Child’s Play

Sometimes I want a spoonful or two of sugar in my tea. I want to reread The Wind in the Willows. I want to watch Tom & Jerry. I want to eat Lucky Charms, or a meat pie with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I want to listen to Danny Kaye singing Hans Christian Andersen.

I want to spoil the kid in me.

My childhood was far from idyllic but things from my childhood can make me feel comfortable and free. And that freedom makes me feel creative in a visceral, fundamental way. The smell of paste, the feeling of scribbling with crayons, splattering poster paint with a big mushy brush, they loosen something in my head, the something that binds me to judgment and fear. School art supplies release me from rules and expectations and let me free to play.

I’ve been using materials like these more and more, since I started to explore in my California garage and then spent time with schoolkids in Beijing. I bought tempera and huge rolls of brown paper and Play-Do and sheets of cardboard and started to let loose.

It took work to let go, to undo the handcuffs and shake off the rust, but poster paints and fat cheap brushes helped a lot. There was nothing at stake. I could chuck paint around then toss the results in the trash. I didn’t care. And the kids in China didn’t either. We were just playing.

A couple of months ago, I started working on some projects using these childhood materials I’d rediscovered. I made some videos for an imaginary kid, someone six or eight or ten, to show him or her some cool things we could make together. I turned my thumbs into rubber-stamps, I melted crayons, I made masks out of grocery bags, I made stop-motion animations — and I had a lot of fun.

These videos were the foundation of a new set of lessons that I plan to take with me to Switzerland and Dubai these fall, to work with kids and show them some new ways to play. But they are also a new kourse we created for Sketchbook Skool because playing is something that’s not just for kids, it’s for the kids in all of us. I’ve seen time and again that when grow-ups are given permission to mess around with cheap art supplies, they reconnect with their original creative impulse, that impulse that fuels even the most sophisticated art and professional creative projects. Without that wild child, art becomes business, stiff and academic and overthought, and driven by fear and judgment. But unleashed it can produce anything.

I also liked the idea of creative projects that kids and grownups could take together and inspire each other. And that kids, out of school for the summer, could do on their own to keep their creative flames a flickering.

The monkey fought me a lot as I put these lessons together. What if adults resented being treated like children, felt patronized? What if I looked foolish? Unprofessional? Lost my ‘authority’?

Aw, screw it. I had fun and I think anyone watching the lessons will find some fun in them too — or might want to ask themselves why not. They gave me the same sort of comfort I find in childish things and my drawings and writing have been a lot looser since I started, more open to experimentation, less filled with consequence. I can’t wait to work with schoolkids again this fall. And to see what you make of our new kourses, Playing and More Playing at Sketchbook Skool. Here’s a little preview of the kourse if you’re interested:

23 thoughts on “Child’s Play”

  1. I’m in 🙂
    As a kid, the sound track of Captain Kangaroo opening up his shoebox of art supplies sent chills up my spine — be still my heart!! It all came back every time anyone in the SBS videos turned a page in a completed sketchbook (and that was often!), especially those thin moleskin pages. Fabulous crinkly, thrilling, full-of-possibility audio. My heart is racing now as I think of it. Construction paper being cut by kids’ scissors ….ahhhh bliss.


  2. Interesting! I find that when I have my grandchildren over, I become that creative child again. I have even used some of their fresh, unhindered artwork in some of my own artwork(with permission, of course). Sounds like the “Playing” klasses are going to be lots of fun!


  3. I think this is a great idea! I’ve been trying to learn to create art in an intuitive, playful way to help me loosen up a bit and be less rigid in my approach. This is just the sort of thing that would help. It would be fun to do it alongside my kids too. Unfortunately I can’t commit to participating this summer but if the course was to be rerun or offered without a schedule then I would be very interested.


  4. I wonder if you remember Winky Dink and You? I’m sorry I cannot remember the hosts name. We placed a sheet of plastic on the TV screen and then draw on it with the help of Winky Dink! I believe we used crayons and then wiped it off. We were able to fill in the area of the picture on the screen which was not provided to us…..I do remember having great fun making up stories, at least including my ideas in the presented story. Loved it!


  5. Aww …Danny this post is simply wonderful! – There’s still a little boy living inside me, he’s name is “Little Matthi” and “Little Matthi” is dreaming, painting, sketching, drawing, playing, testing, kidding and sometimes even bullshitting, – he’s responsible for all these crazy stuff which keeps me staying alive as an adult. Of course this crazy stuff is “dilettantish” – BUT: “It’s mine and that’s fine” !!! 🙂 – “Little Matthi” alias Matthias alias… 🙂


  6. Hi Danny

    Love, love love this………………………recently wrote a poem ( don’t ask me why ! ) called The Smell of Pencils. For some reason I remembered being given a new drawing book ( heaven ! ) crayons, the freedom to draw absolutely anything and knowing there would be gasps ,and praise heaped upon me even though the drawing may have been, would have been ****. The downside is that when wishing to follow the arts route in further education there were frowns and hints of securing a ‘ real’ job !!!

    So, getting back to being messy, inventive, revelling in colour and texture has taken a while. But I LOVE it. Today I worked with a guy who has special needs and to some extent he has retained many child like qualities. Today we played with leaves, twigs flower petals and a glue gun. Pasting all our nature finds down we rolled overyellow printing ink and held our breath whilst we printed images onto dark blue card. Result……an image of a windswept forest at night. Magic.

    Happy playing. The kids will love it. xxx


  7. Perfect timing Danny!!! I’ve gone through a little creative drought the last couple of months. I felt on fire last year and couldn’t believe all the art I was making and how I was growing (mostly thanks to Sketchbook Skool) but in the last few months with a move to a new home as well as a few other things I’ve felt a bit lost. I think playing is just what this gal needs to get back on track. I’ve got a new bigger, brighter workspace now so I think I will sign up! Cheers and thanks muchly!


  8. Ahh the minty smell of white paste, fresh wood from sharpening pencils, new paper, the heady whiff of damp dittos! But along with those pleasant memories come those of strict teachers who had no sense of play or the possibilities of experimentation.

    It is so fortunate that you are working with kids of various ages and teaching them that not only is it fun to be open to all around us, but that attribute allows us to learn, experiment an enrich every aspect of our lives.


  9. What a fabulous idea! I was recently reading about “adult coloring parties” that sounded and looked like so much fun. In fact, I have a friend who is a fine artist, and she colors every night while watching television!! I am going to sign up for your KLASS today! I am still learning so much about art, creating, and exploring how to use all of the wonderful things I learn from classes and apply principles to everything I create. I remember so little about doing anything creative while I was young (a Catholic schooled girl), so I know that this will send me back to a place I may or may not have been but never really remembered or knew. I can’t wait, Danny! Karen


  10. I’ve already registered for both klasses, you thought maybe I wouldn’t? Now I am sending this on to my kids and grandkids in hopes they will do it with their kids (big kids with their younger kids) and maybe we’ll even get to do some of it together! One can hope!!!!


  11. Thank you for bringing back those memories! OH how I long for the wonderful smells of paste and crayons! I remember how proud I was of my “paint shirt,” and looked forward to wearing it and getting paint on it in art class. I miss the familiar smell of the Play Doh that Santa would put in my stocking at Christmas! (I made clay “hamburgers on buns” with it and pretended to “grill” them on the floor vents). I LOVED my Cinderella coloring book! It was SO great being six years old.
    If we can just give ourselves permission to play again. The paint shirt, play-doh, and coloring book days have long passed–but no matter the age–I will always know where the crayons are.


  12. Well, Danny….here are a few verses yours reminded me of: “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
    And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
    Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:2-4
    Maybe I will talk myself into this klass…..


  13. Whoooooooohoooooo!

    What’s that saying? Creativity means letting go of certainty?

    This week I made heart shaped crayon “cakes”, as part of my cousin’s wedding favors. I also painted a quote (“Stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive”), without stencils (stencils shhmencils! Stencils are for adults) across bedroom wall and then flicked paint at it.

    After both endeavors, I danced about as happy as a happy thing.

    Child’s play? Oh yesh pleeeease! What’s the worst that can happen? You make a mess. What’s the best that can happen? You create a mess.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Art creativity unleashed – perfect! so much better than the fear filled, tight and stiff art that is done when we are worried about being judged! Great post 🙂


  15. I see that you mention zentangles. Be careful about teaching zentangling, you need to be a registered “tangle instructor” to teach under the trademark. The “owner” of the trademark is sue happy and defends her trademark with legal zeal. Call it zen doodles instead. It may be ridiculous but I’d hate to see you sued.


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