As a kid, few things were more exciting than recess. The second the bell rang I would run out to the playground to claim foursquare courts and aggressively compete in tetherball, wallball, and dodgeball. Some days I’d simply wander off the blacktop with friends searching for clover. I’ll never forget the day we dug up an old piece of a gardening hose and were convinced it was dinosaur skin! Words like dodgeball, wallball, and tetherball may be foreign to today’s children and not just because of our distance in age, but for many because of our geographical distance and cultural difference.
Perhaps this cultural and geographical distance explains why I was so captivated a few years ago when I attended an exhibition of photographs titled “Playground” by the artist James Mollison at the BYU Museum of Art. The exhibition included a variety of photos of playgrounds from all around the world. Seeing the stark contrast between these spaces was shocking and eye-opening. And yet it was also surprising how these photographs captured similarities in the way children play. From boys training to be Buddhist monks in a Bhutan monastery to elementary students in Inglewood, California, children still run, play, and interact with each other in familiar ways despite their circumstances.
Playing is a core part of who kids are and is much more than mere exercise. Experts assert that “play is a legitimate right of childhood” and go on to list a variety of play’s educational, social, cognitive, and therapeutic benefits. In Benefits of Play for a Child’s Development it states that “play is not frivolous. It is not something to do after the ‘real work’ is done. Play is the real work of childhood. Through it, children have their best chance for becoming whole, happy adults.” Play matters. After seeing this exhibit and reflecting on play, I thought of my art students, their experiences on the playground and wondered how they would respond to these photographs.
Last fall, I was teaching a group of elementary students and decided to incorporate James Mollison’s work into our art class. I showed the students a variety of his playground photographs and asked what they noticed. Immediately the kids picked out the most striking differences, things that were foreign to them. Some students said that the playgrounds didn’t even look like playgrounds at all. I then asked, “What do you notice about our playgrounds that are different from most of the world?” The students soon realized that their experience on swing sets, slides, and jungle gyms was more of the anomaly than the norm when looking at things from a global perspective. I find it interesting that when learning about other cultures, we sometimes learn more about ourselves as we hold up a mirror to our own unique habits and culture.
I loved showing the students this photograph from Wen Chong Primary School in Quingyuan, China. If you look carefully, you will notice children with red brooms sweeping all around their playground and picking up after themselves. This brought up a great conversation about responsibility, duty, and taking ownership of a space. There is so much we can learn from these cultural differences that can make us better individuals and citizens.
I appreciate that James Mollison provided photographs from multiple playgrounds located in the same country and regions. For example, the playground at Rajkumar College depicts a group of boys in uniform playing in a very formal, manicured landscape. This contrasts greatly with Gram Panchayat School where both boys and girls dressed in a bright variety of clothes are playing together in a dusty open area without grass or sidewalks. Both of these playgrounds are located in Gujarat, India, but these children experience very different environments. It was important to me to show these kinds of comparisons in order to break down stereotypes surrounding one country or culture and allow room for complexity.
After comparing differences, I directed the students to look for similarities between themselves and the children on the different playgrounds. They could relate to the running, tugging, fighting (real and play), gathering in groups, standing alone, and other behaviors that these photos capture. The students were able to connect with the children despite the differences in dress, skin color, and circumstances. At the end of the discussion, I asked the students to reflect on why they think James Mollison decided to photograph playgrounds all around the world and why he thought it was important. I got a variety of answers but a common response was “because he wanted to share what other people go through.” I love that kids can look at these photos, see past their own experiences, and develop empathy.
Finally, after looking at and discussing all of these playgrounds I asked the students to describe their ideal playground. The students sketched out their ideas and shared them with each other. I taught them some paper sculpture techniques and gave them time to experiment and explore before transforming their ideas into three-dimensional playground sculptures. The students loved this project and came up with so many creative ideas.
Oftentimes it’s important to go deep in studying a specific culture, and other times it is beneficial to go wide. In this case, the purpose wasn’t an in-depth exploration of one specific group, but rather for students to appreciate the variation between cultures and accept that those differences need to be respected. After comparing and contrasting play spaces, I hope students learned how these various playgrounds unite children all around the world in their intrinsic need for play.
Written by Rachel Gonthier, Visual Art Specialist and BYU ARTS Partnership Professional Development Partner. She will be presenting at Arts Express this summer. Register now!