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Studying Play in 'The Art of Play'

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How children play is endlessly fascinating to educators, but how do children themselves think about play? In a new book — The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention (Temple University Press, 2014) — Anna R. Beresin compiles observations from more than two years' work with Recess Access, a service-learning project that provides playground supplies to Philadelphia schools.

The "raw" materials for this study are ink drawings by elementary-age participants in Recess Access. After playing with jump ropes, sidewalk chalk, balls, and other basic equipment provided by Recess Access, students drew about recess using ink, brushes, and paper also provided by the program. The complete body of this artwork appears throughout The Art of Play.

Beresin, an associate professor of liberal arts at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, teaches courses in folklore, game play, game design, and creativity. Her first book, Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), was an ethnographic study of recess in one Philadelphia school. It argued that misconceptions about violence at recess and gendered play can narrow the range of children's play.

Now, Beresin has turned to what recess behavior reveals about relationships between play, learning, and creativity. She calls The Art of Play a folklore study, not ethnography. Here's how she explains the distinction:

I focus on the art and the community of creators who make meaning through their art forms. It is not a psychological study of individuals or an institutional study of specific schools. At the center are the emergent play images and play genres, their value as explained by the people in the community and by like-minded thinkers.

The Art of Play maps three phenomena: observed play behavior and dynamics, or play culture; how children express themselves about recess; and what those child-made images say about play culture.

Beresin cites scholarly classics on play, creativity, and folklore, and intersperses first-person accounts of her time with Recess Access with interviews, in which Philadelphia artists and musicians discuss play in their lives. Several talk about learning "how to get out of the way so you can play." So closely has art-making become associated with discipline and effort that certain childlike qualities must be laboriously re-learned in adulthood, the interviews suggest.

Another chapter describes a small research project in which 12 9-year-olds wore pedometers for two weeks. Teachers recorded the steps each child took during recess and in gym class. It surprised Beresin that children in the study moved dramatically more (in steps per minute) during recess than in gym. She concludes that adult-organized gym class compares unfavorably with unstructured and unpredictable recess.

In a May 2013 study of the structured recess program Playworks (reported in detail at Rules for Engagement and Schooled in Sports), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation researchers wrote that recesses in which Playworks coaches organized activities resulted in more physical activity than "unstructured" recesses without coaches. Beresin's observations suggest that children's self-organizing may actually encourage recess participation and activity as effectively as an adult coach would, if not more so.

Beresin's forays down rabbit holes of art and play provide rich — if messy — context. Her descriptions of terrible playground conditions can be overwrought, and her glib statements about the people in a neighborhood or the character of a school employee often overreach. She also assumes shorthand — such as "blighted urban community" — that raises questions about the book's intended audience.

One of the best parts of this book is the profusion of ink drawings throughout. Beresin speaks truth when she writes, "Not all images are pleasant, just as not all play is sweet."

She picks out a number of themes in the drawings. For example, 9-year-olds draw "more cultural icons and phrases than any other group"; 3rd graders draw emotions into portraits; and younger children are more likely to depict a solitary kid at play than older children, who tend to draw groups.

I was struck by the many ways children depict motion, like dashed lines behind arcing basketballs or a series of running stick figures representing a sprinting football receiver. One perfect painting of motion, I believe, is a dense but economical drawing in which a 2nd grader captures exactly what it's like to shoot a reverse layup. Look for it on Page 127.

Recess crops up often in Education Week. It's been framed as a need, an opportunity, even as a kind of assessment — "a very important strategy for achieving content," whatever that means. Most recently, a Commentary by Debbie Rhea calls for more unstructured outdoor play, modeled on Finnish schools. For all its patchwork qualities, The Art of Play is a worthwhile contribution to the conversation.

Follow @awickner on Twitter for more K-12 books, libraries, and literacy news.

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