Play Your Art Out: You just can’t be wrong in here

A shopping mall is probably the last place you’d expect to find a unique and creative outlet designed to engage kids. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Play Your Art Out, a “hands-on play experience” that benefits children, both physically and mentally.

After her work to get the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center up and running, (see the article Saving the Environment One Classroom at a Time,) Susan Blandford decided to further pursue her love of teaching children by opening Play Your Art Out in 2009. An ardent proponent of the Reggio Emilia Approach for Early Childhood Education, she believes that playtime is essential to nurturing creative young minds.

Susan explains, “the idea of the play studio isn’t about playing to make art, it’s playing to find the art of who you are. That’s a hard sell because people are used to just coming in and they want to be on their cell phone. That’s the first rule for parents … turn off and be with your kids.”

IMG_9459The play studio is located on the ground floor of Chesterfield Mall near Sears and the children’s playground. Money raised here is used to keep the Recycle Center afloat, and all materials used in the studio are obtained from the Recycle Center. The Recycle Center is how Susan got started in non-profit, but the play studio workshop is her passion project, asserting that “kids are amazing when they play.”

This is not a facility where parents are allowed to drop off their kids while they shop. Everything is structured around parent and child activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent and child will be playing with each other, but all parties will be engaged for the duration of the visit. Susan advises, “I want parents to re-engage with their kids.”

Parents have as much to learn at these workshops as the kids do. “Even more,” says Susan, “because they are so afraid that their child is not going to be in an activity, and is doing everything perfectly, and getting into college …. and the kid is three!”

The play space is divided into several areas with the most notable, a carpeted area in the front room, containing neatly organized bins full of cubes, spools, tiles and shapes made from cardboard, foam, wood, plastic or any number of otherwise strange and unusual materials. Children are invited to play quietly in this area with any of the available materials and to make a creation which is then shared in a small exhibit, alongside those of the other participants.

“I think that’s where creativity starts is with children’s play, and when they lose that playful thing, it’s like they’re getting tested on everything that they do,” cautions Susan.

IMG_9462After a while the children move to the art studio where they are given paint and brushes. Susan tells the kids, “You’re gonna play with paint! I don’t want you to worry about painting a picture, just dance your brush on your paper.” She continues “We really want to get away from the fact that they think that they have to create something that somebody else likes.”

If painting is not appealing for the child, they have the option of working with other materials and media by using collage boards, hats, masks and decorating boxes. Susan points out that “We have to realize that we are training children that there’s only one answer, and that’s usually by filling in some little circle.”

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Susan emphasises that there are no right or wrong ways to play or to create. Parents are discouraged from interjecting “helpful” comments to their children during playtime, leaving the child to control the direction of their experimentation.

Near the end of the art session the kids will be asked to “journal,” a chance for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while they played. Some of the writings by these young authors are incredibly profound, with one little girl exclaiming, “You just can’t be wrong in here!”

Susan adds, “Then they partner with one other person and they do not get to speak, they just listen to their partner. They look them in the eyes and they listen to them, and after they listen they can drag them to their own pile and they get to listen to them, so that there’s a shared thing. Then we have them play cooperatively. It’s all to build this kind of inner realization that you have a voice in the room.”

IMG_9453Realizing the worth of this program, Whole Foods has stepped in to offer their “One Dime at a Time” promotion, which gives 10 cents to the program each time that a customer uses their own bag. Play Your Art Out will also be hosting Whole Foods Kids’ Club on the first Friday of each month starting in July, and it will be free to parents who go to Whole Foods and retrieve a “Play Pass.” The promotion starts in local stores on July 7.

After spending a particularly poignant bonding moment with her daughter, a parent once said to Susan, “We just came to the mall to buy a pair of shoes!,” to which Susan replied, “You can’t buy that (experience) out there,” continuing “I’m kind of an oxymoron to be in a mall because I’m all about reuse and don’t go buy something you don’t need.”

She continues, “There’s so much that happens in here at any given time that it’s really hard to put it into words for parents about what I do in here. You have to experience it! They’ll come and stand at the door and ask ‘what are we making here today?’ and I’ll say ‘I have no idea.’ They want a plan, but that’s not who we are. Once they’re in here and they see their kids engaged for a long time, and they see them playing with paint, I’ll be happy if I can get that parent to sit down and play with paint next to their child.”

IMG_9468When asked if she had any advice for today’s parents, Susan stresses “Let kids be young. When they’re having a meltdown at the mall it’s because you’ve overextended your stay, it’s not because they’re misbehaving. That’s all they can behave.”

Play sessions need to be reserved in advance, and for $15 a child can get three hours in the play studio. Susan suggests that “Parents don’t think their kids will want to stay that long, but they’re wrong. This mall is becoming more child friendly with the train, and I’m not the only place in here that offers children’s programs.” The workshop is recommended for birthday parties, field trips, scouts, homeschoolers, summer camps, or just any kid and parent who would like to spend a couple of hours playing.

For more information, check out the Play Your Art Out website at www.playyourartout.com.

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