The Art of Play

This article is part of our Member Blog Series, which showcases Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative Members' efforts and commitment to ensure that play is a critical element in the lives of people of all ages. Each month, a different member organization will share their take on how play is a part of the work they do. The Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hopes that these stories of play from our diverse set of member organizations will encourage and inspire leaders in communities, businesses, schools, and families to prioritize play every day.

Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play. — Henri Matisse

Last Saturday, I spent the better part of an hour with a young 7th grade artist in The Art Connection (TAC), the longstanding program for children in grades 5-9 at Carnegie Museum of Art, trying to figure out how to best peel the outside layer off of a golf ball. (I had no idea it was pink inside! But, according to my young friend with obvious prior experience, not all are pink. “It depends on the brand,” he said casually). Pliers, a coping saw, a nail and hammer. Some mild success. I was totally engrossed. My new friend was working on his latest project, where students were challenged to transform a functional, everyday object into something extraordinary. Generous enough to include me in his process, this young student and I were engaged in experimental play — a familiar state for an artist. That’s how we do what we do, after all.  

At Carnegie Museum of Art, we understand the importance of play and how it serves the creative process. Every day, and in every educational program we facilitate, we surround ourselves with evidence of experimental play by spending time in front of objects in the collection; paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and installations, made by artists that have successfully pushed boundaries, come up with new and compelling ideas, and shown enormous ingenuity and persistence. Artists in our galleries play with new technologies, new identities, and new definitions of art. We share this spirit of playful curiosity with them, and we teach students with the objects they have created. TAC students spend a significant amount of time in the galleries looking and talking about real artworks and mining them, with the help of our teaching artists, for insights into their own creative process. TAC students see the artists in the galleries as play pioneers; those that have blazed a path ahead of them to show them the way.

The way we approach the relationship between play and artmaking at the museum is in line with the work of Dr. George Szekely — artist, retired professor of art education, and influential play guru. Szekely’s research led him to believe in the absolute necessity of play as the central creative force in children’s lives. Observing children at play, he noted what we have all witnessed; that playing children are naturally spontaneous, experimental, and unselfconscious; all imperative for high level creative thinking. He places importance on the authentic artwork children create as a byproduct of play; a child might draw stuffed animals as they categorize them, or create an installation out of dolls and toy cars as they act out a story. Play unveils great artistic vision. Children’s artwork is not “cute,” but is sincere artistic expression, and should be regarded as such. We must take their play and their ideas seriously.

Our responsibility to children in programs at the museum, like The Art Connection, is to show them creative possibilities through objects, and then let them define art for themselves through playful experimentation, just like contemporary artists are doing. Children, after all, are contemporary artists. Szekely says, in his book From Play to Art, “This, to me, is the goal of art teaching: to inspire children to behave like artists; to reveal to them that art comes from within themselves, not from the teacher.” This is exactly what was happening with my golf ball artist friend, and that is why peeling golf balls was of the utmost importance that Saturday. The best way to show children the artist within is to allow space for play to be part of the creative process, and to encourage them to pursue and take seriously their own unique ideas.