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Participate in Play: Transform Your
Artmaking and Art Teaching

Give a child a mound of cold, squishy clay, and suddenly a world of shapes, textures, characters, stories, experiments, and inventions will soon be  revealed. This is what I witnessed when I first gave my kindergarten art students Play-Doh, and what I see each time I allow my students to make art in this medium more often associated with the playroom than the classroom. What I first expected to be light activity now leads my students to serious investigations of what familiar materials can represent and opened my eyes to the profound thinking and learning that takes place when children play.

Art educator Stacey Salazar discussed the relationship between play and art, saying, “Creativity and play can overlap when playful states encourage new possibilities, connections, and ideas—that is, play invites creative thought” (Salazar, 2015, p. 33). How can play inspire creativity and artistic development in your classroom? Could a playful approach in your artistic practice influence the way you teach?

Welcome Playful Materials into Your Classroom

Prompt your students to create art using items that you would not ordinarily use in your classroom, like found objects, old toys, or recycled materials. Playful materials invite a sense of wonder and curiosity. Art educator George Szekely explained the excitement his students displayed when using unconventional materials saying, “Mood and interest immediately improve when I bring in such things as salt and pepper shakers, eye droppers, and funnels for students to 'draw' with.... When children work with things not normally associated with school or conventional art classes, they come alive again.” Playthings can invite a fresh approach to artistic processes. You may soon witness the most unexpected materials give life to artistic potential.

You do not need to spend any money to incorporate playful materials into your art classroom. Use items brought from students’ homes or found at school. Allowing students to be the collectors of materials discovered within their everyday environment encourages them to look at their surroundings in a new way, seeing their innate potential to transform mundane objects like cafeteria sporks, acorns, or twigs.

To begin, consider some simple ways to replace conventional materials with playful or fresh items in your lessons. If you typically ask your students to sketch out an idea with pencil and paper, think of other ways they can ‘draw’ or represent their thinking with a less expected tool. If your students will be drawing from a still life, keep the vases and silk flowers in the closet and allow your students to take part in creating a playful still life using objects, artifacts, mementos, or old toys. I have seen evidence in children’s drawings that they attune their attention to the formal and physical qualities more precisely when they are drawing an amusing or exciting subject.

Prioritize Process to Liberate Creative Thinking

Instead of focusing on a predetermined final product, allow your students to investigate materials and processes, welcoming a range of artistic responses. Ruth Shaw, a teacher known for her invention of finger-paint in the 1930s believed that “children could discover the root ideas at the core of each school subject through playful sensory experience with simple materials” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 34). Allowing students to conduct individual explorations will challenge them to think like artists and solve problems by working with a variety of materials. Encourage students to think about their artistic processes by asking them questions like “How did you make that color?” or “What tool did you use to make this mark?” I found that my genuine interest in my students’ explorations made them deeply consider their process and feel that their ideas were valued.

Freeing students to express their ideas and act upon their creative impulses fosters a classroom culture that embraces divergent thinking. Welcoming playfulness can reawaken a creative spirit within children and bring an element of fun. Szekely clarified the common misconception that fun does not contribute to serious learning saying, “It is as if too much fun means that serious work can’t get done. But fun is where seriousness begins, because when we are having fun we are closest to our best selves, where the joyful and creative spirit inspires new visions, new possibilities in the world.” Letting go and embracing fun can transform how your students view your classroom, inviting new levels of engagement, and sparking fresh lines of inquiry. 

Learn from Artists Who Play

Play has been a driving force among both historic and contemporary artists, sparking passion, creative flow, and innovation. Henri Matisse said, “Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” Matisse’s love of play is evident in his unconventional method of cutting directly into paper, creating vibrant and rhythmic collages, a process he called “drawing with scissors.” In works like Forest 3 (1990), Gerhard Richter explored the physicality of paint, wielding a large squeegee to make marks on the canvas among other nontraditional painting tools.

Play is particularly relevant among contemporary conceptual artists, as artists embrace a fluid process, without a predetermined end in mind. DC-based Dan Steinhilber transforms everyday materials – coat hangers, balloon animals, duck sauce packets, found plastic – into extraordinary installations. In “Interface” (2016), plastic, bag-like sculptures rested humbly on the gallery wall with a black cord dangling from each one. When plugged into the electrical outlet below, the wilted sculptures inflated into whimsical shapes with a framed portal just large enough to put your head inside. Here we see Steinhilber’s playful process, as the interactive sculptures were only complete with the active and playful engagement of the viewer. How could learning about an artist’s playful approach impact your students’ view of art and artmaking?

Invite Playfulness into Your Art Practice

When was the last time you were in the studio? Can you remember the feeling of getting lost in the process of creating something new? With the rigorous demands of teaching, it is easy to understand why many art teachers struggle to find time to make art themselves. During my first few years of teaching, I dropped out of artmaking entirely, and I found myself uninspired and intimidated to get back into the studio. Participating in play finally brought me back to a dynamic and lively studio practice. Instead of holding onto the rigid printmaking techniques I was accustomed to, I looked at the materials in my studio as if seeing them for the first time. I experimented, testing methods to see what would happen, pursuing new ideas without a predetermined end in mind. I mixed inks with new mediums, took my screen (stencil) off the tightly registered printing press, painted directly on the screen, printed and reprinted, and layered new colors and textures to create visually rich and personally felt mono-prints. I found that pursuing my own artistic development transformed how I taught art to my students, catalyzing a new sense of inspiration and passion which enriched, informed, and inspired my teaching.

How could a playful approach open new possibilities in your artmaking? In what ways can a fresh material or alternative process change the way you make art? Give yourself time to engage in simple investigations of materials and processes, even if it’s only a few quiet moments in your classroom, a series of marks in sketchbook, or an open exploration in your studio. Take play seriously in your own art practice, knowing that the creativity you awaken will inform and enrich your teaching.


Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.



Salazar, Stacey McKenna. (2015). Fiat lux: Creativity through play. In E. B. Zimmerman, Flavia (Ed.), Connecting creativity: Research and practice in art education. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

Stankiewicz, M.A. (2001). Freeing the child through art. Roots of art education practice (pp. 25-43). Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.

Szekely, George. (1991). From play to art. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc.