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Art and Play and School

In placing my experiences of growing up in context I seem to have decided in retrospect that my experience of school was not comfortable. But memory is fickle; I expect that I was happier than I remember. Or perhaps just indifferent rather than actually unhappy. My memory is that I was uncomfortable; in my tightly laced shoes, in my school uniform, in myself, in my performance, with my peers and with adults. I was happiest as a child when not in school, when I was able to explore with freedom, on my own; left to discover for myself, when I was able to retreat into the world of my own imagination, act out my imaginings in play, construct and deconstruct. I was happiest as a child when playing on my own, or in a more organised way with friends or family. Ironic that I should choose a teaching career and spend my working life in school, although I do believe that I can make a difference to the school experience of others.

In my teaching I continue to play as a child. I have been lucky in finding a teaching post that allows me that freedom to play, and to learn as I teach. This is also perhaps a reason for my interest in the realm of digital media, where change is rapid and little is concrete. My students teach me as I teach them, and together we play with the medium as it develops.

It was easy and enjoyable writing about my own experiences of childhood, schooling and play. We are all drawn to mirrors; this mirror reflecting glimpses of my past. School and play are universal experiences; we are all experts on our own childhoods and our own education. We all know what play is, we all play; play is fun, excitement, laughter, time off, friendship, time out of time. Play is curiosity, exploration, experimentation, learning, finding out. Play is labile, inconsequential, flexible, imaginative, improvised and full of frivolity. We also know what school is; a majority of children experience school. Generally school is the opposite of much of the above (especially in the upper years) and generally not to be described as fun; school is serious, disciplined, regimented, highly structured, often boring, and work time, not play time. The roots of this product orientated factory school system lie deep in the West’s industrial and military past. Although the likes of Steiner, Montessori and A.S.Neil developed alternative models, factory school remains the majority experience. ‘Learning’ is separated, labelled and institutionalised.

If the words play and school are combined, then the connotation is not an ernest, serious educational establishment, but rather the kindergarden for pre-school children. I wonder why play should be outside school - other than school; why older children are banished from the garden? I still play, and I still learn through play, indeed, much of the time I term my learning activities as playing, but it seems that play, in Western society at least, is denigrated as childish, unimportant: ‘children play but adults only recreate... play is said to be important for children’s growth but is merely a diversion for adults’. 1

I am not advocating childish behaviour, or befriending students as equals, this would be foolish; I am an adult and a teacher. But I can perhaps bring something of the essence of play energy into my classroom, elements of improvisation, chance taking, perhaps even risky play; sessions unhindered by rigid lesson plans, schemes of work, aims and outcomes, leaning objectives, mark schemes, and all the other ‘quality control‘ metrics that measure the ‘product’ that schools offer and produce. I intend to explore the relationships between creativity and play, play and learning, and learning and creativity, from the perspective of both teacher and learner.

“Schools can nurture creativity in children, but they can also destroy it, and all too often they do. Ideally schools exist to preserve and regenerate learning and the arts, to give children tools with which they may create the future. At worst, they produce uniform, media-minded grown-ups to feed the marketplace with workers, with managers, with consumers.” 2

The passage above, from Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book Free Play identifies the dangers of an industrial school system, and a second passage below highlights a paradox that I feel lies at the heart of my teaching; do I teach skills that might then encourage students to find creativity, or teach creativity (if teach is the right word) so that students will feel a compulsion to develop the skills with which to be creative:

“We often make the mistake of confusing education with training, when in fact they are very different activities. Training is for the purpose of passing on specific information necessary to perform a specialised activity. Education is the building of a person. To educe means to draw out or evoke that which is latent: education then means drawing out the person’s latent capacities for understanding and living, not stuffing a (passive) person full of preconceived knowledge. Education must tap into the close relationship between play and exploration; there must be permission to explore and express... One of the many catch 22’s in the business of creativity is that you can’t express inspiration without skill, but if you are too wrapped up in the professionalism of skill you obviate the surrender to accident that is essential to inspiration. You begin to emphasise product at the expense of process.” 3

Teaching creativity implies teaching creatively. Teaching creatively needs to involve risk and the possibility of failure as a spur to innovation. But risk is problematic in our current education system. The film critic Pauline Kale takes this notion a step further:

“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognise.” 4

In a profession mired in bureaucracy I yearn to be irresponsible and impulsive. To be creative I need to tap into the energy of play and improvisation, while simultaneously remaining a professional teacher guiding young people through a regulated system and offering some uniform experience. I hope to work with play energy, which implies letting go, while at the same time keeping control as a responsible adult. In initiating the playing of games I acknowledge that I am also playing my own games, and recognise also that there is the possibility, if not the inevitability, that the players will play their own games too. Play is like the magma under the solid ground on which we stand. When it breaks through, it flows. And I hope to control the flow.

It does seem, currently, that the place of play and creativity in schools are being given more consideration. It may seem obvious, but studies show that children learn better when they are comfortable and happy, and the rapid development of computer games has led to much investigation into the place that gaming might have in education. A central feature of the Bett show in 2010, combining both technology and giant bean bags, was Professor Steven Heppell’s ‘playful learning zone’:

“Survey after survey suggests that our UK schoolchildren may be some of the least happy in Europe. Playful learning is great fun and has re-energised classrooms, rekindled school-parent relationships, re-engaged brains and provided at times a powerfully competitive space for problem solving, and at other times a place for real individual concentration.” 5

This is interesting and matches up with other research. Brain Sutton-Smith for example points to research by Boocock and Schild, (1968), who maintain that “those who learn through simulation techniques (play) do as well as those who learn from the regular textbook-oriented curriculum”; or more recently, to Hartmann and Rollett, (1994): “For teachers, the association of play and the curriculum seems to lead to general increases in motivation at school” 6

So what is play?

We all have a concept of play through our own experience; we know what the word means. But play is nevertheless truly difficult to define; it is a word with a myriad of meanings and connotations, highly dependent on context. Brian Sutton-Smith’s book The Ambiguity of Play is a seminal ordering and gathering of ideas on the nature of play based on a very wide ranging study of preeminent thinkers. In this ordering Sutton-Smith identifies seven ‘rhetorics’; progress, fate, power, identity, the imaginary, the self and frivolity. As the title suggests, Sutton-Smith reaches no definitive position other than that: ‘theoretically speaking, (play is) difficult to understand because it is ambiguous’. 7  In writing about the context of my own teaching I surely expound a rhetoric; a personal pedagogic stance, strands of which can be identified though each of Sutton-Smith’s seven rhetorics. In examining this personal rhetoric I can perhaps, if not unpick, at least identify the ambiguities and paradoxes from which it is woven.

Inverting this metaphor, there are two concepts in the first section of The Ambiguity of Play that might act to homogenise many of the ingredients that I have been working with in this extended practice module:

The first concept was introduced through the work of anthropologist and ethnographer Victor Turner in his suggestion that play is liminal; on the threshold between reality and unreality. This resonates with ideas about play and players occupying a space between the real world and an unreal world, a virtual world; that of imagination and dream. It relates also to Richard Schechner’s development of Geoffery Bateson’s (1955) suggestion that in the animal world, when an animal playfully nips another, “the playful nip connotes a bite but not what a bite connotes.” 8 Schechner suggests that a playful nip is not only not a bite, but also not not a bite: i.e. It is not a real bite, but it has the same meaning as a bite; it is symbolic of what a real bite would be. The symbolic, or at least the creation of symbols as a way of managing, containing and contextualising an understanding of the world is strongly linked with the way in which it is suggested that human brains both develop and function. Sutton-Smith identifies political, religious, social and educational systems as being broad symbolic systems through which we construct the meaning of the cultures we live in. 9  Similarly, artists create symbolic systems to communicate this understanding. The concept of liminality resonates with the symbolic in art; with the thresholds between the conscious and the unconscious, the doors that separate heaven and hell, wake and sleep, the real and the surreal, the sublime and the ridiculous. Much of what I have been thinking in relation to this project incorporates a possibility of the random; the playful montage of materials and ideas; the making of connections; the place that improvisation takes in the creation and teaching of art. To highlight the historic pairing of art and play, Sutton-Smith takes the following quote from Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer:

“play and art are the same activity because neither subserves, in any direct way, the processes conducive to life and neither refers to ulterior benefits, the proximate ends are the only ends”. 10

This idea that play has no purpose or goal seems to resonate with other researchers, for example, in his book Creativity Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term autotelic, in describing a state that he identifies as ‘flow’ as opposed to the term exotelic; things that we do “not because we enjoy them but in order to get at some later goal”. 11

In contrast to Spencer, Sutton-Smith goes on to suggest that art and play are not the same activity, in that art has definable goals, is productive, while play ‘is necessarily unproductive’. 12 However, the following quote, referenced by Sutton Smith, points to play and art sharing a fundamentally similar root:

“Play can be everywhere and nowhere, imitate anything, yet be identified with nothing... Play is the supreme bricoleur of frail transient constructions, like a cadis worm’s case or a magpie’s nest... It’s metamessages are composed of a potpourri of apparently incongruous elements... Passages of seemingly wholly rational thought jostle in a Joycean or surrealist manner with passages filleted of all syntactical connectedness. Yet, although “spinning loose” as it were, the wheel of play reveals to us (as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued [1975]) the possibility of changing our goals and, therefore, the restructuring of what our culture states to be reality.” 13

While the inconsistencies in the references that Sutton-Smith cites highlight the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of this field of research, I feel that the quote above, taken from Schechner’s book The Future of Ritual, in some ways captures the essence of my investigation and practice over the past year in it’s montage of references; surrealism, bricollage, the spirit of Joyce, and the work of Csikszentmihalyi.

The second concept is of an underlying state, force, power or energy from which play behaviours spring, and from where artists draw inspiration. With typically playful use of language, James Joyce notes: ‘One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.’ 14 And from Turner: “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise”. 15 Turner and Schechner were both primarily interested in ritual and performance where structure and discipline counteract improvisation and play. The act of teaching can also be likened to an improvised performance, sharing the same energetic source as play and creativity; art lessons are structured, and happen within the structure of school and curriculum, but within this structure there can be liminality, ambiguity, flux, flow. Another, similar paradox, as identified above, is that of the artist, who plays in order to create, but needs to create in an ordered manner in order to create the opportunity to play. I am an artist as well as a teacher, although it is difficult for me to differentiate between the two. My teaching is also my art, and I am myself at play as I teach. So much of what I do I can’t articulate, even in a school context, like abstract art and poetry, the knowing is experience and feel; sense rather reason.

So what is this energy?

In his book The Future of Ritual Schechner uses the Sanskrit terms maya and lila: maya; from ma - to make, to create, illusion, the artistic, to make something that was not there, there, or to make something that is there, not there, a creative force or power - and lila, to play, from ludus, the same latin root as ludology:

“In the West, play is a rotten category, an activity tainted by unreality, inauthenticity, duplicity, make believe, looseness, fooling around, and inconsequentiality... The reason why play - or, more properly, playing - is a rotten category is because the multiple realities of playing are situated inside a pyramidical hierarchy of increasing reality leading from the unreal make believe to “just the facts, Ma’am”. 16

Schechner uses a table to compare West and East, which I add here to illustrate maya/lila:


* I was struck, in visiting the exhibition of contemporary Indian art at the Saatchi gallery, at how much humour there was in the work, much more so that with the previous Asian, Chinese and British exhibitions.

“Just the facts, ma’am” reflects the positivist Western tradition and as such would be as relevant to school as to it’s original police drama context, in a system where measurable progress by grade and examination seems to be the ultimate target. Western culture seems less comfortable with the spiritual and intuitive, needing ridged demarcation, where the Asian culture is more able to blur boundaries. I am not suggesting that transposing Asian culture into a Western context is the answer, I am sure that it would be uncomfortable, but I do feel that we have lost sight of the intuitive, erotic, violent, and spiritual in a sanitised culture of logic, rationality and order.

Schechner develops his concept of play:

“’s wrong to think of playing as the interruption of ordinary life. Consider instead playing as the underlying, always-there, continuum of experience, as the maya-lila theory says. Ordinary life is netted out of playing but play continually squeezes through even the smallest holes of the worknet - because there in no such thing as absolute opacity, there are no totally blank walls. No matter how hard people try, play finds a way through - banana time is always with us, even in the operating theatre or on death row.” 17

‘Banana time’ is a reference to a study of factory workers who developed a game involving the stealing of a banana, to enliven their boring piece work. In schools, some might think of art sessions as ‘banana time’ in contrast to more academic ‘work’.

The thought at the end of this quote, that ‘banana time’ is always with us, even in the operating theatre or on death row, leads towards Schechner’s concept of dark play, which fits well with questions about what is real; when is ‘not a bite’ actually in fact a bite? Schechner writes about an underlying force that is tamed by culture as our subconscious drives and appetites are filtered by our conscious mind:

“Work and other daily activities continuously feed on the underlying ground of playing, using the play mood for refreshment, energy, unusual ways of turning things around, insights, breaks, openings, and, especially looseness. This looseness (pliability, bending, lability, unfocused attention, the long way around) is implied in such phrases as “play it out” or “there’s some play in the rope” or “play around with that idea”. Looseness encourages the discovery of new configurations and twists of ideas and experiences... But however powerful the play genres, however “total” the work life, the basic ground of existence, maya-lila, leaks through and permeates both daily life and the play genres. So, am I proposing that maya-lila exists outside of or before cultures? Am I attempting to reintroduce some kind of transcendent force or energy? That question can’t be answered yes or no, because maya-lila swallows it’s own tail (tale)”. 18

I find that I am constantly playing with words, as Schechner does above, making playful connections. The word bite, made me think of bight, as in a loose loop of rope, and a byte, as in a connection with digital media. Bite Bight and Byte. This is obviously a game that I play in a conscious, if involuntary fashion, but it might reflect a deeper mental state of constant loose connectings, which itself extends to ideas about juxtaposition, chance, bricolage, montage; physical creative processes mirroring subconscious mental processes. Working with teenagers, I also question to what extent the art that they are producing is ‘practice’, i.e, not a bite, aimed at exam success, pleasing teacher, or complying with the system, and at what point it becomes a bite; reflecting real experience, created for the sake of creation. Play may be a way of allowing young people to reach deeper, less conscious layers of experience.

Scientific research suggests that the underlying function of the brain is principally the same in both waking and dreaming states:

“a ceaseless inner talking between cerebral cortex and thalamus, a ceaseless interplay of image and feeling, irrespective of whether there is sensory input or not. When there is sensory input, this interplay continues to generate brain states, those brain states we call fantasy, hallucination or dreams. Thus waking consciousness is dreaming, but dreaming constrained by reality.” 19

This seems to suggest that conscious thought, like an iceberg, is just a small part of a larger unit; other processes continuing in our unconscious whether we are asleep or awake. Guy Caxton, in his book Hare Brain Tortoise Mind illustrates this dichotomy in the manner that the title of his book suggests:

“Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill-defined. Deliberate thinking. D-mode, works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualised.” 20

Caxton writes about an undermind or slow mind from which conscious thought springs, a mind that responds when the thinker is not trying to think; an intelligence that is developed not through knowledge, but through what he terms ‘osmosis‘; implicit ‘know how’ rather than explicit knowledge; learning by doing, largely unhindered by conscious thought. A quote from the poet Ted Hughes illustrates this idea, taken from a talk he gave to school students, and at this point referring to hours spent course fishing:

“.. it is (also) an art which can be cultivated not just through literal fishing but through any form of contemplation that invites you to observe without interfering with the crepuscular world that lies between consciousness and the undermind; between light and dark; between waking and sleeping. In the blooming of the mind, if one is quiet and watchful, one can observe the precursors of conscious intelligence at play, and in so doing may be lucky enough to catch the gleam of an original or useful thought.. 21

This aptitude of the brain to make connections may reflect it’s physiology: 22

“As creative people go about their business, the normal exigencies and incidence of daily life will keep activating thousands of concepts in clusters throughout the brain. If one of these should inadvertently facilitate a link between previously unconnected, but primed, parts of the network, there may be just enough added activation to make an image or a metaphor exceed its threshold and shoot into the consciousness - producing an ' insight', an illumination.” 23

These two quotes suggest a number of connections: Caxton’s concept of ’slow mind’ as opposed to what he terms’ D-mode’, or deliberate thinking, seems similar to the dichotomy between convergent and divergent thinking, and also to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of the autotelic and exotelic; with ‘slow mind’ akin to ‘flow’. Moreover, Sutton-Smith points to research that suggests a link between subconscious cognitive states and play:

“...a connection between the passivity and involuntary character of dreams and the paucity and involuntariness of many kinds of play. The active forms of play rise, as it were, from this groundswell of incessant and relatively involuntary mental play. Dreams and play are perhaps as appetitive for the mind as are food and sex for the body.” 24

The two strands that I have so far identified in relation to play, firstly that play is liminal, and secondly that there is an underlying state from which play behaviour springs, are closely woven. The latter is perhaps a constant, while the former is the active process of access; the process of flow.

So what is Flow?

In his book Flow Csikszentmihalyi regularly refers to ‘psychic energy’. In physics, energy can be potential or kinetic; the one being a constant, the other a property of movement. Thus far I have focused on the psyche, the self, processes relating to an individual organism, and I have focussed on play. But these concepts relate equally to creativity and inspiration, to improvisation, and to the collective behaviour of groups:

“creativity does not happen inside people's heads, but in the interaction between a person's thought and a sociocultural context. It is a systematic rather than an individual phenomenon”. 25

As a teacher of art in a Quaker school I am attracted to the concept of an energy that is greater than the individual. Groups have a collective energy, a ‘group chemistry’ that teachers (and performers) work with. This collective mood may be no more than that; a sensing of the crowd, as with flocks of sheep or starlings, but it is interesting to speculate that there is some form of universal energy - a similar idea perhaps to Jung’s collective unconscience - that is present when groups of people gather. With this concept I might seek to create an environment that will attract an energy or ambience that builds up over time, like a patina, an ethos. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi touches on this idea, although in a physical rather than meta-physical sense: “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively”. 26
He also relates this idea to opportunity:

“If too few opportunities for curiosity are available, if too many obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, the motivation to engage in creative behaviour is easily extinguished”. 27

Csikszentmihalyi cites the Renaissance artists in Florence as an example of a collective who surpassed their individuality in a short period of extreme creativity, brought about by a combination of many factors including situation and mentor. He claims that, if there had not been Brunelleschi or Ghiberti, other artists would have been there in their stead, and that the extraordinary creativity came from the situation as much as it did from the individual artists. Similarly artistically creative opportunity/environment ‘hotspots’ include Paris and then Moscow at the turn of the 20th century, New York from the 40’s, Liverpool in the 60‘s, and the ‘YBA’s’ in the 80‘s.

I am not suggesting that this energy is necessarily metaphysical or transcendental, but that it is a factor of a situation and group, and as such it may possibly be generated and manipulated, which becomes a very interesting concept when related to school.

Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi goes on to suggest that establishment, and the teachers that are a part of it, may influence the sort of person who becomes an artist:

“In the 1960s, when abstract expressionism was the reigning style, those art students who tended to be sullen, brooding, and antisocial were thought by their teachers to be very creative... Then the Warhol cohort replaced the abstract expressionists, and it was young artists with cool, clever, flip personalities that projected the aura of creativity. This, too, was a transient mask.” 28

I wonder if my students become artists (if they become artists) because or despite of me. I also wonder how it is that we undoubtedly have a ‘house’ style, despite efforts not to. My students inevitably, albeit subconsciously, pick up an aesthetic that I recognise as being flavoured by my own. The examples of faces that I have included in this work, picked out as I marked this year’s examination work, testify to this, but I see it most clearly when I visit other art departments, with different styles. Caxton’s notion of ‘osmosis’ resonated with an image I already had, of myself as a teabag, infusing a flavour about me.

Csikszentmihalyi then states, paradoxically, that taking on a personality or identity does not make an individual an artist, that a truly creative person often defies (and perhaps defines) character traits. He does however suggest as a commonality among artists, a highly complex set of character traits, often containing contradictory extremes; disciplined yet playful; competitive yet cooperative, bright yet naive, wise yet childlike, both traditional and conservative, yet rebellious and iconoclastic, both extrovert and introvert. It is notable that many of my more artistic students struggle with identity and self esteem, while showing a bravely non-conformist persona to authority.

As the creative students are often the more colourful, expressive and rebellious students, so the art teachers are often the non-conformists in the staffroom. I wonder when, how and why an artist decides to become an artist; on what basis this choice is made, if it is a choice. In Creativity Csikszentmihalyi seems to suggest that the question is a more complex choice than that of identity, perhaps touching on the classic nature/nurture debate; some genetic propensity or even a mental instability. There are perhaps such a myriad of possibilities that the question itself is too complex to answer. We all follow one path, not knowing what might have been had we followed a different one.

It does seem that artists tend towards rebellion, as is illustrated in the following quote from the avant-guard dramatist Jerzy Grotowski, who’s work is linked to that of both Schechner and Turner:

“Art is profoundly rebellious. Bad artists speak of rebelling; real artists actually rebel. They respond to the powers that be with a concrete act: this is both the most important and the most dangerous point. Real rebellion in art is something which persists and is competent and never dilettante.” 29

In his book Madness Explained Richard Bentall suggests that many highly creative people suffered from what we would now term mental illness; among them Michelangelo, Dürer, Da Vinci, Goya, Kandinsky, Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Pollock, Raphael, Rothko, and Van Gogh. There is also research that suggests that the relatives of mentally ill people show evidence of unusual creativity, pointing towards a genetic link. 30 This resonates with the school in which I teach where many of the creative students are dyslexic, and the art teachers also maybe. Are dyslexic students more creative because they make connections that a more ordered brain blocks or filters? do their brains have a higher capacity to make loose connections? or do they chose art, and therefore become good at art, because they find academic study difficult? If the artist is necessarily rebellious, can an art teacher, as part of the system, be complicit in this rebellion, and what tools might the art teacher have to work with? I am arguing a case for bringing play into my teaching, and I am sure that the computer is a very powerful tool in this respect. The computer has made a great difference to me personally, as someone with dyslexic tendencies, with the spell checker at one end of the spectrum and hyperlinks and search algorithms at the other. I also don’t doubt that we live in exciting times as this new and powerful revolution unfolds. It is no wonder that there is a schism between young and old in relation to digital technology, and that some find the rapid change dangerous and worrying. Other voices point to the digital revolution as being an emancipation for school students, enabling them to take control of their own learning.

Creative teaching?

I have moved from a discussion of play, but hesitate to embark on a discussion of what an artist is, or what art is, or even when art is, although in thinking about creativity, where art is or where art comes from are relevant questions. In the suggestion that there is strong similarity between art and play, then as an artist and art teacher I can perhaps draw on that same source to teach art creatively, working with the energy that feeds both. The new innovations around digital media also generate energy, as any change does. I am attracted to the notion of working with energy, working with group energy, creating an environment in which this energy can be created and amplified, and especially working with play energy, with flow, creating the conditions for flow to flow; playing with play, and the underlying mental processes that might be an essential aspect this. Sutton-Smith highlights the possible connection between art and play in relation to the physiology of the brain in the following quote:

“The writer or artist might be thought to draw incessantly from his or her own broadly or narrowly conceived play activity in the process of being an artist. This doesn’t have to mean that art is play, it only means that the incessant activity of the playing mind is constantly present, intermixing with the processes of composition. The playing mind daydreams and fantasises and cannot keep itself from doing so”. 31

Sutton-Smith also points to the romantic notion of naivete as a reason that art and play have been strongly linked over the past century. But neither the romantic ideal of an artist working away with almost involuntary compulsion nor the image of the artist as truly rebellious fits well with a pedagogy of progression and achievement. If the process of creativity needs purposelessness and freedom, school is not a conducive environment. Skills can be defined and measured, as can outcomes, but the creative process is as hard to measure as it is to define.

Searching the web, social networking, random discoveries, constant connectedness, the playful essence of digital technology these developing tendencies perhaps mirror brain patterns. They certainly seem to threaten the status quo in school.

I am not sure to what extent I can bring play into the classroom, even if I overcome resistance from self-righteous colleagues and self-conscious students. Play needs to be free, separate, uncertain, and unproductive. Players will only play because they want to. The school system dictates that the students are with me, that they ‘progress’, and inevitably I retain control, so the classroom cannot be wholly free, uncertain or unproductive. Sutton-Smith notes that:

“paradoxically children, who are supposed to be the players among us, are allowed much less freedom for irrational, wild, dark, or deep play in Western culture than are adults, who are thought not to play at all.” 32

Schools, by their very nature, are risk averse, governed by rules and regulations, timetables, uniformity and accountability. Play without risk would be tame, and play tamed, although perhaps acceptable, would lose it’s attractiveness.

I am not therefore sure that I can introduce true play into school without a seismic shift in our school system. Some suggest and hope that digital technology might be a catalyst for this change, bringing playfulness into school. Others seem to see digital technology as a danger and a threat.

Two related questions that have arisen through my work on this MA; can an adult play as a child, and can a child be an artist? Both questions rely on our interpretation of art and play, qualified by notions of realism. The extensive study of child art conducted by Rhoda Kellogg coupled with the work of Jean Piaget suggested that young children build a symbolic representation of the world in part through image and narrative. We create a symbol that is table, and that despite being large and having four legs we know that it is not likely to jump out and bite. The child tames the table with a symbol, and tests fear with story. The adult artist is free to unleash the table again, by playing with these symbols, as Sarah Lucas does in her montage of table, kipper and melons entitled ‘Bitch’. Perhaps Lucas is testing fear just as a child does. Sutton-Smith suggests that “there is strong support for the notion that play at both adult and child levels gives expression to concerns over power and identity”. 33 He then goes on to elaborate this suggestion:

“children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only it’s therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality... The logic of play is the logic of dealing with emotions such as anger, approval, or fear, and it has to do with how these may be expressed and reacted to in any mundane or fantastic way the players choose.” 34

In answering the question as to whether adults can play as children do, Sutton-Smith suggests that:

“adults have similar apprehensions and allow theatric disaster to enter into their own recreations... Children may have their real small scale disasters, but adults have a very large ones: war, catastrophe, accidents, hurricanes, riots, sickness, and death. The play of disorder and phantasmagoria would then seem to be a universal aspect of all free play, for both child and adult.” 35

If play (and art) are unconstrained, young people might explore their own experience, their hopes and fears about the future. The unconstrained themes of my younger students are often phantasmagorical, as evidenced by the content of the games of consequence that we have been playing this year. Teenage girls are obsessed with self image, boys with machines - sex too, although constrained by the school environment. And both with a constant stream of music fed directly to the ear. When one of the research subjects in Csikszentmihalyi’s study for ‘Creativity’ was asked what kept him creative, his answer was ‘sex and music’; primal drives. For me, in relation to school, I can only really enjoy playing with play if I am really playing, not pretending to play to make my lessons more fun. I am not playing a game of being a teacher, as they, I hope, are not practicing being adults; practicing art so that one day they might become artists (or more likely graphic or textile designers, which are much more imaginable as ‘jobs’.) Both art and play have to be ‘real’.

So why play?

Two final quotes from Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of play, which seem at first contradictory, suggest firstly that play arises out of angst: and secondly that players play to generate positive emotional states:

“...clearly the primary motive of players is the stylised performance of existential themes that mimic or mock the uncertainties and risks of survival and, in so doing, engage the propensities of mind, body, and cells in exciting forms of arousal. It is also very interesting to think of play as a lifelong simulation of the key neonatal characteristics of unrealistic optimism, egocentricity, and reactivity, all of which are guarantors of persistence in the face of adversity.” 36

“What seems most obvious about play, whether that of animals, children, or adults, is that it is a very exciting kind of activity that players carry on because they like doing so. It doesn’t seem to have too much to do with anything else.” 37

The first suggestion, that play arises out of angst, is perhaps more surprising than that art might. The notion that artists should express angst is similar to the notion of the naive artist, arising perhaps from the fragile mental balance between genius and madness which seems often to be the domain of the artist. As an audience we are happy when our artists are miserable. And yet the process of creating art must be consistently rewarding, especially if it is difficult to define what the outcome of the process might be.

The second suggestion fits with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, the state of absorption between boredom and anxiety, which is an enjoyable state for the state alone, whatever the outcome. To be engaged in play is ‘flow’. We play, we create, because the experience itself is rewarding; not necessarily easy; indeed, often the more difficult, the more rewarding. The classic answer to the question why, is ‘because it is fun’, or ‘because it is there’, although it need not necessarily be there or fun. The state of flow is characterised by obsession and compulsion, tenacity, curiosity and drive. In relation to creativity Csikszentmihalyi suggests paradoxical traits of discipline and playfulness, responsibility and irresponsibility. He suggests that creativity produces novelty, and that ‘The process of discovery involved in creating something new is one of the most enjoyable activities any human can be involved in.’ 38

Csikszentmihalyi offers a similar thought that fits well with my themes of montage and bricolage:

“Life is nothing more than a stream of experiences - the more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer you life will be.” 39


As a child I spent much of my time at play in a fantasy world. And I was good at getting others involved in this play. As an adult this is perhaps still my gift; to involve others in my play.

Digital media is in many ways bridging the gap between adult and child. Adults are free to play as children, and children have the same creative tools that were once the domain of the adult professional. If play is to some degree the domain of imagination and fantasy, then digital media can deliver this equally to child and adult. At times it is almost obligatory to fantasise; to create a ‘pluralistic self’... There can be no doubt that virtual worlds are a new play form allowing adults to play almost as amorphously as children.

Computers give me ample opportunity to both play, involve others in my play, and see the opportunities for play in the medium. I have no doubt that for me digital technology is both challenging and fun. I play with it, and I easily reach what I believe to be a state of flow when working with digital media; the computer sucks me in, and time passes. Digital technology itself is exciting and new. Much of the time I am using the computer as a creative rather than as a passive medium. Csikszentmihalyi cites TV viewing as the antithesis of flow, an activity that demands very little psychic energy from participants. Mastering complex applications, and creating satisfying work with a computer can be challenging and rewarding, meeting Csikszentmihalyi’s criteria of activities that engender a state of flow. It is this duality that first led me to buy computers for my art department; computers having this propensity for being both fun and compulsive.

Many ‘old school’ art teachers spurn digital media as unreal, uncreative, not requiring traditional artistic skills. The ‘fun’ nature of the medium may exacerbate this. It is not a serious medium - as art in school may be seen as subservient to more academic studies; being less serious, a pass-time, a recreation rather than serious and work; carnival rather than parade. So digital creativity may well be similarly denigrated as frivolous.

For me digital media provides great scope for creativity, curiosity and fun. There is a frisson of excitement in clicking a button to make something happen, the more so in the knowledge that it is me who has created the code that makes that something happen.

It may not be possible for me to truly combine teaching and playing, but I might involve students to an extent in my play, especially when this involves exciting gadgets, fun ideas, and the levelling effect of digital media. Partly I become a combination of ringmaster and stage director, but I do play too, and because my play is real, I find that my students can to an extent let go and join in.

With the games of consequences that I played with my 10 year olds, once we had established some boundaries around toilet humour, the involvement and the laughter were genuine and genuinely shared. With the photoshop pingpong, played both by students and by adults, there has been a complete immersion in the unfolding narrative of the image sequences being created. The third project, involving pixillation, has brought in physicality, both during creation, with students lying about on the floor, and in the presentation, as a finger, a sound, or movement recreated the movement.

I am not sure that I can reach a conclusion to these reflections, as the nature of reflection is that it mirrors a scene, and both this scene and my understanding of it are in a state of rapid change. I find it curious that through my recent practice play has come to the fore, as I take myself to be essentially quite an earnest person. This reflective study perhaps acts as incentive to seek and enjoy a state of flow in whatever I am doing, and encourage those around me to do so also.

1 Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: First Harvard University Press, 2001) p7
2 Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art, (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putney 1990) p116
3 Nachmanovitch, pp118, 119
5 Stephen Heppell, from accessed 20/1/2010
6 Sutton-Smith, p40
7 Sutton-Smith, p214
8 Sutton-Smith, p1
9 Sutton-Smith, p9
10 Sutton-Smith, p133
11 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, (New York: Harper Perennial ,1996) p113
12 That play is ‘necessarily unproductive is one of the six definitions of play in Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, (Champaign, Illinois: First Illinois Paperback, 2001) pp 9, 10
13 Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual, (London: Routledge, 1993) p25, quoting Turner (1983:233-4)
14 Referring to Finnegans Wake in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver (1926-11-24)
15 (1967: 97) source accessed 10/5/2010 Also quoted in Jung and Miller, The Transcendent Function
16 Schechner, p27
17 Schechner p42
18 Schechner pp42, 43
19 Sutton-Smith, p21 Sacks, quoting Rodolfo Lliin’as and colleagues (1995, p57)
20 Guy Caxton, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind - why intelligence increases when you think less, (London: Fourth Estate, 1997) p3
21 Caxton, p81
22 Hyper links may in some way mirror this physiology, which may explain the pleasure to be had in surfing the web, making connections, collecting, storing and retrieving links.
23 Caxton, p150
24 Sutton-Smith p63
25 Csikszentmihalyi, p23
26 Csikszentmihalyi, p1
27 Csikszentmihalyi, p11
28 Csikszentmihalyi, p56
29 Schechner, p13
30 Richard Bentall, Madness Explained, (London: Penguin Books, 2004) p113
31 Sutton-Smith, p136
32 Sutton-Smith, p151
33 Sutton-Smith, P123
34 Sutton-Smith, p158
35 Sutton-Smith, p162
36 Sutton-Smith, p231 (Jaak Panksepp 1993 p177)
37 Sutton-Smith, p18
38 Csikszentmihalyi, p113
39 Csikszentmihalyi, p347

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