When Does Art Become Playful?

wallace and grommit image.jpg

By Dan Rees-Jones

The Gromit Unleashed 2 exhibition arrived in Bristol this summer and thousands of people have enjoyed being in and around these unique and inviting sculptures. The exhibition mainly focussed around the centre of Bristol had thousands of children and adults alike going on trails, map reading and collecting “Gromits” along the way, developing their own unique style or system.


Banksy Vs Bristol Museum Is another good example of a ‘playful approach’ which suddenly transformed this quiet museum into a unique playground of art. Thousands of children and adults came to visit this unique phenomenon (some queueing as long as seven hours to get in)  through its playful and provocative approach. Because there was no list or guide to the takeover, the challenge became simply finding the art.

“Warning: contains scenes of a childish nature which some adults may find disappointing.” Banksy Vs Bristol Museum 2009

Something about these art exhibitions created something that switched something on inside us and made us keen to want to know or explore more. What is it that made them playful and engaging?  What is the correlation/relationship between art, play or playfulness and why do we need to consider art and creativity within play?

To begin we need to understand more about play, the universal language of childhood. It is through play that children understand each other and make sense of the world around them. Children learn so much from play; it teaches them social skills such as sharing, taking turns, self-discipline and tolerance of others. Children’s lives are improved by playing; it helps them learn and develop as individuals. Children enjoy playing because there is no ‘right or wrong way’, they can use their imagination to develop games and interact with each other without any adult help. They need opportunities for unstructured play, as over programming can spoil its true benefits. 

‘Play encompasses children's behaviour which is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. It is performed for no external goal or reward, and is a fundamental and integral part of healthy development - not only for individual children, but also for the society in which they live’ DCSF (2008) National Play Strategy

 The intrinsic nature of play means that when a child is playing there are many interpretations and possibilities inspiring them. For example; A patch of tarmac for example can become a crocodile infested river, a erupting volcano, a black hole, an ocean or space. 

Playing around with both physical and imaginary elements help children to make sense of themselves and the world around them. Whether Immersed in an imaginary world, taking a physical risk, or simply hanging out with friends all of these are considered to be playing but quite fundamentally different in approach.  Exploring both the physical and conceptual components that go into making or creating a rich playful environment helps us to understand the bond between art and play a bit further.  The late Professor Perry Else discusses in his book “The Integral Play Framework” Fig 1 which balances the experiences of the child in the tangible world of structures with the insubstantial world of feelings and beliefs.

Else, Perry. 2009, The Value of Play

Else, Perry. 2009, The Value of Play

How adults and children perceive, view and interact with the world are contrasting. Children use play as a vehicle to develop an understanding of or apply a context to, or to make help sense of or simply to enjoy.  They live in the moment and can become fascinated or totally immersed by things that as adults we may not notice or feel are important enough to warrant investigation. Adults have been through this transition and they believe they have developed the understanding of themselves and the environments around them.  The playful curve plateaus as children transcend into adulthood.

“To make sense of a world in which much of what exists is abstract, children need to be able to explore the world of concepts.  This doesn’t mean that the concepts have to exist in reality.  Children have an embryonic awareness of abstracts like religion, philosophy and science from a relatively early age and need the time and permission to explore them.” Hughes, Bob 2001 The First Claim - A Framework For Quality Play Assessment 

On the whole the built environment is largely designed by and for adults, with some limited considerations for children. Developing public spaces also has many external factors such as planning, health and safety implications, financial restrictions, promoted activity and multi user functionality.  This can sometimes limit a creative approach or design and is often not accessible for children.

 Natural environments on the other hand offer more freedom and possibilities to both children and adults inviting the player to interact. A sandy beach for example provides an excellent stage for designing, building and destroying in a fun and playful context accessible to all.

The playful approach adopted by the Wallace and Gromit and Banksy exhibitions used art in a unique way within the built environment to bridges that gap thus making it accessible and playful to children as well as providing permission for adults to rediscover their hidden playful selves. Through these playful interpretations of the built environment the player is perhaps taken into the zone of complexity.

“Battram contends that: play exists only at the edge of chaos  - which means that play eixists only in the zone of complexity – a weird mixture, in uncertainty between order and chaos.” Arthur Battram 2007

“Often the play environment is seen as a purely physical space and therefore it is the provision for physical play which becomes more readily assessed, commented on or provided for. It is vital however to keep in mind that that is only a part of the play experience. Playable spaces must support as many dimensions of play as are possible.”  Cooper, Beth -  Simply Play – Development of the Tool

So the inter relationship between art, play and playfulness provides us with many interpretations and helps children develop, play with and understanding the environments surrounding them. I believe the consideration and use of art within any play environment or context is as important as the more traditional responses we have when planning, designing or supporting play for children.

To me, art is at its core inclusive. It’s inclusive in form, topic, and, hopefully, in creators and audience. Because art can be anything we want it to be, be about anything we want it to be, and be done for and by anyone, arts at its highest form brings people together and helps us reflect on our own humanity. Through art we can honor what makes us unique and celebrate what makes us all one.”  Ana Mendelson Founder and Director of the Autism Theatre Project.  

There are some playful art exhibitions coming to Bristol this autumn:

Bristol Family Arts Festival 2018

St Werburghs Arts Trail 2018


All's well that ends well, that's what I say.

Wallace and Gromit The Wrong Trousers 1993