Permission to play

About a month ago, I was wandering through the Katzen Arts Center at American University when I came across something that immediately captured my attention. It was this simple message from artist, Jenny Wu, inviting visitors to play with her installation: 2014-10-08 09.11.09

Later that week, I emailed Jenny, curious to learn more. Jenny described her installation, Sandbox, (also a type of free-form video game, she explained) as a ‘playground’ for adults where they can explore textures, transform materials, and even water the artist’s plant.

Jenny explained, ‘The idea of play with the art is a combination of “me playing in the studio” and my fascination with human behaviors. I love the touch of the materials and textures, I perform transformation surgery on materials and give them new lives, and I want my audience to share that experience with me.’

Jenny also hopes to engage people in an active way, and allow them to observe and question their behavior. She shared this video of her earlier work, Come On Out and Play, which also invited an active, tactile visitor relationship. She said of this work, ‘People were really not afraid of touching art in a museum once they gained the permission!’

In the museum context, playing with or even altering the art on display is transgressive, highly participatory, and therefore, I think, quite fun. Of course, museum ‘playgrounds’ need not always be built around the art itself, but can also work well alongside the displays, offering visitors of all ages the chance to be spontaneous and creative as they connect with the collections. What I particularly like about Jenny’s concept though is how strongly the interactivity connects with the work itself.

Intrigued by my own burgeoning questions, I made a commitment to play hard in the museum every chance I got and to see what I could learn from an educator’s viewpoint. After all, play has inherent therapeutic impact, which could only be strengthened by the safety and authenticity of the museum context.

Play, according to an article by Peter Gray via Psychology Today, is defined largely by the player’s motivation and attitude; importantly, it is voluntary and motivated from within (Peter Gray, Psychology Today). Participating in an activity out of choice and because it is pleasurable is, obviously, good for you.

As Jenny Wu suggested, play is also active and purposeful, necessitating a commitment greater than just static observation. Joe Robinson via The Huffington Post explained that play nurtures our need for self-determination, connecting us with our natural drive for growth (Joe Robinson, The Huffington Post). An example is the way that my rockclimbing hobby provides me with constant challenges to confront and overcome.

Play is also therapeutic, allowing free expression and providing respite from anxiety. This article by Elena Santos via The Huffington Post identifies coloring as a valuable form of relaxation for adults.

My quest to play in the museum

I relish the opportunity to play. For over a year, I was lucky enough to play for a living while working as a nanny. I also have quite the silly side, which is always surprising to people who only know me as a rather quiet, serious individual.

So I set out on my play quest with the first stop at Pat Neuman’s studio during the annual Great Falls Studios Art Tour. My mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and I each chose a few studios to put on our personal tour schedule. I specifically requested Pat’s studio because her delightful blurb promised an active, artistic experience and seemed to extend to visitors of all ages.

2014-10-17 12.04.10

Halloween card-making

Complementing her strikingly-colorful pastel works, Pat’s main activity was a crayon and collage Halloween card-making table. After explaining her work, Pat gave an explicit invitation to her guests (all adults) to make a card. She eased the possible stress of getting started (mostly an issue for adults rather than children) by demonstrating a possible approach and suggesting techniques for success. Both myself and another visitor became happily absorbed in this relaxing, creative pursuit.


Playing with extra-ordinary objects at the BMA



A few weeks later, another playful opportunity presented itself during a visit to The Baltimore Museum of Art: sculpture-making at The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects.

My husband told me later that he didn’t find this activity particularly interesting, but I think some subjectivity is par for the course with museum interactives. Personally, I enjoyed sorting through the eclectic objects encased in transparent boxes and wondering about their past lives. For me, exploring the uniqueness of each object was very playful.

Then, last wIMG_0049eek, at the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery I put my architectural skills to work, creating the blue building pictured.  I chose to leave it assembled, hoping that someone might later feel inspired to collaborate.

As I played my way through these cultural spaces, I asked myself how museum design features offer permission to play. Children generally need no invitation to play. They see something engaging; they dive in. Adults are a little harder to draw in and this is where I hoped to gain some further insight.

In a 2012 post, Nina Simon also wondered how museums might elicit adult participation in museum interactives, noting that ‘People of all ages are sensitive to the messages that design sends’ (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

Some thoughts on providing ‘permission to play’ (for adults)

  • Ensuring the space is appropriately scaled to accommodate adult participation is helpful. For example, in the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery, space to build is abundant, and furniture is large and comfortable. The chairs at the block building table are large enough to accommodate multiple adults at a time.
  • Including adult content ensures the space is respectful and welcoming of adults. Play Work Build opens with several displays examining historical toys and the museum’s collecting activities in this area. The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects also targets adult interest by featuring everyday objects such as an old playing card or crumpled shopping receipt. (See also Nina’s discussion on adult-friendly design.)
  • As Nina’s post suggested, including more muted colors in the activity may help adults feel more comfortable and less alienated. All the spaces I encountered reflected this idea and had a balance of bright and muted colors.
  • Providing platforms for sharing (Jenny Wu’s invitation to send her videos) and social media engagement such as twitter hashtags (#bmabigtable & #blocktastic) may increase an activity’s appeal for adults. The opportunities to tweet about my creations were appealing to me.
  • Offering tips on how to get started may help adults feel safe and prevent initial frustration. (Thank you to artist, Pat Neuman, for this insight.)
  • Ensuring the activity augments the displays and the museum’s mission demonstrates to both children and adults that their participation is powerful and relevant. Good design in this respect enhances both the educative value of the activity and its authenticity and power, thereby impacting wellbeing. See also Marianna Adam’s discussion (via Art Museum Teaching) about leveraging the museum’s uniqueness in family programs (paras. 7 & 8).
  • Making the activity so irresistibly fun that adults can’t help but participate is also an access option and the reason why my husband, my brothers, and I couldn’t resist playing on this incredible public rope playground in Manly, Queensland a few months ago:


    Photo courtesy of my dad.

A brief caution?

While I was playing at Play Work Build, I noticed that one member of a group of three was fidgeting boredly while her two companions busily constructed a small city. She said something like, ‘I’m not good at this kind of thing,’ by way of explanation for why she wasn’t participating.

This comment got me thinking about the darker side of play. A quick observation of any group of children at play would likely reveal that fear of failure, insecurity, frustration, exclusion, and rejection can all quickly intrude upon a playful scene, sometimes fracturing engagement and introducing stress.

I wonder whether museums should consider some of these possible ‘play complications’ and design interactive spaces and activities that are supportive of varied needs and prepared to mitigate any breakdowns in connection.

Providing alternative ways to engage visitors (i.e. exhibitions to explore, videos to watch) seems like one option. Leaving activities open-ended and celebrating all responses (rather than stressing a ‘correct’ way of doing) is another. I’m also interested to hear other ideas on this …

Tell me your thoughts

Tell me how you play and what inspires you!

What are your great play memories and how could they inspire museum interactives?

What are your memorable museum play experiences?

How does play contribute to your personal wellbeing, and how can cultural programs make you feel sufficiently safe and excited to jump in and play?

One thought on “Permission to play

  1. Pingback: How can museums scaffold playfulness? | Museums with impact

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