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Play and the arts: the importance of the 'unimportant.' (Play and the arts in children's education)

Play is a voluntary activity which takes place within certain fixed limits of time and space. Play also contains tensions and uncertainty. It has nothing to do with necessity, utility or duty.

- Johan Huitzinga. Homo Ludens (1950)

I was very struck by the answers one young girl gave me to some questions I asked during a study of children's attitudes toward kindergarten. First I asked, "What do you like to do in the kindergarten?" She answered spontaneously, "To make drawings." Then I asked, "Is there something you do not like to do in the kindergarten?" The child answered, "I do not like to draw when I have to do it!" (Balke, 1978). She really made clear the distinction between play and non-play. And she helped me ponder further the relationship between play and art.

Play, which is so natural for all of us when we are children, is seldom a matter of interest to adults. For most adults, daily work and practical matters dominate. In the press and on television, play is not given much importance, because play belongs to the world of children. Play is something children do; therefore, it is marginal and unimportant in the eyes of society. We all know the expression, "It is only play!" Why take it seriously, when it appears to have no aim except that of having fun?

Children are not often thought of as strategically important, since they usually have no power in decision-making. They are not free agents, but rather are part of their families, and the adults speak for them. To be grown up means to have left childhood behind, and to have grown out of and away from childish activities. When free from work and obligations, adults most often want to relax, while a child intensifies his or her activities when given freedom.

Play is a little like being in love. It is full of promises and surprises. Play is like nature itself, easily destroyed or disturbed. It may live and thrive outside our control; but when efforts are made to control it, play comes to a stop. This article will study play as a phenomenon, a part of our human resources that needs to be given special attention and protection.

Playing and Exploring

Children are born explorers. From the moment they open their eyes they are interested in everything. They explore by looking, touching and moving everything that comes close. Throughout the first two or three years of life, children are constantly busy exploring the outside world and mastering their own bodies, all in order to reach farther and grasp what is going on around them. This process may seem trivial, but we must not forget how amazing this phase of development really is, when a child manages to learn and integrate knowledge.

It may be difficult to decide by observation alone at what point exploratory activity stops, and when play begins. Both of these processes are characterized by intensity and concentration, and the freedom to decide when to start or break off an activity, as well as what to do, how to do it, and with whom.

Children want to try out what they cannot yet master. Hodgkin (1985) speaks about those frontiers where we perceive problems that limit our competence - that unique zone where new skills and new concepts are born. Children's interest levels are keenest in this area. Children also study the people around them and learn about themselves by interacting with those whom George Mead (1974) called "the significant others": parents, other family, friends, teachers and anyone else who in some sense control children and on whom they depend. The beginnings of imaginative play are found in children's efforts to understand what it is to be human by copying what they see around them.

Play As Dialogue: The Adult's Role

Children depend on adults in many ways. The role of the adult, of course, differs, according to the age of the children, the composition of their group and the context in which play occurs. The younger the child, the more important the adult is as a play partner.

Human cultures have long stored "history" in the form of traditional songs, rhymes and games. Discovering new ways of playfulness helps establish a play dialogue. The adult does one thing; the child answers with the same or an opposite movement. This form of communicative play has been going on as long as humanity has existed, and also can be observed in animals with higher brain functions.

Sutton-Smith (in Egan & Nadamer, 1988) gives a vivid description of this dialogue:

In early infancy some babies have the good fortune to participate with their parents in a positive feast of exuberant diversity, where faces and bodies and gestures and emotions are framed and reframed, postulated and denied, crescendoed and diminished with all the mad happiness that medieval adults seldom achieved except by carnival and that modern adults seldom achieve except when in love. (p. 9)

As an infant, the child begins exploring new territory, always making sure of the mother's location. The adults - mother, father or teacher - move in a world they already know, while the young child is on the edge of something he does not know, and he must use his ability to explore and uncover the unknown.

Imaginative Play and Creative Activity

Play's expressive elements are what put it close to the work of the artist. Neither art nor play are necessary activities. A room does not need pictures; a park does not need sculptures. Art is actually superfluous, in the sense that we do not need it for survival. But what would life be without art? How would we have culture? Similarly, what would childhood be without play?

Children clearly express their feelings and thoughts about life when they are given free rein to paint or play act. Drawing, painting and role-playing all rely upon the imagination. Children take the material for play from the world in which they live. They need security and a lack of fear if they are to have the courage to play with ideas and impressions from the adult world, selecting those that are most relevant.

Children who manage to create a complicated structure or imaginative play story with other children as partners make their own intense discoveries. Obviously, teachers with vivid interests and awareness (in art, for example) can create an atmosphere that inspires children to be creative. Imaginative play requires interaction with a stimulating and varied environment, and interested teachers or parents.

In fantasy play, children take on roles when playing alone, with other children or, for that matter, with an adult (functioning at play-level like a child). Typically, the child improvises and lives within the role - as a person, animal or even a thing. The children act in a dream world, within which it is possible to move in and out, according to their need. In this way, children can deal with unsolved problems even when they do not quite understand their impressions of the adult world. The play mode is a safe place to try out feelings and solutions or make-believe actions (Gardner, 1991).

Work and Play

It is reasonable to speak about work and play as different activities or, as Friedrich Froebel termed them, "occupations" (bescheftingungen) and play. To work toward an end product or a result and to follow an adult's directions may be helpful to a child, but it is not play. It is work, since it is directed from the outside and has a goal separate from the play process.

Work, of course, is also useful and necessary to life; and the young need to take part both in school chores and in cooperation and work of different kinds. Millions of children lose their childhood prematurely, however, because they are forced to work too soon. Someday, of course, children will want to be useful and take their share in duties emulating the adults they love.

Merely using a toy is not necessarily play. When children draw from a model or are directed to make a certain structure with blocks, they are working, not playing. They may like the experience well enough and may learn from it, but it does not belong in the world of play. (Although Froebel's methodology has been considered to be based on a play theory, many practices of it were of this type.)

Play and Learning

Educators often speak about play as a learning process. Bruner (1986) suggested that "in play we transfer the world according to our desire, while in learning we transfer ourselves better to conform to the structure of the world." Adults' wishes may not be what is most important for the child at the moment, however, and the child's preferred activity may lead to more learning than would a structured learning situation. It is a question of timing: who is dominating the time and space made available for the child, and the child's focus at the actual moment (Vygotsky, 1978)?

Play can assume different forms, depending upon one's personality and organization. It can be either constructive or destructive. When children manage to create a complicated structure, perhaps with other children as partners and a teacher at their side, they make their own intense discoveries. "Playful" banging on a keyboard can be a necessary prologue to performing on the piano, for example. Play also can console, much like therapy. A series of play sessions can help troubled children learn about their own feelings, and gradually reduce their need for disruptive behavior (Lowenfeld, 1947). This is indeed learning, which is integrated into the child's store of experiences. Play is also important just for the way it allows children to act like children.

The Grand Play

Children start out as explorers. They are learners by nature. Polanyi (1958) describes how we acquire tacit knowledge - the knowledge our body and mind have stored, after much trial and error, that enables us to master a skill. We acquire this knowledge and use it every day without reflecting on it.

In "grand play," or deep play, children throw themselves into total play situations, where they can safely learn with all their senses and with their bodies, using language and social skills in a make-believe world. Buitendjik (1933) pointed out that children in an intensive play situation can forget their individuality and become part of a higher unity. They can tackle complicated problems and from these situations gradually learn skills that will help them become members of a group. What they need to learn is so complicated that they will have to try again and again, each time in a different way. One way to do that is by being something that they are not, which can be achieved through play.

Play in Context

Play begins within a play space - which is not only a physical place like the nursery room, the playroom or the yard, but also a psychosocial space that gives an atmosphere of freedom and emotional contact. In addition, children need some skills and instruments for play, such as symbols, roles, mime, imitation, language, rhythms and dance. Materials from the world around them and the actions of people in their environment help create fodder for their play world. Many great educators have used children's constant activity to create systematic play materials. But, again, the play must be in the child, not in the uncommitted materials.

A story involving my grandchild, after her return from a trip to Bali with her parents, serves as an example. If you know something of Balinese culture, you will easily understand how a 5-year-old girl could be overwhelmed by its colors and sounds, especially a young girl coming from a country that is dark and cold much of the year.

With great seriousness, my granddaughter sought to re-create in our living room what she had been a part of - not to show anything to her grandmother, but simply to relive the events that were, to a large extent, a mystery to her and to include me in that process. She sought out bits of textiles and bands of different colors, and some of my wall-hangings. She used these materials for dressing up before the dance, just as she had seen children in Bali do as they prepared for a dance ritual.

So absorbed was my granddaughter in reliving what she had seen that she was almost solemn. Then she performed a dance, copying the movements she had studied over a month in Bali. After she had finished the dance and repeated it several times, she decided to change the roles. She decorated me, playing the Balinese woman, the mother, who had decorated her children.

All the elements for a peak play experience were present: rich impressions of a mystical character, which created excitement; freedom of initiative; a play partner; room and time for play; and a feeling of sincerity and safety. In such ways, children create mysteries for adult minds.

Kindergarten or other early childhood settings may be a place for such play, if adults can create the necessary freedom and social relationships that make play happen. Children who are brought together occasionally will not have the same possibility to create play that lasts over time, as do children who know each other as friends through daily meetings.

To make play happen, children use certain techniques. By asking another child, "Do you want to play?" a signal is sent: "Shall we enter the play sphere or play space together?" They seem to say to each other, "We are children - not adults. We play in our world. We don't belong in the world where they belong."

When children play together over time, they can develop compatibility and mutual respect. As they become experts at playing together, the quality and complexity of the play process grows. They know each other through conflict and adaptations, varying and refining their play more and more. In earlier times, when cities had more undefined open spaces and children met, the children normally made groups of different ages, and created and re-created social play forms. In modern urban society, many children do not have the time or the space around their homes to meet and play. They have lost important play spaces. Therefore, they spend more time indoors, sometimes alone with a parent, or, often, watching television for hours, rather than playing.

Children's Culture

When given the chance, children share their rhymes, jokes and stories. Play and creative activity are pure forms of culture that are special to children. In that sense, classrooms that encourage creativity and expression are cultural workshops for childhood. I believe that it was Friedrich Froebel who made this essential discovery, which is why he created his kindergarten so that it included young children of different age groups and from all strata of society (Hoffman, 1982).

In kindergartens and school settings, however, we tend to separate children by age groups. This separation may prevent children from learning cultural traditions that older children used to transfer to their younger companions. Teachers and caregivers can compensate for this by introducing a mixed-group time each week. Kindergartens and families where children's expression is respected and where adults teach traditions (such as the Japanese art of paper-folding) are cultural workshops. By presenting children's work to parents and to other people in the local community, we can open up new creative forces in children and also establish a point of contact between adults and children.

Threats to the Culture of Children

The culture of children is threatened by mass media and overproduction of plastic playthings that are ready-made and demand nothing of the child. It is also threatened because adults seem to have too little time to play with children, even if they work fewer hours than ever before. In the old days, ordinary people played. They played after work, and the difference between being a child and an adult was not as great as it is today.

In addition, work for many adults today is often abstract or highly technical, and it does not produce something a child would find tangible. Therefore, it is almost impossible for a child to learn about society from adults by using their activities as a model for play. Visible and simple work processes have seemed to disappear. At carnival time and folk festivals, by contrast, children and adults act and play together, and use visible symbols and traditions brought down through generations. In such a play space, where people young and old relate to each other, stories of life and death may be reworked and expressed.

Play is exactly the opposite of a goal-directed activity. Play is spontaneous. This spontaneity is its essence - an activity for and of itself. Its meaning lies in a state of mind characterized by humor or intense concentration, something that is fun in itself, here and now.

More About Art and Play

Let us look more closely at the relationship between play and art. What do the two have in common? Young children who still act out of an inner freedom express their thoughts and feelings in richer, more original ways than they do later in life - even if their ways of expression are less sophisticated and clumsier than those of adults. Play is a way of expression, and we may speak of a multidimensional form of art if we accept the word "art" used in this connection.

In an article about genius in Newsweek (June 30, 1993), psychologist Howard Gardner said:

In genius, there is a tolerance for ambiguity, a patience with unpredictable avenues of thought; like hikers rambling down a country lane with no particular destination or schedule, geniuses explore at leisure the blue highways of ideas. Genius tends to return to the conceptual world of childhood - the wonderfilled child. The child in his play tends to use his mind like the genius, exploring freely and discovering new ways of solutions and experiencing.

In certain adults, especially among artists and scientists, we still find playfulness as part of their attitude towards life. For the artist as a conscious being, the end result also has importance after the process is over. But for children, it is somewhat different. As long as the play goes on, the expressive process (i.e., what the children are making) has importance in their minds. When play is completed, what the children have made - a drawing, a block structure, the product - loses importance. They turn their back on it, and have no time to dwell.

To complete the play structure and see that the result is in accordance with what the children intended, however, gives value to the act - it happens here and now. Some might argue that a distinction must be made between art and play, because art is a very conscious process and many art forms build on a training process that is highly complicated and goal-directed. Another difference between the artist and child is that young children have incomplete control over their muscles and usually cannot plan ahead very well. Nonetheless, we may find a close relationship, because the true artist has something of the same attitude toward life as the playful child: their awareness of time disappears when playing or creating. The artist and the child are both free from the limits of place and time. Play and art work are characterized by a new time structure and a free choice of place and time for thought.

Time and Space for Play

When authors write, they often hide in a secluded place, such as a room or a hut in the garden, and shy away from any interruption. Interrupting children's play may also be disruptive, since play is a flowing process of creative activity. The adult must be within reach, however, to prevent crises and help solve problems.

Time for play and space enough for playing are perhaps even more important than playmates and, even, play materials. An adult's most important contribution to children's play is to create ample time and protected space for play. Play forms arise, take shape and expand, change and die away. Children need undisturbed time to explore the world of play. Such time is valuable and irreplaceable, because childhood is soon over.

The adult must create a space - a room around both adult and child where play takes place, without pressure. Furthermore, the adult is responsible for bringing interesting elements into this space that can help the child discover new relations, new meanings and new skills. With freedom, the child can then express discoveries through actions. The interaction between parent and child is special, because both are attuned to each other's emotions, which builds a bridge for a true learning relationship, a dialogue.

At a certain time, the child turns away from this learning relationship toward other children, and tries to establish a true, wider relationship for new experience and learning. What two children do in play together is not as important as their togetherness - that they play together. We know, and can easily observe, how a child is structuring the play process when play takes place. Sometimes, the process is a double, reciprocal one: children may be so good as playmates that the dialogue continues on two levels. One is the real acting of a role; the other is informative, communicating to the players ways to create ideas on how the drama might develop.

To see young children absorbed in their play is a special joy. Children's social relations can be influenced positively through a common experience of delight and satisfaction, or even of problems and solutions. When children grow, new relationships appear. The adult establishes a mediating role between the child and the outer world, creating a more conscious process of learning.

Children are survivors, despite the many difficult conditions of a violent, turbulent world. We see them playing on ruins, adapting to war conditions, even planting gardens in the midst of the most barren of environments. To be sure, in slum areas and inner cities around the world, some children suffer so much that the play world is closed to them, and their childhood is lost. But many others use play as a survival method, as long as they have at least a minimum of emotional security and care from their parents and their basic needs are met. Even where only junk is present, play challenges can be available.

The child has a right to the "grand play." Let us defend that right and create rooms for play in children's world.


Balke, E. (1978). Om barn i barnehage. (On children in kindergarten.) Naermiljo Barnehageprosjektet, Report no. 7, Barnevernsakademiet i Oslo.

Bruner, J. (1986). Play, thought, and language. In Prospects quarterly review of education, UNESCO, 57 vol. XVI no 1, p.78.

Buytendijk, F. J. J. (1933). Wesen und sinn des spiels; das spielen des menschen und der tiere als erscheinungsform der lebenstriebe. Berlin: K. Wolff verlag.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind. New York: Basic Books.

Hoffmann, E. (Ed.). (1982). Friedrich Frobel: Kleine schriften und briefe. (Short texts and letters.) Stuttgart: Klett Cotta.

Hodgkin, R. A. (1985). Playing and exploring education through the discovery of order. London and New York: Methuen.

Huitzinga, J. (1950). Homo ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Boston: The Beacon Press.

Kantrowitz, B. (1993, June 30). Interview with Howard Gardner. Newsweek, pp. 48-49.

Lowenfeld, V. (1947). Creative and mental growth. New York: Macmillan.

Mead, G. H. (1974). In C. W. Morris (Ed.), Works of George Herbert Mead. Vol. 1. Mind, self, and society (pp. 153-161). Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sutton Smith, B. (1988). In search of the imagination. In K. Egan and D. Nadamer (Eds.), Imagination & education (p. 9). New York: Teachers College Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

RELATED ARTICLE: Call for Editor(s) and Contributors

The ACEI Publications Committee is seeking an editor(s) and contributors for a special publication that would address the concern that education methodology has not changed to reflect the changing realities of society. Often, education students are taught methodology that does not reflect the needs of the children that they will be teaching.

The publication should address how teachers can help:

* children who face violence every day in and out of school

* children who do not have an internalized sense of responsibility and/or motivation

* children who do not have external support structures (such as parents, caregivers, other traditional institutions) that would model the sense of responsibility and/or motivation

* children who lead transient lives

* children who join gangs.

The publication should examine ways to understand and appreciate these children and propose strategies that will help teachers help them. The editor would facilitate a dialog - finding teachers who would address these challenges from differing approaches. The Publications Committee has access to many scenarios that teachers would like to see addressed.

To proceed with Committee review, proposals should take the following format:

1. Rationale: Explain why the publication is important and timely. Relate the theme to current or emerging trends, developments and theory in the field.

2. Scope and Sequence: Provide an outline that clearly defines the text's development and goals.

3. Market Potential: To what audience is the publication directed? Describe the feasibility of other sales, such as specific courses or inservice sessions.

4. Comparative Analysis: Provide a brief discussion comparing and contrasting your book with a listing of similar or related published works. Particularly, how is your book different, better, more complete?

5. Manuscript Particulars: Establish and present a timeline for project completion. Base this timeline on book acceptance as a starting point. Indicate the approximate pages of text (typed, double-spaced); of graphics (figures, photos, illustrations); of appendices and bibliographies.

6. Sample Chapter: Enclose at least one completed chapter that is representative of your writing and organizational style.

7. Vita: Enclose a vita that particularly conveys through background, education, research and publications your expertise and qualifications for undertaking the described writing project.

Proposals (4 copies of items 1 through 7) should be sent to ACEI Headquarters. Please contact the ACEI Editor/Director of Publications if additional information is needed (800-423-3563).

Eva Balke is Professor Emeritus, Oslo College, Oslo, Norway. She is a former World President of the Organisation Mondiale pour L'Education Prescolaire (World Organization for Early Childhood Education [OMEP]), 1990-1993.
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Author:Balke, Eva
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 15, 1997
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