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.