Amanda Koonlaba | September 2018

Free Play & the Arts

For the past few years, we’ve been hearing lots of news about how free play has been declining steadily for American children over the last century. There’s also tons of research available with a quick internet search that tells us that this decline in free play has had negative effects on children in many ways, one of which is their creativity.

I’m not here to quibble over the causes, or to place blame on any societal factors. Instead, I’d like to offer up arts integration and STEAM as a possible solution.

Randomness of Free Play

Before I talk about how arts integration and STEAM can help, I’d like to note that one of the things that makes free play so important for creativity is that it is random. There is no adult telling the children exactly what to do or even offering suggestions on how to do it.

Children who randomly make up games or play with imaginary friends are using their brains creatively. There are no rules in this. So, they get to exercise reasoning, critical thinking, responding to challenges, and a plethora of other important skills linked to creativity.

Now, if randomness is such a big part of free play, and we know that free play is critical to the development of creativity in children, then we need to find ways to incorporate this randomness into our instruction.

Does that sound like I’ve gone completely off the rails?

Maybe, but in the current society where every minute of a child’s day at school is scheduled and where there exists a massive list of standards that must be mastered, we have to find a way to harness at least some of the magic that happens with random free play.

Arts Integration and STEAM

The whole school of thought behind arts integration and STEAM is that the process is more important than the product. Sure, we like nice products, but the learning takes place throughout the process.

Great arts integration and STEAM lessons use the arts as the access point for other skills. Every human being on the planet connects with the arts to some degree. The potential for reaching all learners through these approaches is monumental.

So, let’s talk about the processes. When students are using what they have learned about an art form and other content to create original works of art, they engage in a learning process. This process is open ended.

Here’s a scenario:

The students have learned about lines, angles, and other geometric concepts. They analyze a work of art by Wassily Kandinsky to identify how he used these geometric concepts to create art. They learn that lines and shapes are both elements of visual art.  Then, they create their own work of art to include these same geometric concepts to show they understand both the math and the visual art. They experiment with different ways to show the geometric concepts in their artwork until they find what they feel best communicates it visually.

The students have the freedom to apply those geometric concepts in their artwork however they want. They get to be creative. There is an element of randomness to their creative process. No two student’s work will look alike. This whole process of creating a work of art is very much like the concept of free play. How?  Because they get to exercise reasoning, critical thinking, responding to challenges, and more just the same as they would as they were engaging in free play. The concept is the same.

Except, we are channeling the learning to harness the student’s access both to the arts and to the understanding of math content.

Things to Remember

If you want to use arts integration and STEAM to evoke this experience of randomness in learning, I have a few things for you to keep in mind.

Arts Integration and STEAM are not the exact same thing as free play.

The process and concepts are similar enough that these can be intentionally used as an instructional strategy that will have the same major impact on the student’s brain.

It takes time.

The students need time to play around with the concepts, become familiar enough to make decisions, and then create a work of art. This takes time. It cannot be rushed into one 20 minute session.

Failure is part of the process.

The students may not get it right the first time. They may have to evaluate what they are doing and make adjustments. This is part of the learning process as well. Encourage this and don’t make failure seem like a negative thing.

Words like randomness and free may be scary.

I know teachers need to have at least some control over the environment of the classroom. Good classroom management that is arts-driven can help. (EducationCloset has an online course called Managing the Arts Integrated Classroom that was created by yours truly that can help with this!)

Do you have ideas about free play for children? How do you use the arts to help children learn? Let’s chat!

About the Author

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator and educational consultant with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. Her career has been driven by the power of the arts to reach all learners. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016 and received the Arts Integration Service Award from the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative (Mississippi Arts Commission) in 2015. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. As a coach for The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. She blogs at