Art and Play as Process

jesse darwing

Image by Rosie

Back in July, I posted Kid’s Must Get What’s Inside – Out, where we discussed the innate drive for self-expression. As an artist, I’d like to share more thoughts about the relationship between art and play.

Back in the days when I was teaching preschool, after setting up the paint area, I had a common practice of standing near the easels and watch the children paint. One of the reasons I stopped painting myself was that the kids were often much better at it than I was. While the kids humbled me, the trouble was that they would keep on adding more and more until the paper was just a scrubbed mess. We would frequently chat as the children worked, and I would ask them what they saw emerging, and the answers would be something like “there is a red bird flying.” Occasionally I would ask if I could save the painting at that stage to give to their parents and give them a new sheet. Generally, they consented and later were excited to share the “completed” painting when they were picked up to go home. These experiences, and my work, taught me that what makes an artist is essentially they not know when to stop.

Think about it. We say that children are playing. But we don’t say a painter is “arting.”  Why not? This is a cultural bias that considers art a product rather than like play, a process. Throughout history, painting and sculpture were used to create a cultural and public record of a person, god, or event. It is only with the advent of modern art, and more specifically with Dadaism and Existentialism that the notion of artistic self-expression has become the accepted purview of art.

There is a point at which children begin to know when their drawing is “all done.” Typically, you can ask the child-artist about what they have created, and you will get the story behind the image. These narratives will often be quite complex. The ability to complete a work of art comes about when children have developed the cognitive skills to create a mental model of reality. I ask, is this achievement not the highest purpose of education?

The curriculum at Anji Play is the only formal educational system I know of that was realized the monumental achievement of this developmental accomplishment and established a process to reinforce and foster its growth. Part of the genius of the Anji Play approach is this is done in a group process with an emerging communal narrative where children collaborate and extrapolate their playful discovery process. We strive for this cooperative process in teams where ideas are synergistic and result in an outcome that is greater than the whole, and yet it is also the property of the individuals.

As a play system creator, I have always felt that what I build is the armature, the framework, the stage, for the artistic event of children at play. While being creative is fun, the real joy comes from simply watching how the children go far beyond what I imagined they would do.

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 10.22.19 AM

As I have come to know the playwork of Tom Hobson, Penny Wilson, and Suzanne Axelsson, I recognize that these folks are artists of the highest caliber. They set the stage and provide the props for true art and true play, in which the emerging self-expression of children, both individually and collectively, can flower.

Photo – Penny Wilson

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