January 17, 2011

Move over, arts education — The real problem may be play

Ask an arts professional what’s wrong with today’s arts ecology and you’ll probably hear something about cuts in arts education in the schools. But there could be a more basic challenge to developing tomorrow’s audiences, a cultural shift with causes and effects well outside the arts: the death of childhood play.

If you work in the arts, you’ve heard the point made so many times by so many people that it may seem obvious, irrefutable. The decades of declining attendance at traditional art forms like classical music, ballet, and theater can be blamed on decades of declining arts education for schoolchildren. If kids aren’t exposed to Beethoven, Balanchine, Botticelli, and other exemplars of the “fine arts” when they’re young, the argument goes, they won’t make them part of their cultural repertoire when they’re older.

So if we want to stem the declines in arts attendance, what we need to do is reinvigorate arts education in the schools. Education breeds affinity. Our children will, literally, learn to love it.

I’ve never quite bought this argument, in part because there are plenty of things we learn about (are “exposed to”) in school that most of us don’t choose to spend our time with later in life: algebra, geology, European history. If anything, a classroom encounter with Mahler or Matisse in junior high could do more harm than good, branding such domains as drudgery for life. Besides, the social scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly that what happens (or doesn’t) in school is far less influential than what happens at home: family and friends are the predominant influences.

I know that the declines in arts education are real and that, historically speaking, they’re correlated with the declines in attendance. My friend Nick Rabkin has just written a very good monograph for the NEA delving into just this question. But correlation is not causation, and I’ve wondered for a long time whether there could be something more fundamental going on — some broader social change that may not seem to have much to do with the arts but is nonetheless altering our desire or ability to engage with them. ...

With that hunch in mind, I’ve been following the debates about the role of play in education with more than parental interest. A much-emailed article in the Times earlier this month describes the growing effort by some parents, educators, and child advocates to “restore children’s play” at home and in school, a backlash against several decades of shrinking playtime and converting play into more “productive,” structured, and educational activities. Here’s the crucial paragraph (although the whole article is worth reading):

Too little playtime may seem to rank far down on the list of society’s worries, but the scientists, psychologists, educators and others who are part of the play movement say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play. Children learn to…solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work as a team when they dig together in a sandbox or build a fort with sofa cushions. (The experts define play as a game or activity initiated and directed by children. So video games don’t count, they say, except perhaps ones that involve creating something, and neither, really, do the many educational toys that do things like sing the A B C’s with the push of a button.)

This isn’t an anti-technology argument, exactly. It’s a creativity argument. Play is when you make it up, using your imagination (alone or with others) to create a world that is both pretend and (to you) real, fun and serious, free and rule-bound.

The Times piece stresses the cognitive and social benefits of free play, without mentioning the arts. But you can see where I’m going. “Free play” is a phrase that looms large in the history of aesthetics (in Kant and especially Schiller). And the connection between developing your imagination in childhood play and using it later in artistic creativity is shown in the very language we use for the arts: Performing in a play. Playing a role. Playing an instrument, playing a score. Playing with a visual form or idea.

If we don’t strengthen imagination and creativity in childhood play, we can’t count on those “muscles” being available for creating the arts later on — or for receiving (perceiving, understanding, enjoying) artistic productions based on those abilities, either. The same fundamental abilities, the same brain wiring, underlie the creation and reception of the arts; otherwise the arts wouldn’t be a form of human-to-human communication. So what’s at stake, along with those intellectual, social, and economic benefits, is our ability to be arts audiences.

I should have thought of this sooner. My two kids go to a Waldorf School, one of the few pedagogical movements that has consistently valued free play and protected the imaginative magic and messiness of childhood. (The Times piece quotes several parents who find that messiness a real challenge.) Ten years ago, when Cheryl and I were first beginning to shop around for a school, we were told by a teacher that alumni of Waldorf schools are never afraid of a blank sheet of paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if that creative, generative mindset makes them willing and able audiences for other people’s creativity, as well.

When we think about cultivating the audiences of the future, arts education in the schools — especially the active, hands-on kind of education — may be an important part of the equation. But much more important may be the spirit and skills that underlie not only the arts but every sphere of activity fueled by imagination, creativity, and the breathless, self-rewarding pursuit of a goal that only you, or you and a few friends, see the beauty in. Maybe the future of the arts lies in a game of flashlight tag on a summer night.

1 Comment »
Jeff Prillaman — January 24, 2011

What an excellent correlation. Learning to experience and experiment is such a critical skill for life both on and off the stage, in the board room, classroom, and even in church. Thanks for such a well thought out article. The idea of flexing one's artistic, creative muscles along with learning to use them early on to create, not just mimic or model.. is very powerful.

Best Regards,

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