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The art of play

Donated jump ropes, balls, hoops, and chalk sparked imaginative play on nine Philly schoolyards. Self portraits by the children protect their identities.
Psychologist and folklorist Anna Beresin asks: How can we make play more artful? Her fun, informal January 13th workshop will feature drawing exercises to explore what designers can do. 

Anna Beresin is a Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of the Arts and writes about children's art, play, and the need for recess. From 2010 to 2012, she worked with students from The University of the Arts to donate jump ropes, balls, hoops, and chalk--all traditional urban play materials--to nine public schools in Philadelphia. She writes, "The idea was to make it possible for resource-poor schools to enrich children's time and to support children's expressive culture. We followed our donation with an art activity in four of the schools, where teachers asked the children to paint what they do at recess and how it makes them feel." 

Beresin shared the stories and drawings of the children in The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention, published in 2014 by Temple University Press. Here are a few key principles about the art of play, excerpted by Beresin from her book. 

The importance of the aesthetic
Back in 1934, John Dewey wrote in Art as Experience that in modern society there is a “chasm between ordinary and esthetic experience.” In the name of efficiency we continue to turn many of our schools into assembly line, eliminating aesthetic, moving, and sensory opportunities in both the classroom and the school yards.  Children make no such arbitrary divisions between sensations and information, between motion and thought.  The children, the aesthetic is the ordinary way of making sense of the adult world.

In The Spirit of Folk Art, Henry Glassie notes that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic- the deadening of the nerves.  Doctors give anesthesia to block the nerves so we will not feel any pain.  Ironically, many public schools have become antiseptic, anesthetic places—like hospitals for the disembodied minds of increasingly depressed, obese children.  It is as true for children as it is for adults that, as Glassie said, “art is the joy we find in work, surely; it is the record of our bodies bumping through the world, our wits at war with the unknowable.” 

Where to find art in middle childhood
Howard Gardner clarifies: “Both young children and adult artists are willing, even eager, to explore their medium, to try out various alternatives, to permit unconscious processes of play to gain sway... Moreover, both are willing to suspend (for somewhat different reasons) their knowledge of what others do, to go their own way, to transcend the practices and boundaries that overwhelm and inhibit ‘literal age’ children (and quite possibly, lesser artists).” 

Yet art does not disappear in middle childhood; we just have been looking for children’s art in the wrong places.  Although it abounds in early childhood, and for some lucky few lasts through adulthood, it has been there all this time—on the playground. Play becomes art in song, dance, drama, sculpture and drawing.  Hear it in the playground’s jump-rope rhymes, in the pretend play, the sporting elegance, and the children’s attempts to modify their own play environments.

If play invites the movement of ideas, the paradox of playground design is to design for its very obsolescence.   How do designers liberate play to become artful, and not make a monument to adult artistry? What can artists learn from play, and designers learn from artists?  Plenty.

Anna Beresin is a multi-disciplinary scholar with two Ph.D.s, one in Psychology and one in Folklore. A regular visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Anna serves as Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of the Arts. A Lindback Teaching Award winner, she has created several new courses for the University: Observing Humans, Observing Children, Introduction to Folklore, and Analyzing Talk, and teaches in the Game Design minor in Multimedia. Register for her January 13th workshop to explore how play and the design of play spaces through several fun, informal drawing exercises. 

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative.

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