For true learning to take place, it has to be meaningful, motivating and relevant. The material presented needs to fall into the goldilocks zone: that just right space in which the content is not too easy, not too hard, just the right amount of challenge for our current abilities. I like to call this a stretch space. Like any good stretch, the task becomes easier when our muscles are warm.
Meeting the challenge of finding this stretch space becomes exponentially more difficult in a traditional classroom setting where educators are responsible for teaching a sizable group of learners with diverse backgrounds and nuanced styles of learning.
But, there is a powerful tool at our disposal regardless of the content or learning objective we wish to teach: learning adventures. Learning adventures are curated units of inquiry that leverage creative play as the vehicle for targeted learning.
The feeling of the phrase learning adventure versus learning unit connotes a very different tone. While the discerning adult in us might call this difference “cheesy,” in essence that is the point. I’m guessing on some level the word adventure resonates in a positive way because it invites a sense of play.
Play is the universal language of our inner children and yet many adults do not allow—or do not know how to access—the mentality of play in their daily lives. Many school systems and models of learning train the play out of children early in favor of discipline and academic rigor. While the intention here is a good one, the impact is that it can ultimately damage the building of fundamental neural pathways that support resilience, motivation and deep learning.
Understanding that the universal language of children is play, it becomes an intuitive practice to access and support a child’s— and even adult’s— learning through the portal of play. By starting somewhere familiar and fun, we can more gracefully and organically build or scaffold to where we want to go.
For example, the Elements of heART program starts with simple line investigations. Students begin with the idea of “taking a dot for a walk”; the challenge being to slow down and pay attention amidst repetition and variance. Their focus is on the art materials while enjoying an easy task with the just right challenge of going slow enough to notice their senses.
From there, the program progresses so that the simple line experiments become brain warm ups and the building blocks of more complex drawing investigations (like 3D forms and textures). The skill of slowing down to notice their sensory experiences becomes an introduction to a mindfulness practice that serves as the foundation for creating an inner space and capacity to explore themes like responsible-choice making, trustworthiness and solution seeking through conversations, stories and games.
By scaffolding basic brain training around easy creative prompts that develop mindful awareness, young learners begin to recognize that patience, attention, the courage to experiment, and flexible thinking are the very same ingredients that can be applied to more challenging tasks.
Once we have established an initial motivation through feeling (“this is fun! I want to do more.”) we can begin the process of stretching toward cognitive growth (“This isn’t easy, but I think I can do it if I keep trying.”). With sustained practice, creative play becomes a process of internally mapping out the terrain of a growth mindset. When done in community, it presents us with powerful lessons in relational dynamics and character development.
Arts integration is a powerful tool for teaching and learning in every setting. Regardless of the subject or learning objective, educators can always find a creative inroad that deepens their students’ learning, often while expanding their own growth mindset in the process. While arts integration may appear to take more time an energy initially, the trade off is that both the teacher and learners are empowered by outcomes that fuel stronger executive function skills, social-emotional awareness and a deeper relationship to learning as a lifelong process that is enjoyable.
We should all get to experience learning as an adventure and arts integration is the answer.