. What did you do with materials when there were no expectations?”

“Play is real, school is not.”

I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, finding new ways to define the role and importance of play in education, and seeing how play manifests itself in classrooms, museums, and home learning spaces.

A Photo a Day: Fashion Blasters! @ CMA

I am out of practice writing so I decided to start my next few posts with a photo, one from each of the past six weeks since I was last writing with regularity.


On the catwalk. Rosa, third from the right. Instructor, Jen Gillette, second from right.

Finding things for older kids to do in the summer can be a challenge.  Ensuring these things are meaningful and engaging ups the ante a notch. And finding things pre-teens are so excited about doing that they don’t mind getting out of the house before 9am for, nearly mission impossible. So it was with GREAT satisfaction that I met Rosa’s response to my query about her fist day of Fashion Blasters! camp at the Columbus Museum of Art last month: “I can’t wait to go back tomorrow! I don’t want to go home….”

This camp had it all. Pop culture hooks, introductions to a wide range of media and techniques (without getting too technical), and space for personal exploration and expression all delivered by a hip young instructor who openly shared her own passion for fashion and unique means of approaching getting outfitted. Jen is the kind of art educator I wish I could be. Creativity seems to ooze out of her and, in our conversations, she showed an authentic interest in sharing that with Rosa and her peers. I wish I could write more about the particulars of what went on each day, but I wasn’t there and teenagers aren’t that great with details.

Like many of the art camps we’ve sent the kids to over the years, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It will likely never be offered again.  Lucky for us, the art museums in Columbus have a tradition of curating fresh collections of workshops each summer, dictated, in part, by the interests of the artists they work with. Maybe some future iteration can set itself apart by directly targeting boys… *

Like most of the weeklong camps the kids attend, this one ended with show-and-tell Friday afternoon. But this time it wasn’t a static display of drawings and paintings on a wall. This was a full-blown fashion show complete with a runway set between rows of neatly aligned black folding chairs and music perfect for prancing in high heels. It felt special to walk into that space as a viewer. And it was evident that the girls felt special as they paraded down the isle, striking poses for the cameras at either end. With this, Fashion Blasters! created just the sort of spectacle art educators ought to be creating to gain attention for our programs.

*While the workshop was advertised as co-ed, no boys enrolled.

Toddler Time @ The CMA: The Finale

This post is woefully late, but it has been a busy week.  Come to think of it, our last session of Toddler Time at the Columbus Museum of Art was busy too.  We started with just one station (light boxes) and simultaneously worked on our big project -a collage using contact paper as a ground and tissue paper for the medium.  If this sounds familiar, it may be because I’ve written about this process before. The kids all seemed to find success with it. Some tore the tissue into small pieces, some cut with scissors, and others took big sheets of color to form quick compositions. It’s interesting how after just four weeks with them, I started to get a sense of how some of the children expressed their on style through their work.


After about 20 minutes, everyone seemed ready to move onto something else and we walked up to an interior courtyard that houses a large glass assemblage by Dale Chihuly.  It’s very colorful and the kids ran towards it like moths to a flame.  Amanda read them a story and then talked to them a bit about the colors and shapes they saw in the piece.  After making a few shapes with our bodies, we moved into the galleries for one final stop together.


We all gathered around a still life and the children talked about the fruits they saw in the painting and which ones they liked to eat. As they did this, Amanda pulled faux fruits from a sack and passed them around. This enabled the children to touch something that looked like what they were talking about.  I think this really helped them connect with the image. At the end of the conversation, they each put whatever fruit they were holding on the floor in a pile approximating a still life.


I’m sitting here thinking it would be fun to try this with really fruit sometime, which the children could eat, engaging their senses of taste and smell. While I would ordinarily read an idea like this and think it trite, in this context, I’m understanding how it might solidify a connection between what they were looking at in the image and their own experiences.  Of course there’s no food or drink allowed in the galleries!

I have yet to sit down and reflect on this series of gatherings as a whole in any meaningful way. When I do, I’ll be sure to share any insights I discover. At this point, I’m helping Amanda plan a survey for the participants and I look forward to seeing what it reveals about how others experienced the sessions. I plan to fill it out as well, responding as a parent, apart from my role as a facilitator to whatever extent I can. I have a running list of people interested in this type of programming should it continue, and I’ll be curious to see how and if it does.

Toddler Time @ The CMA: Day III

Nearly half our group was absent yesterday for toddler art group at the Columbus Museum of Art, which was a bummer.  But it worked out alright in the end because the kids who were with us were able to really spread out.

Following opening stations, I read the kids a book called I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! (Beaumont, 2005), a rhyming book with brightly colored illustrations about a little (gender-neutral) kid who gets in trouble for painting her/his body from head-to-toe.  As I was planning for these gatherings, I read a few books about making art with young children, including Young at Art (Striker, 2001) which includes a 45 page bibliography of books about, or related to art concepts, for children.  It could use an update, but I requested about twenty from the library and Cora and I have been previewing them at home.  I asked her which of these  she wanted to read with her friends in class, and she chose I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More!  I brought a few others that address color mixing to inspire the kids to experiment with the paint I we’d use: Leo Lionni’s classic Little Blue and Little Yellow and Mouse Paint.

Like a lot of toddlers, Cora loves to paint her body as much, if not more than a piece of paper, no matter how the paper BIG might be.  So, I was a little apprehensive about using this book in our art group.  However, I came up with an idea that seemed to keep the paint off the kids’ bodies and on the paper, with the exception of Cora, of course!

After reading the book, each parent traced her child’s body onto a large sheet of paper.  Then, we passed around spill-proof containers of red, yellow, blue, and turquoise paint with long-handled brushes assigned to each jar.  This kept the paints from getting too muddy and encouraged everyone to share so everyone could paint with multiple colors. The kids were engaged for a relatively long time and the end results are as varied as the kids’ personalities.

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One thing I noticed this week was that as people finished up, they didn’t run off.  They hung around and went back to the stations or read the picturebooks I brought. The adults continued our casual conversation and the studio  felt like a studio.  Just as we’re getting comfortable with the routine and with one another, this little experiment will come to a close next week.  I’m already imagining how we might keep it going…

Toddler Time @ The Columbus Museum of Art: Day II

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Well, the best thing about an action research experiment like the one I’m currently involved with at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that we can do whatever we like. We have no firmly pre-determined agenda and no funders or academic advisors to please.  All the participants are volunteers who are along for the ride, no matter the destination.  But, we are answering to ourselves, and those participants are my friends and neighbors.  I want them to be happy and satisfied with the time and energy they are putting into the venture.  And I want the museum staff to feel they have learned something that might translate into programming for other families in the future.

Last week I gave myself a few assignments, and this week I focused a bit on ways of addressing those objectives.

First was taking best advantage of being at the museum and working with its educational staff.  In the days leading up to this session, Amanda Kepner and I exchanged a few emails to iron out our plans.  I was thrilled when I read Amanda’s thoughts for our time in the gallery.  She planned something very similar to what I might have done, had I taken the time…

“I chose a book called Perfect Square which is all about a square that gets torn up and turns itself into different things (like a fountain, flowers, a river, etc.). It reminded me a lot of Froebel’s gifts (specifically this one I found a HUGE painting that is nothing but color blocks in the gallery that has large abstract art in it (Gallery 10). I thought after we read the book, we could look for all the different colored “squares.” I am really trying to keep the art looking to just colors and shapes.”

We got started with some stations, to maintain some continuity with the first session and to give people time to arrive, take their kids to the potty, and say hello, before moving up to the gallery.  This week the homemade Play-Dough was the most popular station and it seemed like nearly everyone wound up at that table, together, which was nice.  I brought various tools for making shapes – cookie cutters, old Perfection game pieces – since I knew we’d be looking for shapes up in the gallery.  I also brought back the lightboxes with various shaped colored acetate and covered a large sheet of butcher paper with simple shapes drawn in black marker with crayons for parents and kids to add to.

I am so glad we went to the gallery and I hope we’ll do it again – perhaps during our fourth and final session.  Next week I have big messy plans.  Even though I had a flashback to the day Cora did not sit down for a single moment in our music class, and nearly fainted when she landed a two-handed touch on the Color Field painting we were examining, it was truly grand to have this time with our friends in the gallery.  While I strongly believe that museums ought to be conceived as a community spaces and sites for participatory cultural exchange, I still cherish them as spaces set apart from the rest of the world – shrines to artists, images, and objects.  (I think I can trace this back to the first time I climbed the central stairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a field trip in elementary school, but that’s a story for another time.)  I think we feel and act differently when we are in a museum.  As Dissanyake (1988) suggested, art is “making special,” and we feel special in relation to it.

Our first venture into the galleries together was primarily focused on reading Perfect Square together in proximity to images that related to its content.  I’m sure if we had organized our time slightly differently, we could have carried that idea beyond the single work we looked at (by going on a square hunt, for example) but I know that such singular focus can be very effective for kids this age.  I know, because on our way to the studio yesterday, Cora showed me the impact it can have.

As we rounded a corner and entered a hall lined on one side with non-Western and folk artworks, she called out, “The dance!” and went running for a small ceramic sculpture from ancient Mexico.  Backstory: About two months ago I took Cora and her gal pal to the museum and we looked at this “Figural Scene” together.  I told the girls it looked to me like the figures were doing ring-a-round the roses and then we grabbed hands and did the dance ourselves a few times. Cora remembered it all. And as she did, she reminded me that it’s the quality, not the quantity of experiences that really matters. I think this is an especially important notion for parents of young children to keep in mind as we all try to offer our kids as many opportunities as time and budget can afford.  Sometimes less really is more.

[Final note: This is a great, short paper on “Looking at Art with Toddlers” which Amanda recommended.  It was written by another Ohio museum educator, Katherina Danko-McGhee, from the Toledo Muesum of Art.]

from the

Toddler Time @ The Columbus Museum of Art: Day 1

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As predicted, I left my first time hosting a toddler art playgroup with things I’d like to improve. But, I also left with a real sense of accomplishment. The parents who brought their children all seemed genuinely appreciative of the chance to have their child experiment with a bunch of materials, in a short period of time, in a new space that someone else would be cleaning up. The time passed quickly but I never felt rushed. I had scheduled a program that was well-timed and sequenced.  Noone cried and nothing spilled.

My reflections are still blurry. I’m looking back as a parent and educator.  I’m looking back through my previous experiences with, and limited knowledge of, the participants. Here are a few emerging points of focus.

I remember that all the kids were engaged for the duration of our time together.  I’m not sure I can say that about any teaching experience I have ever had before.  Of course, everyone left when they had had enough, they didn’t have to wait for a bell to ring to tell them it was okay to move on.

The kids bounced around from station to station for the first 20 minutes and I bounced around with them. Giving brief introductions to the materials (beads, lightboxes, and oil pastels). Cora got pretty clingy when she realized I wasn’t giving her my undivided attention, and this made me feel I had to refocus, to step out of the facilitator’s role and back into the role of Cora’s mom. Like I wrote this morning, it’s all a grand performance and I had two parts to keep track of today. This kind of multitasking isn’t really that great for meaningful teaching or parenting.

I wish I had done a bit more in the way of basic explanation of the activities I offered. These would have been directed at the parents, while the children were working. I intended to have some simple recommendations for engaging and collaborating with kids at each of the opening stations, but didn’t get to pulling anything together. (Goal #1 for next week.) When I introduced the main activity, I should have said more to clarify my intentions, to share some insight about my choices and how parents can translate the experiences we had together to their homes.  As my friend Alison reminded me, and as I wrote about here before, that’s what our music teacher does so well.

I want to go into the galleries with these kids and their caregivers.  I think it is important, given that we are meeting at the museum, and something really special to see. Amanda and Susie from the education department have some ideas for how to do this that I would love to watch them try. I so value the conversations I’ve been having with them – it feels rewarding on various levels.

While I knew that the majority of people knew one another from our local library’s storytime, there were two families I knew from elsewhere.  However, Columbus being a mid-sized city with a small town feel, it turned out everyone knew a few other people in the group, and there was a lot of catching up between folks who hadn’t seen each other in awhile.  I’m wondering about the importance of that social interaction for parents with young children and whether it benefit what we did with children or got in the way.  There were lots of times we were interacting with one another’s kids in ways we might not have if we didn’t know one another in advance. (It takes a village to raise an artist?) But, with those connections established and re-introductions now out of the way, there might be more space for the kind of instruction I hope to share.

I’m already looking forward to next week.

Preview: Toddler Time @ the CMA

Blueberry colored glasses

Blueberry colored glasses

So, I’m starting to get organized for our Toddler Time experiments at the Columbus Museum of Art next month. I am drafting a note to the participating parents; to clarify dates, times and locations, to set some basic expectations and guidelines, and to offer some ideas from the literature in early childhood regarding social, physical, and cognitive development within creative exploration. I’m also starting to put together some “lesson” plans. I will be documenting that planning here to share it with those parents as a form of preparation for our time together and as a space for questions, comments, and criticism. I’m also hoping I might get some feedback and recommendations from other folks who work with young children – in museums and other settings.

Today, Cora and I pulled out a lightbox I had stored in the basement and a set of old colored plastic notebook dividers I had saved from one of the big kids’ end-of-the-school year clean-ups. If I were making a list of top ten tips for parents who want to encourage creativity at home, saving old things and finding new uses for them would be close to the top. This also fuels my interests in sustainability education, and I’m always really pleased when I find a good use for something I’ve been holding onto for a while, like these folders. (I frequently recommend Beautiful Stuff! (Topal & Gandini, 1999) for more ideas about how to incorporate found objects into early childhood creative education.) Similarly, you don’t need a fancy box to do this kind of activity. DIY lightbox instructions are available all over the web.

I started to cut basic shapes out of the plastic and Cora immediately took them and put them on the lightbox. She enjoyed placing them on the box and seeing them illuminate, overlapping them to make new colors, and starting to sort them based on their shapes and colors. She didn’t need any instruction. I plan to use this as one of the activities for the free play stations kids can explore during the first part of our time together.


As she worked, I thought about Josef Albers’s (1963) Interaction of Color and the color aid paper experiments I conducted in my freshman design course in college. I also thought about Paul Klee’s geometric landscapes and Louise Nevelson’s assemblages. Oddly enough, the CMA is currently hosting a big show of Mark Rothko’s work to which one might also draw parallels with this activity. So far there aren’t any plans for designated time in the galleries each week as part of our playgroup, but perhaps I ought to reconsider that given this connection. It would be fun to look at Rothko with young children. Unless they’re like Olivia the Pig who couldn’t accept Pollock’s drip paintings, they ought to be more open to his work than many adults I know.

The one thing I am a little worried about is that this activity will be very popular and my little lightbox won’t be big enough for everyone who wants to use it. We’ll just have to be prepared to talk about sharing and taking turns. Something tells me we’ll be doing a lot of that.