Essay on Work & Play in Children
Essay written by Keara Trimmer documenting the play
"The Mystery of the Princesses" created by students in Kaiwa's Illustration & Storytelling class during 2015-2016.
Essay reflects on the value of play as the "work of children," as Maria Montessori writes, and how play and spontaneity can be incorporated into art education.
The Mystery of the Princesses:
Reuniting Work & Play - Eagerness and Joy in the World-Creating Work of Early Childhood
When we discuss the play of children, it should not be in opposition to work. After all, self-governed play is work where a child is in control of the character and direction of lived moments, engaging with materials, mental processes, and relationships from a state of being expectant of discovery and possibility. In early childhood, this is an everyday occurrence. Art reflects humankind’s impulse to imagine and create, to share personal experience and to interpret the world. In early childhood, children are confident, capable, and joyful creators, eager to work on artistic creations when guided by their will and choice. Work that has meaning and personal significance surrounds itself with a vigor that mirrors play. In fact, defined in this way it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. In this essay, I discuss the narrative of five and six year old children in Kaiwa Art & Play Space’s Illustration and Storytelling class. Together, the children improvised using a variety of media to produce a 45-minute play with a complex and compelling storyline, one that lasted several months. Drawing on various philosophers, educators, psychologists, and sociologists, I explore this example, contemplating the divide between work and play, both historically and in the present. Implications are made for an educational environment that fully embraces the energy present in early childhood to create art documenting our ephemeral worlds of the imagination.
Title: The Mystery of the Princesses: Helping Hands
A Play in Two Acts
The story told here was created as a collaborative effort by the students of Kaiwa Art & Play Space’s Illustration & Storytelling class over the course of several months. These 5 & 6 year olds created the characters, plot, sequencing, blocking, sets, costumes, and many of the props.
This script has been written down by Teacher Keara as faithfully as she could to the dialogue and actions of the characters as made up by the children, under Teacher Keara’s guidance.
Brynn Birder (6) playing…… Princess Periwinkle (nicknamed Princess Peri)
Carlie Birder (6) playing…… Queen Gilexa & Looly, Princess Starna’s neighbor
Keiko Jones (5) playing…… Princess Starna
River Lawrence (6) playing…… Block & Sir Dragonwing
Setting: Inside the nursery of the Good Kingdom.
(The toddler princesses are playing around on the floor of the nursery. Queen Gilexa enters.)
Queen Gilexa: Go to sleep sweeties.
(The children walk to their beds and fall asleep. Queen Gilexa picks up after them as her servant named Block studies a large book.)
Block: (mumbling) Just what I needed!
(Block puts down the book and pulls out a wand. He points it at the Queen as she is cleaning and she is enveloped in a large robe, which spins in the air and drops. As it lands, the Queen has disappeared. He picks up the robe and walks over to the sleeping princesses. He uses magic to put them under a spell so that they follow him out of the castle. They walk with him through a path in the woods. As they come to a fork in the woods, Princess Starna snaps out of the spell and tip toes away, finding an old cottage in the woods. Block creates a new castle with his magic and locks Princess Periwinkle in a tower.)
Setting: Inside Block’s castle, the forest around the castle, Princess Starna’s cottage, and Looly’s garden.
Narrator: 15 years later…
Block to Princess Periwinkle: Do your chores! (pointing his finger, then exiting)
Princess Periwinkle: (sighs). Okay. (washes dishes)
(Cuts to Princess Starna tidying up her cottage, humming and skipping about. Looly waters her garden.
Princess Starna: Hello Looly!
(Looly smiles and keeps watering her flowers.)
(Cuts to Princess Peri in the tower. She is sitting down looking through Block’s magic book, which she found in the castle. She feeds her mice cheese, and saves them from her pet sloth Bob who tries to jump on them. She looks up to see Sir Dragonwing at her door.)
Sir Dragonwing: Hello. (gruffly) Are you the princess from the Good Kingdom?
Princess P: Yes, I am Princess Periwinkle. And you were a knight in the Good Kingdom!
Sir Dragonwing: Yes. I have a key. I am going to help you escape.
(Sir Dragonwing unlocks the door and he jumps through the window. Princess Periwinkle is still packing her things in a suitcase, along with Block’s book. She jumps out too, but Sir Dragonwing is already gone. She runs through the forest just past the castle and collapses to the ground, crying. Meanwhile, Princess Starna is out picking berries. She comes upon Princess Periwinkle and stops)
Princess Starna: What’s up, friend?
Princess Periwinkle: Sir Dragonwing… I lost him! (She is holding a stuffed bear, still crying and lying on the ground.)
Princess Starna: What is that…? My mother gave my sister that bear when I was little. Are you my sister?
Princess Periwinkle: We must be sisters! Can I come live with you?
Princess Starna: Yes! I live in a cottage in the woods! Come with me!
(They walk together through the forest until they get to Looly’s garden, Princess Starna’s neighbor. Princess Starna says hello to Looly and introduces her sister.)
Princess Periwinkle: I’m Princess Periwinkle, Peri for short.
Looly: Hello! Would you like these flowers? (She hands Princess Periwinkle a plant with many small pink blossoms. Peri thanks her.) Would you like this white flower? (She extends a mysterious white flower to Princess Starna, who takes it with interest.)
Princess Starna: Thank you Looly!
(The two sisters walk into the small yellow wooden door of the bright pink cottage. She shows Princess Peri around and makes up a bed for her. They spend two weeks cooking and living in the cottage, catching up on the time that has past since they were toddlers. She goes to bed one night a little restless. Stage hand turns off the lights and shines a spotlight on Princess Periwinkle and across the room at Sir Dragonwing, where he has been hiding in the forest, who is also asleep.)
Narrator: That night, Princess Peri and Sir Dragonwing had a dream where they both saw the location of where each of them have been staying.
(They shoot up out of bed in the morning as the lights are turned back on. They both run out, and start to walk backwards, in case the other is already there. They bump into one another.)
Sir Dragonwing & Princess Periwinkle: (speaking at the same time) Who’s there?
(They tell one another what they have been up to the past two weeks).
Princess Periwinkle: Maybe you could come live at the cottage for now, too.
Sir Dragonwing: Okay.
(They walk up to the cottage and knock on the door. Princess Starna answers the door).
Princess Periwinkle: This is Sir Dragonwing, who I’ve been telling you about!
Princess Starna: Hello! Welcome!
Sir Dragonwing: Hello. So you are sisters?
(That evening, they start to look through Block’s magic book. Sir Dragonwing spots a picture of a King holding a wand.)
Sir Dragonwing: Wait a minute, this looks like that stick over there! (He points to a blue stick in the cottage. Princess Periwinkle picks it up. She looks at it carefully, turning it around)
Princess Periwinkle: Someone hand me a mirror. I think I see something on this!
(Princess Starna hands her a mirror)
Princess Periwinkle: (Starts mumbling) “In the meadow green, past the silver stream, a castle will rise, for the second time!” **Written by Teacher Keara**
Princess Starna: I think that was from the Good Kingdom!
(Just then, a map falls out of the book. The two princesses immediately grab it and start to look at it with wonder.)
Princess Starna: (at the same time) It’s GLOWING!
Princess Periwinkle: (at the same time) It’s GLOWING!
Princess Starna: Wait a minute… if we both see that it is glowing, maybe it’s because we’re sisters…
Princess Periwinkle: Maybe this is from our mother! (She starts to read the map). Past the crystal waterfall…
(Just then, Looly bursts in holding her Flower Fairies book.)
Looly: I was looking through my book last night and I found the white flower. It is magical!
Princess Starna: Huh? (Looking at the book) Maybe we can try it out! (She holds the flower like a wand and thrusts it forward. A large snowflake pops out and drifts down! She tries again, and it happens again.) Snow?!
Setting: The forest around the cottage and Block’s castle, Block’s castle
Narrator: Princess Peri, Princess Starna, and Sir Dragonwing set off into the forest first thing in the morning to follow the map.
(The trio walks from the cottage into the forest setting. They only travel a short ways when out from behind a tree a wand shoots out and blasts off Sir Dragonwing’s armor. Dazed, he stumbles back. The wand shoots out again and Sir Dragonwing falls to the ground. Out from behind the tree walks Block, who uses his magic to take the Princesses back to his castle. He locks them up in the tower.)
Princess Starna: Look! I brought the magic flower! (pulling the flower out from her pocket.)
Princess Periwinkle: I brought the magic book and the wand we found in your cottage! Let’s bring our powers together. The knights of this castle were from the Good Kingdom. I know they are still good! Let’s find a spell from this book to bring them back.
(The princesses look through the book and find a spell. They bring the flower and wand together and raise it up high. Cut to Block searching in the woods for Sir Dragonwing. He can’t find him and walks back to his castle. As he comes up to it, his archers start shooting at him. He dodges the arrows, then fights back with the power from his wand. It is too much, and the castle crumbles to the ground!)
Setting: The forest, The Good Kingdom
(The Princesses are running through the forest. They find Sir Dragonwing in the forest and are happy to reunite.)
(Cut to Queen Gilexa, still invisible in the Good Kingdom. She looks through her spyglass and spots her two children.)
Queen Gilexa: I see my babies!!
(The princesses reach the end of the map and raise up their wands. The Good Kingdom appears! Queen Gilexa rushes out to meet them and they all embrace.)
Setting: Inside the Good Kingdom
(Medieval music playing)
(The Princesses are getting ready for their coronation day. Princess Periwinkle sees Block looking in sheepishly from outside. She runs outside to confront him.)
Princess Periwinkle: (Pulling out her wand and pointing it towards Block, who cowers to the ground) What are you doing here? (Pointing her wand closer) Why did you do it? Why did you do all of THIS?? (She points her wand at him further)
Block: I wanted power! I felt small and weak as a servant. I am sorry for all I did.
Princess Periwinkle: I forgive you. Since you know magic, you could be the Court Magician.
Block: Really? Okay!
(Princess Periwinkle runs back to the castle. With medieval music playing, Princess Periwinkle and Princess Starna are crowned, to cheering from the audience with confetti thrown. Sir Dragonwing is made King and is given a regal robe. All the actors take a bow!)
The stories discussed in this essay took place at Kaiwa Art & Play Space, a small experimental art studio, play space, and gallery in downtown Santa Cruz, California, owned and operated by the author, Keara Connor. Kaiwa, which means conversation in Japanese, has weekly classes on diverse topics and media and studio times that are open to the public. The purpose of Kaiwa is to provide a space for children to create freely through play, conversation, and access to an extensive variety of quality art and building materials, along with other tools. These include:
Painting: various kinds of watercolor, oil paints, acrylic, tempera, gouache, encaustic, textile paints, canvases of various sizes
Dry Media: markers, various kinds of pastels, colored pencils, graphite pencils, charcoal, stamps, art papers of various sizes, etc.
Modeling Supplies: Air-dry clay, modeling clay, paper mache, mold-making supplies, armature wire, pottery wheel
Building Supplies: wood pieces, tubes of various sizes and kinds, an assortment of foam, plastic, cardboard, DC motors, lights, batteries, metal pieces and wire, springs, beads, etc. etc.
Programming & Robotics: Arduinos, Raspberry Pi computers, servo motors, & various sensors including infrared, ultrasonic, motion detection, etc.
Video & Music Production: HD camcorder, video projector, synthesizers and other audio equipment, professional software, guitar, ukulele, toy piano, karimba, percussion set, handbells, xylophone, etc.
Textiles & Fiber Arts: bins and bins of fabric, sewing machines, mannequins, silk painting equipment, fabric dyes & paints, wool roving in various colors, wet felting & needle felting supplies
Kaiwa is organized into seven free-flowing spaces, demarcated by different sections of brightly colored paints on the walls. There is an area for toys, mostly wooden and inspired by Waldorf; a living room area with musical instruments, comfy seating, cubbies, smocks, a gecko class pet, and a large magnetic chalkboard for teacher-written prompts and child play; a gallery for students to show their work; a “cozy nook” with stuffed animals, pillows, and a bookshelf; supply stations with bins, drawers, carts, baskets, and displays of materials; an inventor’s station with hot glue guns on a shelf and metal cabinets with batteries, wires, motors, LEDs, switches, gears, speakers, fans, and more; an open space with tables, chairs, and easels for creating; and last but not least the “back room,” where children are allowed to peruse an area with more supplies such as a wood pile, cardboard box collection, and various recycled materials. This is also where I store my sewing machines, computers, video and sound equipment, office supplies, and dozens of works in progress from the children. The students love the back room and especially love sharing its “secrets” with new children. Things are tightly organized and all of this currently occurs in less than 500 sq. ft.
Kaiwa is a place, but it is also a state of mind. I let the children know that anything is possible when entering the space. I work as a partner to the children to help them achieve their vision for projects, suggesting materials, asking questions, demonstrating the usage of new tools, and encouraging experimentation. When first arriving, children might be hesitant, first picking up a few toys to play with or playing on a musical instrument. Then, as comfort settles over them, they begin to explore the art and building materials and create a dazzling variety of artworks, textiles, inventions, and more. Children often call it “heaven” or like a “candyland.” Parents have a difficult time getting their children to leave. A child may paint a tree house village, an abstract design, or their favorite fruits, build a motorized car, design and sew a dress, throw a pot on a pottery wheel, build a pair of foam shoes, a mini diving board, a model house, a chair, a boat, or a spaceship, and on and on. At Kaiwa, I never know what will be born into the world by the end of the day!
PROBLEMS, STORYLINE, AND OBJECTIVES:
Keiko, age five, mixes oil paints in vivid colors, quickly and assuredly applying brush strokes onto a wood panel, overlapping colors and creating vibrant contrast. Pink and lilac strokes form a field of flowers in the upper left corner. A green corner in the bottom right lends the feeling of grass leading up to the garden. Pink, teal, and yellow lines create a garden gate and fence integrated into the scene, with yellow dots of daisies popping up above. This is “Looly’s” garden, the creation of the collective imagination of a group of five and six year olds who, together, created a 45-minute play in two acts. Its setting provided an anchor to a complex story that involved kidnapped princesses, castles, cottages, magic, mystery, friendship, greed, and forgiveness.
In this essay I explore the relationship between “work” and “play” in regards to children and their art-making, concepts that have traditionally been regarded as opposing activities and mental states. I present the narrative of children at play constructing the story of “The Mystery of the Princesses,” an original tale created as a collaboration between the children and myself. The storyline and characters were created by the children. As teacher, I asked the children questions to help expand their ideas and draw attention to possible connections within their storytelling, but mostly I listened and observed. This occurred from the beginning of November 2015 until the end of March 2016. The class started with three 5 & 6 year old children and eventually gained a fourth student. The children created the play through their collaborative improvisation, experimentation with a wide variety of art materials, and passionate ambitions. By “collaborative improvisation,” I refer to the act of generating a creative artifact in real time among a group of people who share the power to make decisions concerning the direction of the process. Their names were Brynn, Carlie, Keiko, and River. The children even detailed the type of snacks to be served at their performance and created handwritten tickets that they passed out to their families. This took place on Tuesday afternoons from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in Kaiwa Art & Play Space’s “Illustration & Storytelling” class.
Gregory Bateson, in his work Steps to an Ecology of Mind, writes, “Within the dream the dreamer is usually unaware that he is dreaming, and within “play” he must often be reminded that ‘This is play,’” (Bateson, 1972, p. 185). This was certainly the case with my Illustration & Storytelling students, often becoming absorbed in the act of improvising their stories. The eventual story progresses naturally with a quality of being stumbled upon rather than constructed by the actors. It took time to reveal itself with hard-earned insights, as though the writers/actors were themselves the characters discovering the path of the story as their characters did. It was not followed in a strictly logical progression with a detailed plan charted at the outset. We worked within certain parameters and had certain goals in mind, such as creating sets, costumes, props, and a story with a beginning, middle, and end. However, over the months spent in this world, the project formed mostly out of unplanned moments and following excitement, with artworks and creations ever increasing as evidence of how productive the children were through their spontaneity.
In a different context, what the children accomplished would be considered hard work. However, each class the children burst through the door, ready and eager to work on various aspects of their play, practicing scenes over and over as they improvised new storylines, painting large wooden sets, sewing costumes, sculpting in clay, and painting various artworks that were incorporated into the set. The children had near total freedom over the direction of the production of their play. If an adult walked into the room, they would have recognized children at play. It was often messy, with much laughter and an unrestrained movement of bodies. The children took great care to set up scenes, rearranging the room to match the vision of the parallel world that they were inhabiting. Together we crawled through small wooden doors and escaped dungeons by squeezing through an easel, used a bulky copy of Jansen’s History of Art as a “spell book,” turned fabric scraps into table cloths, cardboard tubes into gates, and made use of beads as berries picked in a forest.
Vygotsky’s belief that play contributes to cognitive development by providing the child with opportunities for discovering new things can be understood in tandem with Piaget’s belief in children at play enacting previously held knowledge (McLeod, 2014). The children drew from their previous knowledge and experience, but also learned many new things and generated a story together that had not existed before. Carl Jung (2015) writes, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves,” (p. 2183). The fact that we were working on a play was in itself play. Two of the students had participated in multiple theater productions in town, where play is strictly defined within a hierarchical structure. Actors are cast for roles, lines are provided to be memorized, costumes are given, blocking and movement is determined and rehearsed, etc. This leads to efficiency and professionalism in a production that seeks to draw an audience for entertainment. I believe these girls were entranced by the aesthetics of theater, and because of this experience, they wanted to take control of their own production. Each Tuesday, Kaiwa would become their space. I would begin each class by reading a children’s book, provoking the children to discuss the storytelling and how the illustrations help the reader understand and relate to the story. Illustration and bookmaking was also a treasured feature of the class throughout the year. They generally loved this time to relax after their long school days and enjoyed commenting on the stories and illustrations, but would always reach a point where one of them would say, “Okay, can we get started working on the play?” jumping up with urgency and slight annoyance. I would delight in this moment, then quickly remind them where they had left off last week and ask what they wanted to focus on today, making suggestions if necessary.
The evolution of the story is of course as interesting as the eventual tale we performed. When first starting out, the children were eager to come up with character names and some initial characteristics. The first names chosen were “Scooby,” by Brynn, and “Lily,” by Keiko, after a few seconds each of internal dialogue. After hearing Keiko’s chosen name, Carlie announced her own variant as “Looly.” Over the next month, “Scooby” would change to “PooPoo,” “Iridessa,” and then finally “Princess Periwinkle.” “Lily” would change to “Blue,” then “BlueBlue,” then finally “Princess Starna.” Carlie created the name “Queen Gilexa” in response to “Iridessa,” enjoying changing the sounds of her peers’ words to her own creation. In the first iteration of the story, Scooby is searching for friends around the countryside, but is too “short” to be accepted by others. Brynn brilliantly took a balloon I had blown up earlier and drew a face on it to illustrate the character of Scooby. She taped the tied end to a long piece of paper, on which she drew a body. She walked this creation around to show how he was “too short.” In this action she seemed to show a keen awareness of children’s and adults’ tendency to ostracize others for arbitrary traits. This is most likely due to her role as the “protector” of her twin sister, Carlie, who is a very small child for her age and has a sensory processing disorder, which leads to challenges in motor control, excessive energy, verbal outbursts, and at times difficulty with speech. She is also—and most importantly—a delightful, joyful, and hard-working child. Her father often described her involvement in this class as “the best therapy for her.”
Lily, then BlueBlue, was a character inspired by the Disney movie Frozen. She was a princess that would wander around the forest searching for the power “to freeze people, not just stuff,” in Keiko’s words. She also had no friends, which Keiko attributed to the fact that her powers isolated her from others. Looly was a gardener searching the beach for a crab she had become friends with and then lost. In the children’s vision for the story, they were all to meet and become friends as their individual searches came together. After a few weeks creating props and paintings for this story and practicing scenes, Brynn wanted to be a princess as well, and the story began to change. As Brynn and Keiko became better friends throughout the class, they decided to be “sisters.” Brynn’s biological sister Carlie then became two characters, their friend and interestingly, their mother the Queen. She seemed to relish this role as an older, nurturing character.
“The exceptional and special position of play is most tellingly illustrated by the fact that it loves to surround itself with an air of secrecy. Even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a ‘secret’ out of it,” (Huizinga, 1944, p. 12). The storytellers in my class refused to tell any significant details of their story to their parents for the entirety of the process, because they “wanted it to be a surprise.” This was done with glee and zealousness among the children. When their parents would drop them off, they would shout, “Now go!” so they could get on with their work in private. Each day when their parents would pick them up, they would sigh heavily while trying to “hide” things or shout again that they needed more time. Sometimes parents would then leave and return 10 minutes later. This was their world and their work. I felt privileged to inhabit it and help to shape it.
Brynn came up with the name “Block” for the “bad character.” Since there were no other actors available, at first I had to play the character of Block, at the children’s request. I felt very uncomfortable in this role, but obliged them. After River joined the class, I was relieved when he enthusiastically accepted the assignment without hesitation. He also wanted to be a knight, so we all worked into the story the character of Sir Dragonwing, which actually tied multiple elements of the story together in satisfying ways for the children. Interestingly, then, River played both a hero and villain, adorning a cloak to change into Block and dropping it inconspicuously to turn into the knight, wearing a silver material underneath for his armor. Brynn was thrilled a boy had joined the play so she could “get married in the end.” I think this was influenced by viewing any number of Disney princess movies where the final scene is a wedding. We brought River up to speed on the story as it stood, and he jumped right into the action. He helped create the set for the Bad Kingdom, drawing an archer on top of a tower. Brynn came up with the idea of finding a map that would lead the sisters back to the Good Kingdom, speaking in a voice as though she was far away from the classroom as she drew, naming “crystal waterfalls” and magical fields. Each week the class took on an air of solving a deeply important mystery. I was surprised and in awe when 5 year old Keiko came up with the title, “The Mystery of the Princesses” for the play. It is so simple and elegant, with a literary sound. When she told the other children, they became greatly excited and responded, “Yes!” savoring the revelatory moment.
One class, Brynn asked for my “biggest and heaviest book,” and I brought Jansen’s History of Art to her. She said it was perfect. She had looked through this book with me before and was entranced by the pictures of Greek and Egyptian sculptures, especially. It became Block’s magic book of spells that she found while trapped in the castle. When practicing one day with River, we flipped to a random page and there was an oil painting of a medieval scene with a King holding a rod for ceremonial purposes. This became part of the story, with Sir Dragonwing then saying that the “wand” looked familiar. A blue rhythm stick was poking out of a container of musical instruments close by. As though working as one, the children seemed to notice it at once. Brynn pulled it out and said she could see some “writing” on it. She asked for the mirror she had packed in her bag, because the writing appeared to be backwards. She squinted and looked closer, beginning to rhyme mostly made up words. After flipping through more pages in the book, they planned that the “map” Brynn had drawn would fall out. Brynn picked it up, unfolded it, and announced, “It’s glowing!” unexpectedly. The cadence in her voice and the spontaneity of her pronouncement caused us all to erupt into uproarious laughter. She was surprised and very pleased with this reaction, and repeated what she said a few more times. Keiko said she could see the glow as well. I became excited and said maybe they could both see the glow because they were sisters. I asked what then might that mean? They thought for a second before a look of excitement and revelation came over them. “It could have been from our mother!” Brynn exclaimed, bringing together a major thread of the story. Brynn had originally wanted Block to “kill” the sisters’ mother in the opening scene, leaving the girls as orphans. I think Brynn was inspired by the many movies and stories where one or both parents of the lead child hero dies. However, I told her this would make me very sad and that we could figure out another way. I suggested Block could make her “disappear,” and in this way she could later come back. We “staged” this event by having a sheet thrown up and spun around Queen Gilexa as she exited, and falling to the ground once she was gone. Brynn accepted this, and it later became a sweet way for the character to leave her daughters “clues” and help them at important points to return to her and restore the Good Kingdom. In honesty and reflection, I could also anticipate that this would be much more palatable for the parents! This was nearly the only form of “censorship” I imposed upon the children (the other instance was when Brynn wanted to “kiss Sir Dragonwing on the lips!”)
A few weeks after Brynn began practicing with her “big book,” Carlie excitedly came over with a book I have in my bookshelf called “Flower Fairies,” with beautifully illustrated fairies popping out of foliage connected to the four seasons. She announced to us that she had been looking through her “gardening book” and had found the white flower she had given Keiko towards the beginning of the play. She said, “The book says it is magical!” Since Carlie’s speech is sometimes difficult to understand, the clarity, coherence, and creativity of this statement brought immediate wonder and appreciation to us all. We thanked her and complimented her on this interesting idea and excellent manner of “revealing” the magic of the flower to Keiko. The flower has special significance. In the first iteration of the story, Keiko imagined that she would find the flower in the woods and it would give her the power to “freeze.” She first painted the flower in the forest setting. She also made the flower into a wand-like object by taking a stick she painted black and wrapping white lace ribbon around the top. She had the vision of “snow” coming out of the flower-wand when she would shake it. She had the idea to cut out paper snowflakes that she would hide up her sleeve and toss out during the performance. I thought this was very clever. It is very interesting to me that being in preschool, she must have recently learned how to create snowflakes in this manner and was able to translate that knowledge in a relevant and meaningful way into this situation. Later, when rehearsing the scene of Brynn meeting Looly in her garden after Keiko finds her crying in the forest, we decided that the magical flower could come from Looly’s garden. The girls decided that Looly would give the flower as a gift but would not know of its magic. When we then rehearsed Looly running up to Princess Starna with her book, Keiko was able to integrate the flower and snowflake sequence back into the story.
The day of their much anticipated performance brought to these children a firsthand understanding of the German word funktionslust, meaning “the pleasure of doing, of producing an effect, as distinct from the pleasure of attaining the effect or having something,” (Nachmanovitch, year, p. 45). Montessori writes of the child, “He despises everything already attained, and yearns for that which is still to be sought for,” (Montessori, p. 356). Whereas the extended dream and imagining of the play had brought joy and unstoppable energy, the perplexed adult audience and finality of the performance brought haze, weariness, and fear. Before the performance, when the students admitted they were a little scared, I tried to assuage them (and myself) by saying things like “just have fun with it, this is your play, you’ve got it,” etc. etc. The secrecy with which the children had kept the story in made it quite difficult for the parents to understand what was happening over the first few scenes, understandably. The children forgot the lines of dialogue that had come to them so effortlessly during our practices. After a few minutes, feeling the tension, Brynn began “improvising” a speech that could be described as scatological. Reading her hand-drawn map during the performance, a subtly devious look came over her as she announced, “And here, we have to go past the poopy fields,” to great laughter from her co-actors, which encouraged her to go on in greater detail. I was happy to see the children laughing and let Brynn enjoy her improvisation for as long as seemed acceptable. However, I looked over at the parents to see faces of stone. Laughing uncomfortably, I then tried to move the actors along and explained that we had not rehearsed this. Brynn seemed incredulous at the adults’ lack of humor, explaining her thought process by recounting a memory of seeing port-o-potties lined up in a field and thinking this was hilarious.
As a father looked down at his phone during the performance, the canny children saw and broke character to reprimand him. “Get off your phone!” They shouted over and over. Carlie, delighted by the energy and outburst by the others, began screaming it in repetition. The parents sat uncomfortably, covering the room with thick adult tension, contrasted by the expression of child power which appeared to mask the children’s rising disappointment. My own fear of conflict arose. I tried to calm the children and make light of the situation, while moving them along with their scene in the play. The children half-way through asked to take a break. They gulped down apple juice and ate popcorn. Five year old Keiko commented that she was “exhausted.” During the creation of the play throughout the previous months, she had boundless energy, a sign of having fun and “playing.” If that was recognizable as “play,” this was “work.” While a performance was always the verbalized end goal of the children, their work was really for themselves. It seemed to lose its meaning and power when “performed” for others who had not experienced the details of their journey with the play up to that moment.
As a 3 year old child, I was blissfully unaware as I “ruined” the performance of my ballet class, much to the chagrin of my teacher. As we walked together on hands and feet in a close circle, I caused a crash and pile up of little ballet bodies after spotting a sequin on the studio floor. As I stopped abruptly to pick it up and claim my treasure, those behind me fell into one another. The video I am glad my parents took shows my apparent lack of awareness over what I caused, as I got back up and kept going. I actually remember the wonder and magic of spotting the sequin, and do not remember the collision. My teacher would remember the collision, at least for a number of years. As the teacher now, it is hard not to remember during the performance of “The Mystery of the Princesses” our uncomfortable “adultness” in the presence of child unpredictability. Each child had internal experiences during this time I will never know, and I am happy for each moment of joy they experienced, especially in the moments unplanned. Nearing the end, in a moment of inspiration Brynn unexpectedly grabbed crinkle cut paper she saw sticking out of a pillow a girl had made months before that was lying in Kaiwa’s “cozy nook.” She pulled and pulled and ran to the parents to tell them they were to throw it out during the princesses’ coronation. I am glad I did not stop her.
Following the children’s ambitions, we had laid out before us a gargantuan task. The play was around 45 minutes or longer, a far cry from the 5-10 minute productions I was accustomed to children creating and performing in my past classes. The entire play from start to finish had only fully crystallized the week before the performance was set to take place. During the opening of the performance, I tried to set the tone by saying that this experience was about the process of how they created the play together, about how much fun they had and how hard they had worked, and about their passion. I said how proud I was of the children for creating this play and the story together. I also said that the story had only just come together and asked that the parents be open to “whatever happens.” From now on I will also always start an announcement of this kind by reminding the audience to support the young children, to smile at them and cheer them on as they face the inevitable anxieties of performance.
After their break, the children gained a jolt of energy and seemed more comfortable with performing. Based on their body language and verbal cues, the parents seemed to be engaging more with the story, beginning to string the pieces together and appreciate the story their children were crafting. They were “wowed” by the final climactic scene where Block’s archers betray him and shoot at him from his castle. As Block retaliated with magic from his wand, he sent his whole castle crumbling to the ground.
It was a surreally beautiful moment when the scene then cut to the other side of the room as Queen Gilexa is seen again by the audience for the first time, still “invisible.” We see her, and she peers out through her “looking glass.” She then says, “I see my babies!” The others are on the final part of their journey following the map. Carlie came up with this whole scene herself and I was amazed. During the performance, the parents in the audience melted at her yearning portrayal of the long-waiting mother. Brynn then used the magic wand her mother had planted for her in the cottage to restore the Good Kingdom. I then turned on “happy sounding” Medieval music and the children enacted their “coronation.” I crowned them with the clay crowns they created as the parents threw the crinkle paper up into the air. It was a triumphant ending.
After the performance was over, I had the feeling that somehow the work these children had done so fervently over the period of the class had not been fully honored. I spent the next week, a week off for Spring Break, creating a 40+ page hardcover book for each child that documented their process and wrote out their script word for word as they had spoken and enacted it so many times before. This work was pure joy for me. I want these children to pull down this book from the shelf, years from now, and marvel at their passion and dedication to “The Mystery of the Princesses.”
Huizinga (1944), in his definitive text Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, defines play as “a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life,’” (p. 28). Literature on play in the 21st century, however, has evolved to understand play as a “way of being in the world,” that is “pleasurable” but “not necessarily fun,” as Miguel Sicart states in Play Matters (Sicart, 2014, p. 3). In this understanding play is not ambiguously separated from a more real world of not-play. Contrary to Huizinga’s understanding, play is then a conscious choice by an individual to imbue any activity with “playful thinking,” transforming daily life into play at will. Thus, play thought of in this way is not within “fixed limits of time and place,” its rules are not “absolutely binding,” it might not have an “aim in itself,” and might not be “‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’”
Gray (2008) makes an important point that play can be understood in degrees, such as 0-100% play. I believe this is especially important when regarding play in the classroom context, where some level of adult direction and control is always present, limiting the potential for children to engage in unrestrained play. Most would agree the teacher should be cognizant of the emotional well-being of students, fostering a fair and equitable environment, without being overbearing. This will sometimes lead to limits on play for the sake of social learning and safety, such as stopping a child who thinks it is playful to physically or verbally hurt another child. As well, children might not be engaged in “100%” play in the classroom because there is an expectation of certain educational goals being met, providing a focus that purely child-initiated play might not take on.
At the right hand of play, is work. Adler (1952) writes, “Work seems to have several different meanings. It always involves activity or exertion. Its clearest opposite is sleep. But other things are also opposed to work - play or amusement, leisure, idleness.” Aristotle writes, “Leisure is better than work and is its end.” However, for leisure to manifest, labor to sustain a life must first be accomplished. Adler goes on to write, however, “When leisure is not identified by idleness, however, it involves activity no less than work. So, too, many of the forms of play require intense exertion of body or mind. The difference, therefore, must lie in the nature or purpose of the activity,” (p. 922). What is the purpose of work as opposed to play? Who and what forces make this determination? It is certainly both a cultural and personal distinction. Paley (2004) writes of her first observations of an early childhood classroom, “In time we discovered that play was indeed work.”
Adam Smith ties the work of the arts, along with servicemen, to “unproductive labor.” “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician, the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.” It, like the fantasy play of children, is ephemeral, but no less important. Postmodern art values the ephemeral, with performance art, impermanent site-specific art, and installation art considered equal to physical objects meant to endure. In art education, more educators value the intangibles of the “process,” over a “product.”
Huizinga writes, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing,” (p. 1). Play is an ancient and mysterious quality of living creatures. In a rational world view, it seems to have no purpose. “We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational, (p. 4). He describes a variety of theories from his contemporaries attempting to “define the biological function of play,” from a release of excess energy, an instinct to imitate, to a “training” for young animals to learn vital skills necessary for survival in adult life. All of these theories, however, “start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose,” (p. 2). Huizinga proposes that play serves a function unto itself, having no physiological value. Despite this, he proposes that it is a significant feature of all humanity.
What value does play have, then? Brown (2010) asserts that play is as vital to human health as breathing. Play is “the vital essence of life,” (Brown, p. 12). “I sometimes compare play to oxygen. It is all around us, but often goes unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing,” (Brown, p. 6). Play heightens experience, improvising possibilities for different ways of being and creating. It is inherently generative, even while following established rules of conduct. Piaget (1950) writes, “Play is the answer to the question: how does anything new come about?” Researchers consistently have found that play is one of the most intrinsic and beneficial manners of learning in children (Barnett, 1992; Diamond et al, 1964; Fisher, 1990; Lewis et al 2000; Pellegrini and Holmes, 2006; Stevenson and Lee, 1990; Pepler and Ross, 1981; Sutherland and Friedman, 2012; Wyver and Spence, 1999; Walker and Gopnik, 2013; Buchsbaum et al, 2012; Wolfgang, Stannard, & Jones, 2001). Diamond, et al (1964), in a significant study that demonstrated the brain’s plasticity, found that play improved the memory and increased the cerebral cortex of rats. “Pretend play,” especially, improves the development of language skills, divergent problem solving, self-regulation, and increases the ability to cope with “real-life” difficulties (Dewar, 2014; Sutherland and Friedman; 2012). Gregory Bateson discusses “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” in his work “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” He posits that play was an essential evolutionary step towards the development of language. He writes, “It appears from what is said above that play is a phenomenon in which the actions of ‘play’ are related to, or denote, other actions of ‘not play.’ We therefore meet in play with an instance of signals standing for other events, and it appears, therefore, that the evolution of play may have been an important step in the evolution of communication” (Bateson, p. 181).
Play is joyful, but it is also psychologically complex, often teetering between the heights of bliss and the tension of being in relationship. We all have a complexity of needs and desires expressed or veiled. In play that is not done alone, these come intimately in contact with one another. After a period of effortless and energizing play, one child might stop playing with a sudden moment of sadness, exhaustion, or some other emotion. Unkind words might be spoken towards another, or too much physical contact exchanged, interrupting the feeling of play. On a societal level, human culture is also infinitely varied. In the West’s pluralistic societies, an individual might have many intersecting identities, representing value systems which nest in varying degrees of importance and significance within a person’s life. While play precedes culture and is enjoyed universally, it encounters differing treatment, placement, and value within cultures. Some cultures sanction play through ritual traditions or day to day interaction. Some play is independent of children. Some necessitates involvement by children.
What does play mean in the context of art creation? The process of creating art, especially for young children, seems to correspond directly with Huizinga’s definition of play. Brent Wilson (1974) writes,
“The spontaneous art of young people is play par excellence. It is certainly one of the most flexible, potentially complex, and involving of all types of play. Play art can develop virtually anywhere, on sand and walls, on the street, and in study hall. (More novel art may be motivated by the boredom of secondary school study halls than through the carefully orchestrated "motivations" of art teachers.) It takes only a stub of a pencil and scraps of paper to make worlds without end (and destroy them), create man in any image (idealized, disfigured, mutilated metamorphosized), realize dreams (day or otherwise), and possess what one wishes (at least for a time)-all for the price of a pencil,” (p. 4).
The child creating art in a free manner is a form of play, where the creator exercises a dual role: consciously “willing” a thing into existence, yet also standing witness to new ideas and forms taking shape independent of will and intention. What is witnessed can later be incorporated into the will, but often is first a matter of recognizing the patterns of chance, and imposing meaning relevant to the creator and his or her desires. “All play means something,” Huizinga writes (p. 1), and this meaning is personal. The shape and direction of time spent in play is unique and dependent on the personal experiences and spirit of the actors directing the play. Akin to Koestler’s (1964) concept of bisociation as the chance intersection of two unrelated “planes” of the creator’s subjective experience, children at play do not occupy one dimension with predictable trajectories or solutions. Rather, children float between the trajectories of spoken and enacted realities, their mental leaping overlapping one another’s like beams of light of varying intensities. The children in Kaiwa’s Illustration & Storytelling class exhibited communal bisociation wherein one creator/actor would push the storytelling further through a gesture, a sudden pronouncement, or interaction with the physical environment, which in turn would be picked up and expanded by another student. One student’s words would spark a new avenue of thought in another as their experiences and the idiosyncrasies of their thought processes collided. Doors leading to possible expansion of the story would open only to be redirected by the excitement and insight of another student, closing permanently or waiting to be entered into at a later time if found relevant, now in the collective consciousness of the co-creators. Mostly, the play happened in real time, without meta-awareness of the act of creating a storyline. I interjected frequently, however, to comment on the directions the children were taking the story and to draw connections with previous plot points the children had explored. Mostly, I stood witness to document their experience and help with scene changes, “special effects,” and narration. I listened to the children as they described their vision and frequently suggested art materials and techniques for creating props, scenes, and costumes. I thought of myself as a partner to the children and told them as such. “Together with brushes and paint and water we entered a timeless zone of play where lines of ascent and descent worked together in harmony,” (Davies, 2014, p. 64).
A child engaging with art materials within play often has the quality of convenience. Of equal importance to the sum of experience within a mind/body is the visible reach of materials that converse with the mind/body in mysterious ways. The child finds the thing that is nearest at hand which will help bring what is inside him or herself out into the realm of observation and interpretation by others. In a specially prepared environment with a variety of materials and tools available to the child, this takes on a thrill to watch as the child makes sudden choices that influence the direction of the art-making. A pizza box is painted with bright colors and adorned with symmetrically-lined gemstones to become a “portal” found under the “floorboards” (pillows) to transport the children to the future. Tissue paper is found in a bin and fashioned into a billowing costume and braided wig. Tile samples, pieces of metal, and wooden beads become a swiveling, working toy train car. Paintings on wood and canvas form a garden scene. Clay becomes a crown and a soup bowl, cardboard and tubes a table. Hands and eyes rummage through materials, couple with the mind, and ideas are sparked that lead to connections drawn between the forms of materials, generating new meaning through their combination.
In my Illustration & Storytelling class, the children produced a wide variety of art using diverse media. One day Brynn said she wanted to create a princess crown out of clay for her character’s coronation at the end of the play. I helped her by saying she could start with a flat strip of clay that we would then wrap around and join together in a loop. In the concept of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, a teacher can introduce novel ideas that open up possibilities for new understanding within children (McLeod, 2014). She got to work straight away, rolling out the clay in a strip, then attaching three triangular peaks in the middle, carving diamond shapes inside the peaks. She then painted the base gold and the jewels her three favorite colors - pink, purple, and teal. Then, she taught the others her technique. The children designed and created their own costumes. Brynn fashioned a beautiful dress from a large piece of muslin fabric, based on a design she drew beforehand in markers. She, with Keiko joining in, painted on the large fabric with liquid watercolors and tempera to look like “sunset colors.” The next week, Carlie painted her own “sunset” on her Queen’s cape. Keiko designed, cut, and sewed her costume on a sewing machine, a simple green a-line dress with a pink ribbon tied around the waist. Keiko created at least a dozen paintings for the play, mostly depicting “Looly’s garden.” One of these was a beautiful still life of pink flowers I brought in during early Spring. Carlie created a large watercolor flower on an industrial coffee filter and many more paintings of her garden. Keiko also painted a “forgotten family symbol,” that the sisters discover in the woods, a clue leading to their identity.
The children painted on large pieces of wood, designing Keiko’s cottage and both the Good and Bad Kingdoms. The cottage became the “cottage of many windows.” They started by drawing on a few windows with paint sticks in the usual locations on the left and right of the board, with a curved door in the bottom middle. Then, they kept going as they began to paint window over window in a rainbow of colors, until the windows of all shapes and sizes covered nearly the whole board, laughing as they went. After a few moments, Keiko looked down and seemed to regret this spontaneous, frenzied drawing. She said boldly, “I don’t think this looks good.” Brynn, however, loved it. It was interesting to witness their differing aesthetics. Keiko thought the cottage looked too “messy,” while Brynn thought it was wacky and fun. A few weeks later, Keiko painted over the cottage with pink tempera paint, leaving the traces of the windows underneath. She painted the door yellow. To create a more interactive and realistic set, I followed their drawings to saw out pieces and outlines of the set structures, sawing out two windows and the little cottage door. I also carefully sawed out the outline of the castle, including a little archer on the top of the tower. The children were very excited to play with these constructions. One of the girls’ favorite classes, I think, was when they painted the backdrop to the forest on a large roll of paper laid on the floor. They started painting with brushes, then handprints, then began to paint their feet and dance around on the paper with a murky green trailing them, a mixture of green and brown paint. They laughed and relished in the sensory experience of the slippery wet paint. Every piece of art made, every painting was “for the play” and accumulated over time in a large section of my storage area. It was tremendous to see it all together for the final performance.
Maria Montessori, Italian founder of the Montessori method of education, describes the absorption of concentration which accompanies a child “liberalized” within a “prepared environment,” where he or she may engage in the activity of his or her choice, under the approval of the “directress,” (Standing, 1962). This absorption is “spontaneous” and guided by the child’s interest. The concept of flow, as described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is very similar to Montessori’s description of the ideal state of the child in her method. In flow, a person becomes fully immersed and joyful within an activity when his or her high skill level in a task is matched by an appropriately high level of challenge (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). In the Montessori method, a child must first learn how to use any tool before being allowed to work with it independently. The teacher should not “abandon” the child to learn solely by autonomous experience. Once versed in the correct use of tools and materials and able to enter into periods of intense concentration within work, a teacher should not interrupt the child. I understand this directive to teach children proper use of tools, especially in the case of learning sewing, electronics, ceramics, and many other traditions and tools for creating. However, I believe the teacher should allow the children to experiment during this process to discover new ways of using tools and interacting with media. I also believe the teacher and student can remain in conversation with one another. The children in my class, for example, learned many new skills, such as pattern making and sewing on a sewing machine, but also were in control of the design process for their projects.
Montessori describes this concentration of activity as joy in “work,” not play. “I have to defend myself,” says Montessori, “against those who say that my method is a play-method,” (Standing, 1962, p. 175). This is very interesting to me. Why is Montessori so adamant that children in her method are not “playing?” What is her distinction between “play” and “work?” Certainly work can involve play, but mostly it does not. “Work” is “Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result,” (Oxford American College Dictionary). Play very often involves great physical or mental effort, but not always involves a purpose or end-goal. It could be said play within the classroom setting always involves some “work,” a task to be completed and assessment of one sort or another, even when the child chooses his or her task. It seems to me that use of the term “play” in the classroom, separate from “work,” leads to a degree of confusion. The children in my Illustration & Storytelling class certainly played throughout each class, but they also worked very hard, with an end goal in mind. “Play” is defined by the Oxford American College Dictionary as when someone “engage(s) in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” According to this definition, play is detached from work, with a person’s exertion of activity not leading to a “practical” end. I do not believe life is lived in such strict, binary terms, however. Gregory Bateson writes, “The discrimination between ‘play’ and ‘not play,’ like the discrimination between fantasy and non fantasy, is certainly a function of secondary process, or ‘ego,’” (Bateson, 1972). This would imply we define what is “play” and “not play” through our intention and interpretation of actions in a given moment, subject to change at will. It is a tenuous and unstable distinction. It is important also to define play in this way: subject to the attitude, the mental state, of the being in play. It is inherently subjective.
Perhaps the antagonism between work and play has arisen out of the division of labor found within advanced capitalism and bureaucratic systems. Richard Turner (1982) discusses the distinction between work and play in his book “From Ritual to Theatre.” He writes, “Perhaps it would be better to regard the distinction between “work” and “play” [...] as itself an artifact of the Industrial Revolution…” (p. 32). Work in the adult sense is something tied to production, productivity, and accumulation of capital and does not often arise from freedom and end with personal fulfillment. W.H. Auden, an esteemed poet of the 20th century, wrote about the distinction between work, labor, and play in an essay titled “Work, Labor, and Play,” (Auden, 1970). He writes, “Between labor and play stands work.” “I am a worker if what I do is, like play, something I enjoy doing for its own sake because it is in accord with my interests and talents, but, like labour, is of importance to others, so that I can earn my living by doing what I enjoy doing.”
In previous eras, many people worked for themselves, with great personal control over their work and a more leisurely pace of life. Strauss (2016), in her article “Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad?” for The Atlantic, comments on Gary Cross’s 1990 book A Social History of Leisure Since 1600. He describes the lifestyle of farmers in the U.S. before the 19th century. Work and play was intermixed within their daily lives, switching “fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends,” (Strauss, 2016). This is attributed to there being “no managers or overseers.” Turner (1982) writes, “Work of this kind had a natural rhythm to it, punctuated by rests, songs, games, and ceremonies,” (p. 35.) During the Industrial Revolution, however, a transition began of work from farms to factories. Who were once “farmers” were now “employees.” Strauss writes, “Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play.” Peter Gray says, “We teach children a distinction between play and work. Work is something that you don’t want to do but you have to do,” (Strauss, 2016). Strauss writes of Gray, “He says this training, which starts in school, eventually ‘drills the play’ out of many children, who grow up to be adults who are aimless when presented with free time.”
Montessori states that “Play is the work of the child,” which blurs their distinction. A more holistic approach to education, valuing the freedom of the individual, as in the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods, brings joy to the child through learning and creating on his or her own time and through his or her intrinsic interests. This more closely aligns to the experiences of children at Kaiwa, who are remarkably industrious and sometimes surprisingly serious as they create. However, students repeatedly remark how “fun” it is, even when work demanding persistence and a degree of tediousness is involved. Is this then “play?” Perhaps another term is needed for this kind of enjoyment in creating and pushing one’s boundaries through creative work, conversation, and storytelling, interweaving play and work. There can be an integration of the spirit of play with purposeful creation.
Elkind (2001) provides a critique of Montessori’s “identification of work and play.” He writes that “Montessori saw little value in children’s play unless it was put to some practical purpose. She suggested, for example, that children might put their imaginations to better use by fantasizing about real foreign countries rather than about fairy tale kingdoms.” (Elkind, p. 27). He writes that “play is not the child’s work, nor is work child’s play.” However, I think Elkind is missing an important thesis of Montessori’s writing, that children’s spontaneous activity, such as stacking blocks and tumbling them down, over and over, is work that comes naturally to the child through his or her own desire for “self-development” (Montessori, 1964, p. 356). There is joy in this work. The child does not perceive it as “work” in the adult sense. Montessori discusses the dignity of work as a fundamental human right. Standing writes, “First then, the child creates by repetition a faculty inside himself; and then he creates something with it, outside himself. This is an experience which gives him a new kind of joy, the conscious joy of the creator,” (Standing, p. 151).
Brown (2010) says, “We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play,” by means of “millions of years of evolution,” (Brown, p. 13) Hunter-gatherer societies do not consider what they do for subsistence work. Daniel Everett, an anthropologist at Bentley University in Massachusetts who studies the Piraha group of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, says, “They think of it as fun. They don’t have a concept of work the way we do.” Strauss (2016) writes, “While many may consider work a staple of human life, work as it exists today is a relatively new invention in the course of thousands of years of human culture,” (Strauss, 2016). Many if not most young children will draw pictures or paint for hours if given the opportunity, or build elaborate structures, or play physically strenuous games. There is nothing in the definition of work that implies it must be unenjoyable. Therefore, especially for the child, the demarcation between work and play might not have meaning. For the child, who belongs to a life of ritual and myth-making, “symbolic-expressive genres [such] as ritual and myth [are] at once work and play or at least as cultural activities in which work and play are intricately inter-calibrated,” (Turner, 1982, p. 32). Elkind seems to equate work then only with what is demanded of the child from external sources, not his or her self-directed activity. Unstructured and agenda-free play in the lives of children is undoubtedly essential for healthy development and should never be wholly substituted with adult-directed learning experiences. This would be oppressive to the child and foster dependency. However, a balance can be struck that honors children’s independent play while including room for a partnership with adults. This relationship can be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. As Bronwyn Davies (2014) writes, “Together we listened to each other, as we became emergent-artists-together, open to being affected by each other and to what we might create,” (p. 63).
I believe the uninhibited spirit of play can be encouraged and normalized within the “work” of a classroom setting. The unpredictability of play can be embraced. I provide the narrative of the children in my Illustration & Storytelling class to bring to life a scenario in which this is possible.
Kaiwa is a unique informal educational environment with after school, homeschool, and toddler classes, and studio times open to the public. While Kaiwa’s goals for students largely mirror those of school environments, such as growing curiosity, experimentation, creativity, collaboration, interdisciplinary understanding, confidence, perseverance, etc., it is quite different from a traditional school environment. Classes are small in size, leading to greater individualized attention. There are also no grades or assessments. Attendance is entirely voluntary and can be withdrawn at any time. Children and parents have to want to participate and find value in what is offered. For more formal educational environments with larger class sizes, how is spontaneous, unpredictable play integrated into daily routines when “order” is often considered of foremost importance? How is play honored as the most important work of the children? How can teachers become partners to the children, engaging in meaningful conversations to help children explore their ideas in ways that enrich their experience? Through my experience at Kaiwa, classes can be run in the state of a spontaneous “becoming,” as Davies describes.
What do children gain by creating a play from scratch, as described in this essay? Through fantasy play, children try on different roles, their speech taking on different cadences as they explore the realities of others glimpsed but not fully understood. Through this process, they do not have to be told to “do art” at a prescribed time. As the landscapes in their mind open and mutate in response to what their playmates share, the desire to better generate what is inside them grows. They pick up a crayon, or paint, or clay. They shape the thing as a mirror of their thought-forms. In early childhood, the critical voice, informed by cultural values, has usually not arisen yet and they are free to experiment and play with the manipulation of materials without judgement. They learn contrast, value, shape, form, texture, color, and space through creating worlds of their own. They become powerful. They learn that art is their own; creating is a thing that their hands can do, informed by their own thoughts, in conversation with the ideas of others. It does not need to come pre-formed as a designated classroom activity. Work, play, and art become synonymous. The children take charge of their own work through play. They create new worlds for ideas to flourish, informing their character for a lifetime. Bronwyn Davies writes, “Through listening to children I want to make visible, within the everyday, the extraordinary capacities children have, and the emergent, the creative, the intra-active encounters they engage in as they do the ongoing work of bringing themselves and their community into being,” (p. 15). As Montessori discussed a hundred years before, this work is taken on by the child from birth as their right to begin a lifelong quest for understanding of what it means to be embodied in an ever-changing world of the material and the whispers of the non-material. Imagining a world where we can choose to design our own work as play, it is easy to see how children embody this pre-distinction before work becomes something we must but do not desire to do. The energy with which children pursue their work is inspiring and contagious. The easiest way to design a classroom that engages and excites children to learn is to let their play lead. Through the creation of “The Mystery of the Princesses,” the children’s work and play were one in the same.
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