Give Your Students Time to PLAY

As art teachers, we appreciate it when artists come up with new and innovative ways of using materials. Whether it is new painting techniques or ways to melt glass into sculptures, we respect the ingenuity. Often, we admire the new method enough that we encourage our students to emulate the process. We want our students to create works of art as equally innovative. However, our enthusiasm may be misplaced. Instead of recreating the project, we need to give our students the time and space needed to emulate the process.


In other words, we need to let our students play.


Give Your Students Time to Play


Artists Play

Today’s contemporary artists take time to both think and to play. They might see a material and wonder about its qualities. They may question how it could be manipulated in ways beyond the medium’s initial purpose. At some point, they will take hold of this medium and experiment with it. They want to see how it works and how it reacts under different circumstances. It is through these moments of play that new discoveries are made and new ways of creating art are invented.


What is Play?

Perhaps the best way to explain play is to define what play is not. Play is not an exercise. If the purpose of the lesson is for the student to discover a pre-determined result, the student is not truly playing. For example, it is not authentic experiment if a student is given yellow and red paint and told to mix them to see what happens. Play works best when it is student directed and when they are curious about the possible outcomes.

Though the concept of play sounds very open, it can be limited in scope to help students make decisions. Say a student knows they want to create a work in pastel but can’t decide between oil and chalk. Say they are also indecisive about the type of paper they will select. Allowing the student to play with both types of pastels on several types of paper allows for an educated decision. Other times play can and should be more open. Students who are given time to play with different types of media are challenging both their problem solving skills as well as their creativity.


Providing Play Resources

The resources needed when students play involve both material and time. Tight budgets tend to make teachers cautious about freely handing out materials. Play may be viewed as a waste of these materials which are usually only handed out according to a specific need. However, learning about mistakes while working on smaller experiments can save from a larger waste happening later on.

Time is also a key factor. With so much emphasis placed on today’s “time-on-task” mentality, play might be viewed as students not working. However, true learning comes from trying and failing. Students need to be given enough time to explore as many different options as possible. They need time to make mistakes and time to determine if there are solutions to any mishaps.


As educators, we do our students a disservice by not providing them the opportunity to experiment. If we want true innovation instead of simulation, our students need time to play. 



Do you work play time into your lessons? Why or why not?

What differences do you see in your students when they are allowed to experiment?


Ian Sands


This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • This is some good thoughts. I believe in play! I have been trying to stretch myself to more authentic play this year. Good food for thought.

  • marilynpeters

    I try to build in “play” time for my high school students, especially when trying new media or when they come to me and ask “can I try…” If possible I allow them time to play or experiment with the media. I count the “play” time as experimentation time or practice time. “Play” time is a great way to do formative assessment since that is a “see where you are” rather than “how can you do” time. I encourage working in sketchbooks also to practice, plan or play with ideas. It keeps our students on task because if they are “trying out” or “playing” in the art room they are on task.

  • ElizTownsend

    Actually, I think art at the grade school level should be
    mostly play…a chance for students to manipulate and try all sorts of mediums
    and processes without the threat of grades hanging over them. I have often been an advocate of grade school
    art being pass or fail, and of course never failing a single student! If not in grade school, when else do we give
    students the freedom to just try, experiment and enjoy art materials? They must get serious about their art all too
    soon when they advance to the upper grades.
    Some kids never get an opportunity to squish their fingers into paint or
    clay at home, so if not at school, where and when?

    This past week I had fourth graders look at photo
    enlargements of different items and take turns guessing what the enlargements were
    of. They had a blast and felt so
    competent when they guessed correctly.
    They also enjoyed thinking up subjects of their own and drawing enlargements
    of them. Next week we will guess what
    classmates drew.

  • Janine

    I like to give my students time to play if it allows when they are using certain materials. Today I handed out the whiteboards for an assignment and I gave students a few minutes to “get the impulsivity out of their system.” After that play period, they received a more controlled assignment that needed thought and focus. I have also done this when exposing students to a new iPad app. They like to experiment without rules- sometimes they even teach me new things! I wish I could think of an acronym for PLAY that emphasizes trying out, experimenting and unstructured exploration….That way the children would remember the point of it!

  • Sherri

    All of my students play! The focus is always on process versus product, especially since so many “products” never make it home. Ironically, by allowing them to play…more products go home. :-)

  • Carissa Zill

    Sometimes when students are playing I have to make sure to consciously remind myself repeatedly that it’s only “a piece of paper” or “it’s only paint” repeatedly so I don’t get stressed about using extra materials. When a student mixes a huge pile of paint they don’t even want to use I stop and show them how you can change the color easier by pulling a small amount of paint out, or whatever tip I have that correlates… After all we care about learning in the end and you have to “mess up” sometimes to learn!

  • Clyde Gaw

    No question children are biologically hard wired to learn through play . The issue for many teachers is this: Institutional power structures frown upon “play” or “playful learning,” and do not afford teachers flexibility to utilize play. “Time on task,” is a criteria in Charlotte Danielson’s effectiveness rubric directed by authoritarian policymakers to assess teacher’s performance. Teachers are conditioned to eliminate ambiguity or playfulness of any kind in the classroom. Watching children play within school settings outside the recess yard is viewed by those without pedagogical insight as “disengagement” or “not following directions” or “directions were not specific enough…..”

  • Sue Ambrioso

    Play time is crucial for clay since we only use it once a year. I give my students a class period to experiment before I teach them the project. Only rules are: clay must stay on placemat or in hand, bottom must stay on stool, voices must stay at your table, and we won’t fire anything we make that day. Love to walk around and see what they are making and the stories that go with the sculptures. Great way to build relationships with students. Some of my kinders haven’t touched this type of medium before so a day of play is really important.

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  • Karla Stratton

    I have been teaching art in after school program atmosphere for several years, and am just beginning to realize the importance of play in the art room. To assign a project with a new medium or a different idea the chance to experiment must be available. In our preschool classes they are all play based, why do we move so far away from that as our children grow? I know as an artist my greatest works and those that have helped me grow are those that started out with just ‘fooling around’ with a new medium. This is so important for our children’s learning!