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Learning through play

A joint course explores the connection of psychology and art in child development

February 6, 2019

By Tamara Murga ‘16

A planetarium-like area for children to learn about constellations. A rocket to play in and create their own spacecraft. An underwater lightshow to learn about marine life. An art table in the shape of a dream tree. These were all elements of an exhibition created by Mount students for a children’s museum in the past year as part of an interdisciplinary course on the psychology of learning through play.

Piloted in Spring 2018, the Mount’s art and psychology departments collaborated on a joint course, ART197/PSY197 Play=Learning: Child Development in Community, that examines the value of play, how children learn through play, and explores how psychology course concepts and art principles apply to the design of valuable play experiences in community settings like museums.

Student readings included topics like play at different ages or life stages, an introduction to various types of play, and factors that facilitate or prevent playful learning. 

Besides learning about the elements that create positive play, students also studied how the psychology behind play and learning influences a toy’s design or a play environment’s configuration. The students’ culminating project involved designing and building an interactive exhibition for a local children’s museum.

“By applying what they’ve learned in psychology and design, students ask, ‘If we were to create a play space at the Mount or each of our communities, how would that look like?’” said Associate Professor Julia Tang, PhD, who teaches the psychology segment of the course. “Students get real-world practical application of not just applying theory but presenting/submitting a design proposal that is presented to their board of directors and staff, leads to feedback and adjustments as needed, which then contribute to the final build.”


From classroom to museum

To further challenge the concepts learned in the classroom, Tang and art instructor Phil Goldwhite partnered with the Southern California Children’s Museum in Pasadena to allow a space for students to install three of the class’ projects.

In the course’s art segment, students worked with museum staff to learn to conduct an evaluation of the museum’s needs. In class, students discussed and examine what it takes to produce a successful exhibit and how they could address some of the museum’s needs. They then worked on a design proposal that was critiqued and honed before being built. Students traded books for power tools as they built themed play areas for children.

“This course offers a great community partnership component by partnering with the museum and the art department,” said Tang.

Some of the exhibits proved to be popular and were kept longer than intended, such as the fall semester’s rocket apparatus titled “Up, Up and Beyond,” which was only taken down last month due to extensive wear and tear from use, and last year’s Rose Parade-themed musical float, which was up for nearly three months.

The result

Exhibits produced by Mount students received a positive response from both kids and their parents, said Tang.

“Students learned, and helped others learn, through their projects, that play isn’t just fun; play is a valuable aspect of growing up,” she said.

Mount student Kailanie Oasay '19, who was part of the group behind “Up, Up and Beyond,” said, “Not only did we create a space which fostered learning in children, but in doing so we learned about maintaining professional relationships with the museum, working closely with a team, the design process, and the importance of play in building valuable skills.”