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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.4 (2003) 19-26

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Restriction and Individual Expression in the "Play Activity / Zokei Asobi "

Since World War II, art teachers in Japan have wavered between two senses of value. The first issue is whether they should foster children's specific artistic ability (for example, drawing, painting, or sculpture) in art class. Many art teachers believe that there is a standard body of knowledge about art that should be taught, much like chemistry or mathematics. In fact, teachers do set these restrictions by giving teaching materials or subjects of expression to children in art class. On the other hand, art teachers recognize the need to encourage the expression of each child's individual emotions and creativity. So, Japanese art teachers are faced with a contradiction: requiring [End Page 19] each child to express herself "freely" within an environment restricted by a set curriculum.

In Japan, when the government guidelines for teaching were revised about 25 years ago, a new domain was instituted in the elementary school art class. The domain is called "Play Activity/Zokei Asobi." The field of expression consists of two domains: the making of works (visual objects) according to a theme or subject and the "Play Activity" using various materials. The former is equivalent to the basic picture, craft, design, and sculpture education. The Play Activity is based on the viewpoint that children's expression naturally comes from within and is expressed as spontaneous play, such as playing in the sand or with blocks. Because children have a natural curiosity, play is not to be directed by someone else, but by their own will. Children's spontaneous play is viewed as the beginning of individual expression. Although the Play Activity has not yet fully permeated into art education of Japan, it has brought some changes to art class. The Play Activity has forced art teachers to think about their role: whether one should emphasize restriction — "shall I teach something to children?" or freedom — "how should I deal with each child's individual expression?" In this essay, I explore teachers' stream of consciousness about children's expression and meanings and subjects of the Play Activity in Japan.

Child's Expression and Works of Art

The Japanese art class consists of two fields: "expression" and "appreciation." In the past, children's main activity has been expression in art class. In recent years, appreciation has gradually come to be thought of as important as expression. There are historical reasons for this general philosophy about "art".

Many Japanese people think that only talented and famous painters or sculptors create "art." In their minds, "art" consists of highly valued "works of art" like those seen in museums and galleries. So, because it is quite different from that of a talented artist's masterpiece, children's expression has not been considered as art.

On the other hand, children's expression is considered to be an important part of ego formation. In order to accomplish this, suitable materials and techniques must be part of the various formative experiences in art class. In this way, their inner emotions and thoughts can be communicated through the process and product of their expression. Because art teachers know such intuitive expression is an important part of life, it has been regarded as more important than appreciation. In this art class, children have not made "works of art" but have "expressed" themselves, thus they have been distanced from "Real art" (famous masterpieces).

The Restriction Born of Confusion about the Sense of "Art"

The Japanese general sense of "art" has brought a contradiction into art class. Because the works of talented and famous artists are highly valued in [End Page 20] many adults' minds, teachers often unrealistically expect young children to express as well as an adult.

For example, many Japanese value lifelike pictures as excellent. Consequently, many adults expect children to draw objects exactly as they appear. A college student who grew up surrounded by this value system retains such a sense of value. And if she cannot draw a lifelike...


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