NAEA Monthly Mentor: Post 4

Planning for Play

In my first post, I proposed that given the structures of schooling, teachers have to work creatively and subversively to design curriculum that honors the artistic process. I have since described the importance of play and its suspicious absence in art education and want to provide some practical examples of how art educators might make overt plans for including play in our classes.

The National Visual Arts Standards directly identify play as essential in the generation and conceptualization of artistic ideas and work (Anchor Standard 1). Play is represented or suggested throughout the grade level standards, such as:

– VA:Cr1.1.K Engage in exploration and imaginative play with materials.
– VA:Cr1.1.1 Engage collaboratively in exploration and imaginative play with materials.
– VA:Cr1.1.7 Apply methods to overcome creative blocks.
– VA:Cr1.1.HSI Use multiple approaches to begin creative endeavors.

The standards can act as catalysts for lesson planning and assist teachers in defending the importance and value of such experiences, if necessary.

Teachers interested in designing opportunities for play might want to consider how to frame play as inquiry and facilitate a debrief that helps students articulate what they have learned through play. Selma Wasserman’s (1988) Play – Debrief – Play model is one approach to do this and can be applied to learners of all ages.

Consider how allowing students to play with a material might be an alternative to students passively observing a teacher demonstrate a material or technique. Students could have ten minutes to explore a material with a question such as “What can this material do?” or “What reasons might an artist choose to use this material rather than another?” and then report out what they learned.

Another suggestion is to plan a unit based on artistic behavior, such as “Artists play.” Focusing the class on an artistic behavior using artists and resources I’ve mentioned in previous posts makes play not just the vehicle of learning, but also the content to be studied. I appreciate Wasserman’s (1992) unabashed promotion of such a model:

Is it possible that serious play is, in fact, the primary vehicle in which learning occurs? If that is the case, might we consider serious play at all stages of a students’ learning, from kindergarten through graduate school? Given the present climate in education, such a proposal is tantamount to heresy. But what the heck? If you’re sailing on the Titanic, you might as well go first class. (p. 133)


Wassermann, S. (1988). Teaching strategies. Play-debrief-replay: An instructional model for science. Childhood Education. 64(4), 232-34.
Wasserman, S. (1992). Serious play in the classroom: How messing around can win you the Nobel prize. Childhood Education, 68(3), 133-139.


NAEA Monthly Mentor: Post 3

Why isn’t there more play in art classrooms?

To be frank, the structures of schools are based more on controlling students than on their learning.

The accountability movement present in public schools in the United States has resulted in standards and objectives that define what students will learn and be able to do. Moreover, teachers are required to quantify and measure that learning to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Learning objectives do more than define learning: they often end up controlling it.

Play has unpredictable outcomes and the learning is rich when those who are playing have control of the play. In the context of school, where so much “serious learning” must take place, play may be seen as a waste of time and materials.

When I watched children create on their own, they would oftentimes use what adults consider unnecessarily large quantities of paper, glue, tape, and staples…Yet, as a teacher my thinking shifted to thoughts of budget, conservation of materials, and what constituted a finished piece. How much of this thinking impacted the way I interacted with my students and therefore had an effect on what they created? For me, I believe it came down to an issue of control. I wanted to control the students’ access to materials and monitor their use. Once I started to shift my perspective and saw these control issues as my personal idiosyncrasies rather than necessary educational practices, a new world opened up that reverberated throughout every aspect of my teaching philosophies and methodologies.” (Rufo, 2011, p. 22)

Despite knowing the value of play, art educators’ reality of small budgets and large numbers of students (i.e., the structures of schooling) may cause us to control artmaking and in so doing, limit opportunities for play, choice, and creativity.

If art educators want to teach in a way that presents play as a foundational process for artmaking, they must be shrewd in order not to let the structures of schooling prevail. Sydney Walker wrote,

When art teachers include such artmaking practices as purposeful play…they communicate that artmaking is about searching for and discovering meaning…However, these practices do not occur spontaneously: they must be planned for as overtly as the more obvious aspects of artmaking instruction. (2001, p. 137)

In my next post, I’ll provide some practical examples of how we might make overt plans for including play in our classes.


Clemens, D. (2016, Aug. 31). Student learning outcomes and the decline of American education. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Retrieved from
Rufo, D. (2011). Allowing artistic agency in the elementary classroom. Art Education, 64(3), 18-23.
Walker, S. (2001). Teaching meaning in artmaking. Worcester, MA: Davis.

NAEA Monthly Mentor: Post 2

“Play is essential.”

At the time one of my classes was reading Eland’s School Art Style (1976), another class had just watched Cindy Foley’s TEDxColumbus talk, Teaching Art or Teaching to Think Like an Artist? in which she stated, “Play is essential. Play is a sure-fire way to kick-start ideation. Artists play. They play in a number of ways. They either play with materials until ideas begin to manifest or they play with ideas until they realize what media or materials they need to bring that into reality.”

Play is emergent, sometimes ambiguous, and in its best form, self-directed. In fact, during play, children often can’t answer what it is they are doing exactly. As an art educator, you likely have had experiences as a maker in which you have played with material without a specific goal in mind. Perhaps the sheer pleasure of manipulating material was the purpose.

Sometimes through manipulating material, as Cindy Foley suggests, ideas begin to manifest. An intention for an artwork may emerge slowly through play. To think more about play as an essential part of contemporary artists’ practice, I recommend Chapter 7 of Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Artmaking (2001) and Art:21’s episode Play (2003).

Play is an important part of artmaking and an important part of learning. So, it would make sense that play is then foundational in art education. However, play is noticeably absent from much of the art education that I observe within schools. Why? Stay tuned; I’ll provide my thoughts in the next post. Until then, what do you think?


Eland, A. (1976). School art style: A functional analysis. Studies in Art Education, 17(2), pp. 37-44.
Foley, C. (2014). Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist? TEDxColumbus. . Retrieved from
Sollins, S. (2003). Art:21 Season Three. Play. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from
Walker, S. (2001). Teaching meaning in artmaking. Worcester, MA: Davis.

NAEA Monthly Mentor: Post 1

Reflections on School Art Style: A Functional Analysis from Arthur Efland

One of the required readings in a class I teach is Arthur Eland’s (1976) School Art Style: A Functional Analysis. Every time I read this article I am challenged in a different way. I’ve decided to shape my writings this month based on the ways this article continues to challenge me as an art educator in order to promote some discussion and hopefully offer some provocations based in this important work.

In the article, Efland attempts to analyze the existence of the genre of “school art,” observing that the “game-like, conventional, ritualistic, and rule-governed style…doesn’t exist anywhere else except in schools” (p. 38). His analysis leads him to argue that school art is the result of the ways schools are designed to function. He famously concludes his analysis by proclaiming, “We have been trying to change school art when we should have been trying to change the school” (p. 43)!

When I read this article again in February, I was struck again by how the structure of schooling resists some of the processes that are foundational to artmaking. I am convinced that without art teachers who can work creatively and subversively to design curriculum that honors the artistic process, the functions and rules of schooling will continue to ensure the art activities in which students engage in school do not reflect contemporary art making practices of artists outside school.

I am not the first to suggest this. My students also read works by Tom Anderson & Melody Milbrant (1996), Smith (1989) and Olivia Gude(2013) that build on and challenge Efland’s work.

In my next post, I will specifically deal with play as an artistic process. I will identify artists that have used play in their work and the ways in which school structures and accountability measures often resist play. I look forward to your comments and input!


Anderson, T. & Milbrandt, M. (1998). Why and how to dump the school art style. Visual Arts Research, 24(1), 13-20.
Efland, A. (1976). School art style: A functional analysis. Studies in Art Education, 17(2), pp. 37-44.
Gude, O. (2013). New school art styles: The project of art education. Art Education, 66(1), 6
Smith, P. (1989). Reflections on “The school arts style.” Visual Arts Research, 15(1), 95-100.