Tag Archives: play

Art & Body & Soul

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salvador Dali, 1946

This post starts off a little dry, but I get theologically spicy in a little bit.  Just stick with me.  Or skip to paragraph six.

Last week I read the Arike (2001) article addressing the role of art in a post-human world, the Dissanayake (1974) article hypothesizing how art may have evolved from play, the Leeds (1989) article presenting historical attitudes toward child art, and the Mithen (2001) article offering an archeological hypothesis for the evolution of imagination.

As acknowledged by Arike (2001, p. 448), Dissanayake (1974, p. 216), Leeds (1989, p. 103), and Mithen (2001, p. 51), the nature of art making is paradoxical in that it may both affirm and redirect society.  Dissanayake (1974) explains that in “man’s evolutionary past, art could have fostered both conservative and innovative behavior” (p. 216) as well as aided in the development of self-consciousness.  Leeds (1989) addresses this issue through the lens of the history of child art by offering two opposing approaches to art education: a traditionalist approach “which aims to inculcate children with established cultural norms”(p. 103) and a child-centered approach which “assumes a kind of anti-cultural stance” (p. 103).

These authors also connect artistic development with an increase in the quality of human life maintaining that artistic development of individuals and our species is desirable and evolutionarily advantageous.  Dissanayake (1974) explains that “ artistic expression and appreciation are not luxuries or trifles but essential human characteristics whose value is to be found in the long-term evolutionary view as well as in the individual’s personal life” (p. 216).  Mithen (2001) also argues that the creation of art provides “cognitive foundations for further works” (p. 51) which may grow in complexity and usefulness to the human species.

Arike (2001), Dissanayake (1974), and Mithen offer insight about the the role of art making in the theory of human evolution.  Dissanayake (1974) theorizes that art making is an advanced form of play which may have been selected for because of its ability to create social cohesion among humans (p. 215).  Mithen (2001) agrees with this theory and maintains that art making is not a product of evolution; it is an essential part of the process (p. 50).  Arike (2001) maintains that the role of art making in human evolution is continually shifting and that, at present, it is compelled toward a task “in direct competition with post-human engineering: the creation of life now” (p. 451).

I find value in considering the nature of art as something that may promote social cohesion, yet simultaneously challenge social norms.  These are two distinct, yet related goals of art making that I aim to encourage in my students.

Having recently accepted a position teaching art in a Christian school, I have a good bit of grappling to do regarding where I stand on the specifics of evolutionary theory and how it might inform my practices as an art educator.  However, I certainly reject the notion in Arike’s (2001) article that “the body is our general medium for having a world” (p. 451) and that we are “condemned to meanings that are more or less finite and local” because I believe that our “medium for having a world” is both the body and the soul, which, according to the Christian faith, are both eternal.  I therefore hold very different beliefs about what drives humans to create art.  I maintain that we are compelled to create because we were created in the image of a creative being.  I don’t mean to cause controversy with this section of my post, but my worldview is in direct opposition to the idea that artistic development is a product of natural selection.

To go a bit further…
The phrase “medium for having a world” comes out of the Arike (2001) article.  There it is used to explain that humans experience the world because our body experiences the world.  This article is built on the assumption that the body, the biological, is the end-all and be-all of human existence.  The opening quote tells us this: “…you are the sum total of your data.  No man escapes that.” -Don DeLillo, White Noise

The philosophical perspective from which this article is written is called materialism.  According to this perspective, physical matter is the cause of everything including human thought, emotion, imagination, and the creative drive.  The opposite of materialism is Gnosticism or spiritualism.  Spiritualism maintains that humans must shun the body and the material world if they wish to understand spiritual truths.

And then there’s the peculiar Christian perspective.  Christianity has some unique beliefs about body and spirit, particularly because it holds both in high regard.  The God of Christianity, like humans, has simultaneously spiritual and material form.  The believers are referred to as the body of Christ, yet anyone with even the slightest exposure to this faith knows it involves some very spiritual practices such as prayer.

It is this somewhat unintuitive combination of the spiritual and the material that supports my philosophy of art education.  I never have to worry that by teaching art I am misguiding my students by teaching them to create meaning and purpose in an ultimately meaningless, purposeless material world.  I believe that learning to make “stuff” is a good thing for artists to do.  And, on the contrary, I do not worry that by encouraging my students to explore their spirituality, this something they connect with that is beyond their body, that I am filling their heads with ridiculous ideas about souls or eternal life.  I believe that exploring one’s soul and grappling with a sense of eternity are also good things for artists to do.

What do you think about the intersection of the material and the spiritual (or, if your prefer, non-material) in teaching art?



Arike, A. (2001). What are humans for?: Art in the age of post-human development. Leonardo, 34 (5), 447-451.

Dissanayake, E. ( 1974). A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo, 7 (3), 211-217.

Leeds, J. A. (1989). The history of attitudes toward children’s art. Studies in Art Education, 30(2), 93-103.

Mithen, S. (2001). The evolution of imagination: An archaeological perspective. SubStance, 30(1/2), 28-54.



Surprise, Surprise

I love to surprise people with my art.  Sometimes by making surprising art, sometimes by putting art in surprising places.  The other night I left this little guy for my dad to discover on his computer monitor.

10154294_664553096936558_1195079847_nI like being sneaky.  There’s a tension and a buzz in the air when you are trying to keep a secret or plan a surprise.  Kids get to have fun at being sneaky all the time.  Adults should seek out opportunities for good-natured sneakiness more often.

I love to surprise people, but I also love being surprised.  Tonight on my drive home, my owl prank came full circle as one of these gorgeous birds of prey swooped in front of my car and took my breath away.  Well played, you wise, sneaky old bird.


A Round About Challenge

Artists, children, and other humans, I have a challenge for you! How can you create a circle without tracing an already existing circle?

Send in photographs and maybe an explanation of how you did it to ladyhorak@gmail.com, and I will post your brilliant efforts here. 🙂

Here’s mine:
I dyed dish soap and water with food coloring and blew bubbles. As the bubbles sat on my paper, the edges created these rings!



Late night wonderings about play, memory, and spontaneity

Why do we remember tiny details about the games we play, but can rarely recall details about worksheets we’ve completed?

Is it just a matter of how invested we are in the present activity?

Is it because our bodies are more engaged when we play?

Is it because no one wants to hear stories about the worksheets we’ve filled out, but will gladly swap stories about games? Is that why we remember them…so that we can retell them?

Play has a kind of order and structure to it, one that lends itself to good stories. There is sequence. There is cause and effect. But there is also chaos, which make things very interesting.

Do we remember the things we learn when we play because there is an element of surprise, there is excitement in not knowing what comes next?

How can we create an environment in our schools that feels more like real life?

Completing a series of worksheets, readings, and tests feels so contrived. Like a sad little shadow of life. But how can play and surprise take on a role in our learning process without introducing complete chaos?

How do we as educators create the balance between spontaneity and structure?

Ah, the things that keep me up at night.

Wanted: Alchemist, Leprechaun, or Scholar

They’re always after me well-formulated research questions!

This St. Paddy’s Day I’m still on a quest for my pot of gold.  I need a solid research question upon which to base the rest of my studies in the UFARTED program.  Help from an alchemist, leprechaun, or scholar would be most appreciated.

Hopefully some of these questions are more answerable.  The tricky part will be inserting research methods into my madness.

1.  What makes an art activity “play”, “work”, or both?

I want to research the difference that fun makes in learning, but perhaps I could narrow it down by trying to pinpoint what makes an art activity “play”, “work” or both.

I imagine doing this by creating several art assignments, implementing them, and asking students whether what they just did was play, work, or both.  I would also ask what parts of the assignment were “play” and what parts were “work”.  I would also ask the students for their definitions of “play” and “work” and collect a list of adjectives and connotations for each.

2. How can an art educator build curriculum around the human drive to play?

The product/answer to this research would be a curriculum created in response to research in the literature about play, learning, and art making.   It might also involve observation of free play and lesson plans structured around the tendencies of students engaged in free play.  Lessons would be executed and qualitative data about the students’ experience would be gathered.

3.  Does playful art making engage a student’s emotions, and if so, how?

First I would need to develop lesson plans that encourage playful art making.  Through observation, I would gather qualitative data to determine whether or not a student has engaged in play during the art lesson, then interview them about the things they felt as they completed the lesson.  This is something that I could alternatively test out on myself by engaging in playful art making and assessing my emotional responses throughout.


Humans are driven to play.
Play and work can happen at the same time.
Playful art making probably engages one’s emotions.
Play should be embedded in the art classroom.
Play and learning are connected.

Wondering About the Relationship Between Play, Learning, and Art


The more complicated version:
Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 9.00.35 PMResearch Questions:

1. How does “having fun” influence art making, play, and learning?
2. How might understanding the relationship between play and learning influence art education curriculum?
3. How can art educators use playful art making to help their students live joyfully?

To begin research for my literature review, I kept an absurdly detailed little journal filled with personal working definitions.  I had pages defining play, art, learn, work, create, destroy, fun, happy, develop, etc…  Once I began looking for articles that addressed these issues, my definitions helped me engage with the material.  The philosophies and theories about the relationship between learning and play were interesting to me, especially when I began to see historical cycles of their popularity.  This also helped me narrow my focus because I realized that I didn’t want to just be another educator on another historical “play” bandwagon, so I began searching for literature that I felt could help me form enduring ideas about using play as a fundamental part of learning in the art classroom.

After researching, I understand much more about the biological and developmental functions of play.  I have been made aware of many different schools of thought about the relationship between art and play and discovered some contentious grounds!  Some scholars suggest that art is a form of play, and other scholars wholly refute this claim.  I have enjoyed discovering the source of these philosophies in Schiller’s writings, but I’ve been even more excited by all of the hubbub responding to his philosophies.  I have gotten the sense that while playful art making is widely acknowledged as beneficial for the field of art education, it has not yet become a fundamental part of curriculum of teaching techniques.  Individual art educators (like George Szekely) and philosophical pockets (like Reggio Emilia) have embraced these ideas, but these philosophies seem contained…they do not influence mainstream thought.

AND THEN IT HIT ME.  I was reading over Arthur Efland’s article on the School Art Style when I realized an unintuitive bias that I’m going to have to fight against throughout my research.  Many people have an favorable definition of play.  They believe that art making is merely recreational, therefore, playful.  I’ve been getting confused looks from my friends and family when I explain that I would like to infuse my art curriculum with playful activities because they assume that we are already playing.  Because it’s art class.  And that’s what we’re supposed to do.  What I will have to prove in my research is not “play=good”.  The hardest thing to prove is that play=learning.  Play=valuable.

Wonderings About Play

Tonight I’m wondering about how art educators can incorporate play into art curriculum.  Hopefully this will be the focus of my research for the next several months.

Wondering 1:  How do art educators define playful art making?
Wondering 2:  How might art educators balance structure and spontaneity to facilitate constructive, playful learning experiences?
Wondering 3:  Do we use the same parts of the brain when we build sandcastles and blanket forts that we use when we make art?
Wondering 4:  What are the benefits and limitations of using backward design to incorporate play into art curriculum?
Wondering 5:  What are the strengths and weaknesses of teaching methods that heavily incorporate student play and direction? (Montessori, Teaching Artistic Behavior, Reggio Emilia, etc.)

These questions matter to me because I deeply value the things that I have learned while playing.  Though I am proud of my book smarts, I genuinely treasure the things that I discovered on my own and the memories of making those discoveries.  Once a week, in elementary school, I attended a gifted program that was both highly structured AND playful, and I want to learn how to recreate that environment.  Some of my best learning experiences there include planting an herb garden, designing and sewing my own clothes, building and programming robots, and delving into chemistry to put on a magic show.  I created lasting memories that became a part of my identity and understanding of the world.  I want to be able to offer the same to my students by infusing curriculum with opportunities for playful experiments.  (If there’s anyone else out there that attended the Academic Resource Center in Tallahassee, FL, I would love to reminisce with you about those magical days!)

I recognize that “play” is a feel-good buzzword in our field, but I want to get into the nitty-gritty of its meaning and use as a learning tool.  I want to establish a working definition of play and identify how it begins, what its evidence looks like, and how it may inform my and my students’ art making processes and products.  In addition to reviewing the contemporary literature, engaging in playful activities on my own and observing students at play will be necessary for gathering information.  Interviewing teachers who observe children at play may also be helpful for understanding the role of play in the long-term development of student work.

If I publish this study, I believe it would be of interest to most educators, but I would want to ensure that it appeals to adult artists just as much as it would appeal to those who teach children.

Here are some of my brainstorming notes:

Doodle-oodle-oodle Doo
Doodle-oodle-oodle Doo