Playing musical chairs with art students

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Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

It almost seems too simple.

“We’re playing musical chairs? Fer Realz?

Students’ faces say this on the first day of Intro to Sociology, even if their words don’t. But stick around for the discussion afterwards, and you realize this isn’t just child’s play.

I’m a huge fan of play no matter your age. A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneer in the study of play, while I was doing some training in Minneapolis. Anatomically and psychologically speaking, human beings are comparable to domesticated dogs; we are not intended to ever stop playing. Our eyes remain large and centered. Our noses don’t elongate to dig in the dirt. Our ears don’t peak and swivel to warn us of impending doom. His powerful images and words have stuck with me, and I swore I’d attempt to incorporate play techniques into my classrooms, my home, and my life.

I’m blessed at PCA&D to be among artists, creative thinkers, makers, doers.So while creating my new Sociology syllabus this semester, I came across an article by Susan  R. Takata about The Chairs Game  and vowed to play as much as possible. Students learn better by doing; we all know that. To turn doing into playing isn’t so hard.

Our first round of musical chairs was no different than what you remember from kindergarten. Music stops, everyone sits, whoever doesn’t have a chair to sit on joins me to the side. Competition at its finest. But how do the players’ interactions change when no is ever out?

Instead of joining me to the side, during the next round, everyone stays in. When the music stops, if you don’t have a chair, you get a lap. Suddenly everything becomes about cooperation and helping each other find a comfortable place to be.

The ensuing discussion, with students relaxed on the floor in a tight cluster, included stories about how early sports endeavors wreak havoc on self esteem, about how lack of competition in the Finnish school system creates almost no high school drop outs, and about how sociological research has evolved over the decades to value individual  experiences in groups. I explain that true learning is messy–full of mistakes and tears and coming out the other side better for the wear.

After a successful first class, students will embark on a semester of play, I hope, that leads to deeper understanding of somewhat intangible theories. The catch? They must do the assigned work in order to create the class time to play. Here’s to a semester of messy classrooms and invaluable learning adventures!

By Michelle Gregoire Fogel

Michelle Fogel, Liberal Arts faculty member at PCA&D, is teaching Intro to Sociology this semester, one of the courses in the liberal arts curriculum. Liberal Arts, an important component of PCA&D’s education in the visual arts, build critical-thinking skills and examine the creative process in a wide range of subjects. BFA degree students at PCA&D are required to complete liberal arts courses in art history, verbal communications, sciences/mathematics social sciences and humanities, where they learn effective writing, research, and analysis skills and establish the framework to think globally.