A Playful Experiment

Originally posted May 2014:

This past week I had the chance to attend one of SEEC’s seminars: Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments. During the two-day workshop, we explored the meaning of play and how to use it when teaching with objects. We began the seminar by defining play as a group. Some of the key words were: fun, tools, free thought, child directed, social, emotional, intellectual. To help us articulate the discussion, we also read Museum Superheroes: The Role of Play in Yong Children’s Lives by Pamela Krakowski, which distinguishes play as:

active engagement, intrinsic motivation, attention to process rather than the ends, nonliteral (symbolic behavior) and freedom from external rules.1

I reflected on these concepts and how they related to my own teaching. I wondered how I could incorporate more play into my practice, especially when I was in the museums. I decided to try out some new play strategies on a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art with a group of preschoolers.

E11183

Asher Brown Durand The Stranded Ship 1844 oil on canvas National Gallery of Art Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds 2003.71.1

My first playful endeavor was completely spontaneous. I began the discussion by asking the children to describe this painting by Asher Brown Durand. One  girl pointed toward the artwork and said:

The sun is always moving through the sky.

I took this opportunity to ask the rest of the class whether they had ever noticed the sun moving through the sky too. They immediately offered their own examples. At that moment, I decided we should play the Earth. I asked everyone to stand up and slowly turn their bodies. I grabbed a parent and had her stand in the center pretending to be the sun.  As we moved, I explained how it was actually the Earth’s rotation that made it look the sun was moving in the sky. This was a completely unexpected and child-initiated moment, which was great. I think it was the playful element though that really made the experience memorable. If I hadn’t asked the children to get up and pretend to be the Earth, they would have been less likely to understand and remember the concept of rotation. By having them participate in the experience the concept was made real, tangible.

Part of the seminar was inspired by our colleagues at Discovery Theater. This session was, as one would expect, more theater driven and honestly, really challenged me. As the class continued to describe the Durand painting, I added secondary questions to enliven the discussion. For example, when the ocean was observed, I asked them to show me with their bodies how the ocean was moving and then I asked them to make the sound of the waves.  The kids were happy to illustrate both for me so when it came time to talk about the clouds and wind, we added sound effects and movements again. These exercises captured the essence of the painting, encouraged different learning styles and made everything more fun.

photo 2 (3)As the last part of the object lesson, I laid out several objects and asked them to work together to recreate the painting. They needed no instruction, but went right to work, collaborating until the composition was complete. Was it exactly like the painting, no, but they had used these tools to create their OWN composition. They were quite proud and were completely engaged in the activity. I saw them looking back at the painting, rearranging objects and making their own decisions.

All in all, the visit felt playful and meaningful. I am continuing to think about how to make my lessons more playful and how play can be a tool for learning within the museum environment.  If you have any ideas, please share!!!!

1. Journal of Museum Education, Volume 37, number 1, Spring 2012, pp. 49-58.

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