Karina Hernandez, a senior majoring in art therapy at Mount Mary University, has carefully constructed over 9,000 origami figures since junior high as a means of creative expression.
“In a day, I’ll make 20 cranes in one sitting,” Hernandez said. “Usually the only reason why I stop is because my hand hurts and my arm starts twitching.”
Hernandez said that origami showcases her “quirky personality” and acts as a form of self-expression.
“It led me to art therapy when I realized my peers didn’t know how to express themselves, so they engaged in unhealthy activity,” Hernandez said. “A lot of them couldn’t put a name to what they were feeling.”
This type of behavior is at the heart of creative play – the act of engaging in activities that get to the core of our likes and our dislikes, hurts, joys and ultimately who we are.
“My classmates asked me to teach them how to do origami,” Hernandez said. “If you feel like you don’t have any control over your life, you get to take flat paper and make crisp lines and shapes. In the beginning it takes a lot of time, but it’s fun.”
Forms of Creative Play
Helen Jurgensen, licensed clinical social worker, distinguished two types of creative play: art in therapy and creative play as a therapeutic art form.
“The first is a method used primarily by behavioral psychologists who observe their clients at play,” Jurgensen said. “For example, a child is given toys (blocks, dolls, etc.) and is instructed to play with the toys. The psychologist takes note of the unconscious decisions the child makes as they play.”
According to Jurgensen, this is critical for treating the child client because it gives her space to go with her natural responses.
“Paint and canvas are the first that come to mind. Or a person who flies kites,” Jurgensen said. “Either they just purchase a kite to fly, or they take the time to find the pieces, colors and ribbons that they like and put it together in a creative way, resulting in perhaps a more satisfying experience. This is creative play.”
The second kind of creative play, Jurgensen said, is a “therapeutic approach to art that a person intentionally participates in to relieve stress or perhaps to learn new passions, strengths or characteristics about themselves through creative expression.”
The difference between doing art and engaging in creative play is the factor of intentionality, said Jurgensen. In order to maintain well-rounded interests, it is necessary to focus inwardly from time to time.
How to Engage in Creative Play
According to Jurgensen, creative play isn’t just about creating “art.” For some, creating art might be intimidating because it is primarily referred to in the context of skill and precision. However, there is room for trial and error.
Jurgensen said the key elements of creative play are passion and reflection. When these two factors come together, we give ourselves permission to engage in a kind of artistic expression that is unique to our personality.
Sister Joanne Poehlman, associate professor of anthropology, describes creative play as using your imagination.
“When I first thought of how I play, I thought of how much I enjoy playing with ideas,” Poehlman said. “I think imagination is a critical part of all of this. I love to read and ‘create’ a world with the author in which I can explore, and – well, play.”
The Benefits of Creative Play
Austin Reece, associate professor of philosophy, said that creative play builds empathy.
“The creative play that happens in fiction and poetry help us be more empathetic,” Reece said. “It helps us solve important problems, human problems. Today might be the day I encounter a new person in the flesh or in a book or through their art and I will be moved I will be informed and I’ll be given one more opportunity to be empathetic and that’s a pretty good day if that happens.”
Reece’s ideas about creative play draw from one of his favorite texts, “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human” by Jonathan Gottschall. The book gave him insights into how he should read fiction as a means of creative play.
“One of the things we learn is to see the world through others’ eyes and to empathize with other people,” Reece said. “One definition of empathy that I like a great deal is empathy as a skill or an ability to identify, to understand, and to respond thoughtfully and respectfully to other people’s feelings, other people’s experiences, other people’s ideas. I believe that’s a skill that has to be practiced and I think it’s a skill that helps us survive.”
Poehlman describes the joy and connection that come from creative play.
“I’m really curious about so many things and enjoy seeing how one thing is linked to another – and often in very funny ways,” Poehlman said. “I enjoy laughing. Several times a day I see connections that strike me as funny and I laugh to myself – or at least smile. Sometimes I share those connections and that helps others to laugh. I think humor is part of creativity – and for me, a part of play.”
Nicole Holstein, a sophomore majoring in art therapy, said creative play develops the whole person.
“Developing our creative interests involves dedicating time to ourselves and our mind,” Holstein said. “We can use this time to explore without any filters and let it guide us in creating ideas that we can then manifest into the world. Everything we discover about ourselves, both positive and negative, provide us with the opportunity to grow and understand our true self, so that we can develop ourselves into the person we want to be.”
Creative Play as a Point of Connection
According to Reece, one way students can interact with their academic community is remaining open to new ideas.
“Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that matter to you,” Reece said. “Try to be curious, and I think what goes hand-in-hand with curiosity and wonder is you have to admit to yourself that you don’t have the answer. You have to be humble enough, despite how smart and despite how amazing you are, that there is still more to learn still room to grow.”
He emphasized the importance of using creative play as a way to wrestle with real life circumstances in the classroom. Reece said the key is conversation.
“You have to be brave enough to ask those questions and direct those questions to other people in an ongoing dialogue just to know that you’re not alone in it,” Reece said.
Hernandez uses origami as a point of connection to her community. She simply sits before paper and pattern and with her own two hands creates vessels for secret messages among she and her best friends, words of inspiration and funny quotes for passersby.
“I even fill lunch boxes with origami hearts and stars,” Hernandez said. “I’ll do it until I have arthritis and probably continue even then.”
Make Your Own Origami Crane