As an artist I find pleasure when playing around in the studio. As a teacher, I have long wanted to afford my students the same sense of creative freedom within the classroom. As a researcher, I’ve decided to see what happens when I try giving them that freedom.
Keri Smith’s book, How to be an Explorer of the World, begins with a set of instructions: How to use This Book. I have found that this six-point list lends itself very well to art education. It’s the last two that I like the best and use the most: number five, “Treat everything as an experiment,” and six, “Start with whatever makes you feel a twinge of excitement.” (Smith, 2008).
I kept these two instructions in mind when planning a recent lesson for my third grade artists. When inviting them to create, I wanted my plan to be less about what they would make and more about where they would start. I had a seed of an idea, something that gave me that twinge of excitement, so I decided to use Keri Smith’s advice and give it a try. I wanted to invite them to play during art class, without the goal of a final product in mind.
This wasn’t entirely new for me. I’ve been reading a lot about the importance of play and freedom in student learning, and trying to implement it in my teaching. Being an elementary school art teacher, I’m in the exciting position to impact the art experiences of over 600 students. Peter Gray says play is, “perhaps the key to repairing our broken education system – returning joy, fun and excitement to learning and education,” (Gray, 2013). In a chapter of The Learner-Directed Classroom, George Szekely says that “Play is where art begins – in life and in an art class,” (Jaquith, 2012). With these statements in mind, and permission from Keri Smith to follow the twinge of excitement, planning for play has become my main mission in an effort to connect students’ school experiences with the important work of child’s play.
I started small, trusting that the kids would take the project wherever they needed it to go; and they did. After all, who doesn’t like to play?
The art problem was simply: What can you do with construction paper and a photo of yourself? The third graders eagerly got started cutting shapes to add to their photos. After a few minutes, Abby announced that she was finished and she was ready to glue her collage. Up until this point the art class had been predictable, but I felt that twinge of excitement ripple through the room as I revealed the next part of the project: they were not allowed to use glue. I explained the premise: create something (anything), get a camera, and take a picture. Then, make something else, photograph it, and repeat. Have fun. With one quick camera demonstration, everyone was on board.
The permanency of the project had vanished with the glue – now it became a play workshop. My third grade artists arranged shared paper pieces to make things like these:
and a series like this:
and imposed self-directed limitations to create a series like this:
and expanded beyond their photograph to create narratives like these:
Meanwhile, Neil held up his photo face in front of his nearby friends, creating the illusion that his head was on each of their bodies. This erupted into a hysterical head-switching dance in part of the classroom. It seemed like a great time to treat everything as an experiment, so I offered them the class camera/tripod in case they wanted to make some photographs. Then they made things like this:
while collaborating like this:
As an artist, I was pleased with the creative acts happening all around the room. As an educator, I know that my students were experiencing the freedom to create without the pressure of a teacher-designed final product. Their ideas were celebrated, valued, recognized and documented.
When one art prompt can diverge into dozens of different creative concepts, the work of teaching becomes active and exciting. In this particular lesson I became a mentor and guide, not a director and expert. Rather than asking me what to do next, kids told me about their process, their exploring, their decisions, and their ideas; this play was serious stuff.
The creative tasks that my students designed for themselves came as naturally as any play game evolves. They were silly, serious, funny, scary, weird, crazy, and thoughtful. Some were slowly perfected and some were casually rushed. Everyone had her or his own momentum and purpose. It was an art studio and a laboratory of exploration.
The resulting art products capture the incredible imaginative and playful energy of that day.
At the close of every art class I make a note in my lesson plan book, to help jog my memory next week when the same students arrive at my door. That day’s note: Best Day Ever.
That day I was lucky to witness the transformation of students given freedom to play, explore and create. And being there for the experience empowered me to continue planning for play.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Jaquith, D., & Hathaway, N. (Eds.). (2012 ). The Learner-Directed Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Smith, K. (2008). How to be an Explorer of the World. New York, NY: Penguin Group.