Playful Learning

I recently read an article on NPR, What Kids Need From Grown-Ups (But Aren’t Getting).  I found myself saying, “Yes!” frequently while reading it.  It reaffirms why I love using choice in my art curriculum, and encourages me to expand where I offer choices, ensuring that I also include time for playful learning.

Much of the article resonated with me and my philosophy on art education and using choice.  This particular quote really struck home with me, “When you look at how kids learn, they learn when something is meaningful to them, when they have a chance to learn through relationships — and that, of course, happens through play. But a lot of our curriculum is organized around different principles.

It’s organized around the comfort and benefit of adults and also reflexive: “This is cute,” or, “We’ve always done this.” A lot of the time, as parents, we are trained to expect products, cute projects. And I like to say that the role of art in preschool or kindergarten curriculum should be to make meaning, not necessarily things. But it’s hard to get parents to buy into this idea that their kids may not come home with the refrigerator art because maybe they spent a week messing around in the mud.

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Emma found this paper with lines all over it in the Beautiful Oops Box.  She took it and decided to fill in the spaces and make something out of someone else’s mistake.  This is a great example of the type of learning that can happen when more choice is allowed.  Rather than wondering, what should I do?  There are resources in the room to create new and meaningful art experiences.

When I first decided I was going to intentionally use more choice and give it an actual name (finally!), I was a little nervous.  In my profession, product is everything – it is what you grade, hang proudly in the hallways, in the office, on tack strips, in display cases, and eventually on the fridge at home.  How was I going to justify that my students might not produce and adult-standard, finished product during a round of centers focusing on drawing and painting?  That adult-standard idea is where the problem lies.  Why do students need to create work up to the standards of adults, when they are still experimenting, developing, and learning about techniques, media, and art history?  As their art teacher, who has been along with them on this journey, I can see a false start or a work in progress and know the immense learning that went into it.  However, do my parents, colleagues, and administration see the value in this type of artwork?

Here are just a few of the concepts that students learned/experienced in their first round of 2D Centers:

  • Navigating the classroom – finding supplies and materials they wished to use.
  • Students set up their work spaces and cleaned them up.
  • Generating ideas, organizing their ideas, choosing which ideas to stick with and which to abandon.
  • Using techniques shown in class.
  • Collaborating with peers – peer teaching, asking for feedback, giving feedback.
  • Reflecting, reviewing work, and developing work.
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Students working with one another during 2D Centers.  Having only one easel did not cause problems, but created opportunities for collaborative work and shared work spaces.

I know that to some outside eyes, this centers work may seem like students are just messing around the in the mud.  However, this type of playful learning created an atmosphere in my classroom that I haven’t experienced since my open studio days in college.  I know these students aren’t yet college students, but the freedom to try to new techniques and materials at their own pace, aligned with their own interests, and the ability to go in-depth was appreciated by all students.  The excitement of self-driven learning was palpable during class time.

2D Centers were well-received by students.  When given the chance to give anonymous feedback about centers I got responses such as:

“I love that I get to use my skills in many different ways.”

“I really liked how you let us pick what we wanted, because I do better when I am not forced to do something.”

“I want more art time like this!”

“I liked that you could do multiple different things.  You could draw, you could do water colors, you could do collage.”

“The best things were could choose and we had your help if we needed it.”

“More choices!”

“I want to try something even harder next time!”

“I liked that we could upload our work to See Saw.”

“I should have been quieter to get more work done.”

More on centers, choice, and my Beautiful Oops box later.  How do you feel about playful learning?  Do you think this is something children need more of?


6 thoughts on “Playful Learning

  1. I love this post and this way of doing things.

    I am a self-taught artist who came to art later in life (like – age 40!) I didn’t know anything and so I just did what I wanted. No one gave me any assignments and so I just explored. This freedom has made all the difference to me in my art life and – life in general – . So I am really happy to be seeing students have the chance to make choices rather than having them made for them so much. If they don’t practice knowing what they want and don’t want as children, how will they do it as adults? This is something I think very important. I believe you are doing good work here.

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