Sam Howie shares some notes on the idea of play based learning through the lens of early childhood education in relation to art production.
In early childhood eduction, Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, & Alward (2011) explain that ‘historically, play has been at the centre of early childhood programs’ (p. 5). Supporting this idea is one of the pioneers of early childhood education, Friedrich Froebel, who declared the importance of play in his seminal book in 1826, some fourteen years before he was to develop the first kindergarten. Froebel (2005) stated that ‘play is the highest phase of childhood development – of human activity at this period; for it is the self-active representation of the inner – representation of the inner from necessity and impulse’ (p. 54-55). The concept of play based learning in early childhood education is constructed on the idea of allowing the child the time and freedom to explore and test boundaries of their own choosing and at their own pace through self initiated play experiences. It is this idea of play based learning which not only works for the child but also for the artist. To think that play is not a fundamental part of everyday life, regardless of occupation and interest, is a misconception. However, for the child and /or artist, or in fact also for the scientist, mathematician, engineer, researcher, athlete and so on, play is a mode of focused inquiry as play works as an arena for the testing of limits or contradictions.
Contradiction, I believe, is one of the most important ingredients towards the creation of an interesting artwork. It is through contradiction that questions remain questions as the questions raised by a contradiction can only lead to more questions. In this sense, contradiction should not be viewed in a negative light that will lead to a form of gridlock but more like a game of tennis where an idea is the ball which remains in flux between two opposite poles. Working within the realm of contradiction allows for the involvement of play. As noted by Henricks (2009), ‘play lives in the space between order and disorder, between responsibility and freedom, and it draws its energy from both’ (p. 38). Henricks (2009) continues that through play ‘we wilfully put ourselves in precarious situations so that we can experience the emotions that attend to success and failure, danger and security. In so doing, we see more clearly the spectrum of our own possibilities’ (p. 13). Play, for me, is the refuge of the artist, a place where one can explore and pioneer their own directions and areas of activity, a place where they can create their own questions.
A simple idea of a contradiction a child may experience for the first time could be the difference between a ping pong ball and an egg. They both have similar elements of roundness, both are approximately the same size and if it was a traditional white ping pong ball, both are approximately the same colour. The contradiction would arrive for the child when both of these objects were to be dropped onto a hard floor. The child would observe the dichotomy between the two objects which at first glance may have appeared to have actually been two of the same things; observing that one was robust as the ping pong ball bounces away while the other is fragile as the egg breaks where it is dropped. For the child, this could open an entire inquiry of play based learning into the differences between robust and fragile as other objects are tested for their capabilities.
For children, play based learning is a way of working through and making sense of a barrage of new experiences of every description which continually test their social, emotional, intellectual and physical limits. However, during one’s life span the continual testing of new experiences never actually stops. Play based learning is often classified to the realms of early childhood education because this is where it is observed explicitly. When children move into formal education, their opportunities for play are usually limited (1). However, any misunderstanding about any age related realm of play based learning, I believe, comes from a misunderstanding of the idea of inquiry. For the artist, as for the child, inquiry is a driving force, a life force. Inquiry is different from a singular question where perhaps a satisfiable answer could be reached and therefore the question is rested, where as inquiries only reach satisfiable answers for brief flashes of moments. It is on the conclusion of the satisfaction of an answer that another question is raised, inaugurating a cycle of questions that only reach satisfiable answers for brief flashes of moments leading to more questions and the continuation of the inquiry. Through play, directions of questions of an inquiry work like Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theory, that an image of thought would take the shape and behaviour of a rhizome; expanding and extending in seemingly random directions.
I believe it is one of the roles of the artist to engage in the play of contradictions in their art production, testing the boundaries of social, emotional, intellectual and physical limits. The idea of the endless line of questions that only produce more questions can only function if it is based on contradiction; it is contradiction that questions the question. Without contradiction the artwork fails to re-examine itself and maintain an internal dialogue. Placing a contradiction within the context of an artwork activates a dialogue between two poles, for example, heavy and light as seen in the work of Anna Horne. The contradiction that I most relate to in my work is the poles between boundary and expanse, which can also be seen in the work of Robert Ryman. Ryman’s work, put simply, can be seen as the exclusive boundary of only using white paint while creating an infinite expanse of different possibilities for a painting. My work considers the exclusive boundary of paint as a material and the infinite expanse of variations of its physicality. Although when children are engaged in play, they may not be aware that they are engaging in an inquiry into contradiction or boundary pushing, I believe it is one of the roles of the artist to be aware of their engagement and to push these relations in their art production.
Sam Howie is an Adelaide-based visual artist who works primarily with paint and holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) from the University of South Australia (2010). His work was selected for inclusion in the Hatched 09 National Graduate Exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art and both the CACSA Contemporary 2012 & 2015. Howie is currently undertaking a Master of Teaching (Early Childhood) at Flinders University while also conducting independent research on art education.
(1) Formal education in Australia, for the majority of children, is introduced on the commencement of primary school through the implementation of the Australian Curriculum.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1980)
Froebel, F. (2005). The Education of Man (W. N. Hailmann, Trans.). Mineola: Dover. (Original work published 1826)
Van Hoorn, J., Nourot, P., Scales, B., & Alward, K. R. (2011). Play at the Centre of Curriculum (5th Ed.). Boston: Pearson.