Fun Is an Essential Element of Existence
Ula Malko, psychologist, talks to Zofia Dubowska and Ewa Solarz
folders / Texts

Publication date: 10.03.2018

Zofia Dubowska: What is creativeness in a child’s life? What does a child experience in contact with various artistic materials?

Ula Malko:Children are constantly creating something. They have an inner need to check and experiment — they can create something from any material, as long as it’s malleable. Fun, and thus creating new situations, is an essential element of everyday life, but for a child to be able to explore, they must feel safe. When we take them to a workshop at a museum or to an exhibition, we need to ensure that they have a sense of freedom which fosters creativity.

For a child to create, it’s enough that they have paper, cardboard, clay, paints, or even mud. The less complex the material, the greater the field for experimentation. Child think in unconventional ways, before they learn the thought patterns that the average school often forces them into, they don’t know how they ‘should’ think. When we ask a three-year-old what a roll of paper can be used for, we find out it could be a telescope, a tunnel, a sword, a giant’s straw, basically anything.

ZD: Why do children play?

From the point of view of evolution — both of people and children — playing is necessary for development. All young animals go through a period of intense playing, primarily in order to develop reactions to unexpected, surprising situations. The higher developed the animals, the longer they play. Puppies jump at and bite each other, while pre-schoolers take on roles, repeatedly practicing various scenarios of everyday affairs: doctor’s visits, arguments with siblings, or unexpected friends’ visits. We often hear, ‘the child is only playing’, but during this time, they learn many things: overcoming difficulties, the properties of materials, taming difficult emotions, finding solutions to specific problems, as well as learning the reactions of others to their behaviour, discovering the laws of physics, such as gravity, and their or limitations. While they play, the child repeatedly changes the script: first they’re a fish, then a shark, and then an eagle or a plane. Each such change entails a transformation of the whole description of the situation, relations with other participants, as well as the rules. Imagination knows no limits.

ZD: So the child acquires what in adult life is called creativity and flexibility?

Yes. While playing, the child learns flexibility, spontaneity, thinking outside the box and non-standard ways of problem solving.

ZD: Does it affect the child’s development whether they’re playing with mud, or where they get paints and crayons?

It doesn’t matter at all, although parents generally prefer that their son or daughter draw with crayons than play in the mud. It also happens that adults expect a strictly defined way of using artistic materials: when a child starts to build something out of the crayons or roll them around, sometimes the parent will say ‘crayons are for drawing, not for playing with’.

Another popular remark is ‘don’t play with your food’, but children examine their food, take it apart, because how else are they supposed to know that, say, a potato doesn’t have a pit inside? Before they put something in their mouth, they want to check the consistency of the material and its properties.

ZD: What inhibits this type of exploration when we are at an exhibition?

It may be that the parent disappears during a workshop, and then the child may not always benefit fully from the new situation. For many pre-school and early-school children, the presence of a parent in a new space is necessary to maintain a sense of security. If the parent disappears, then part of the child’s mind is busy wondering where they are and when they will come back, which makes it impossible to take an interest in the new situation.

The same applies to space: when a child hears ‘don’t touch that’, they withdraw, Sometimes, the only fun during a visit to a museum or gallery is the moment they hand over a ticket to be validated. I think that when we go to a place like that with a child, we can make an agreement that there are things that can be touched and things that can’t. We just need to remember, that the younger the child, the more difficult it is for them to remember. We also need to explain why we don’t want them to touch these specific exhibits.

For children, an important element of experiencing art is that they can do it together with someone. Sometimes the biggest attraction of a museum is the gravel on the driveway, where they can play with a friend.

Ewa Solarz: Moving onto art, in Zbigniew Libera’s film How to Train Little Girls (1987), an adult woman gives a four-year-old a beaded necklace, shows her how to put on lipstick and clip-on earrings. Everything is shown in slow-motion, with music like something from a horror film. Is what we give children to play with really training them?

If we let girls play with other things as well, then for me, it’s all right. They want to put on make-up, because they’re imitating their moms. It’s understandable: I wear lipstick, so my two-year-old son wears it, too. The trouble happens when we tell a boy playing with a doll carriage, ‘leave that, it’s for girls’ or when we stop girls from making noise, running around, playing with toy cars or blocks — when we force children into specific roles. There are many messages coming from adults about what girls and boys should be like. We need to be careful about this. I don’t think that just giving a girl a doll is forcing her into a role. The best toys are the ‘open’ ones, which don’t have manuals and offer many possibilities, such as blocks.

ES: Do you think there can be ‘bad toys,’ like toy guns?

I thought about this a lot. When my son went to preschool, the subject of weapons quickly came up in our house, because other children in the group played guns. But the older children (the preschool is connected with a school) learned about the Warsaw Uprising, or made models for tanks. My son learned to shoot a lot, with a broom, or a stick, or a gun made out of Duplo blocks, and I fought with myself, because it’s a difficult topic for me. But I thought that we have pillow fights or snowball fights with him, and from a five-year-old’s point of view, there’s no difference whether he throws snowballs at me or shoots me with a stick. Out interpretations sometimes mean that we perceive children’s games as dangerous. What is important is the emotions expressed in it, which the child learns thanks to it, such as excitement, which for many children is simultaneously pleasant and a little scary. I think playing guns can also be a way to get used to the idea of death, because in playing, it’s reversible. Playtime also helps children get used to a difficult experience and the associated emotions, such as after a vaccination, the child ‘vaccinates’ everyone at home for a couple of weeks. Playtime also gives children the possibility to control a situation, gives them a feeling of power and agency.

ZD: In Janusz Korczak’s Orphans’ Home, fights were allowed — he understood that little boys in conflict situations had to lead to a clash, and that a ban would not tame these emotions, that there had to be some way to let them out.

Games that involve force are necessary for children. During such ‘fights’, there is a map of the child’s body created in their mind, they develop a sense of their own boundaries, get to know their potential and start to realise their own strength, which is variable, because small people grow.

Getting back to toys — there are inappropriate toys for children, which can scare them. Many children are afraid of masks because they’re afraid of a deformation of the body, because they don’t know what kind of face is hidden under the mask. Similarly, they’re afraid of people dressed like bears and other creatures. The more sensitive the child, the more intense the experience. Some books and movies are also inappropriate for children.

ES: But they love the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

There are different children. Some will get frightened at the beginning and ask not to be read those stories anymore, while others will want to hear more because the mechanism of desensitisation will kick in — a child will subconsciously want to hear more to stop being afraid. But it has to take place in safe conditions, so they can ask an adult whether something really happened or just in the story (for children under five, the world of the stories and the real world overlap).

There are also so-called educational stories, like those that tell children that you shouldn’t talk to strangers, because they can hurt the child. These stories are more for adults than for children. It’s a good idea for a parent to talk with the child after reading them, because just reading them will scare the child more than it will teach them. We can’t believe that a book or a toy will solve something for us or take care of a problem.

ZD: What about talking about difficult things? Do we take the initiative or wait for the child’s questions?

I believe in following the child’s needs. The famous ‘where do babies come from?’ question is a good example. When a three-year-old asks, you can tell them a little bit, ask ‘What do you think?’ and then create a story that will be enough for the child. A three-year-old doesn’t need detailed knowledge about anatomy. Children ask questions when some things happen around them, such as a death in the family. In cases like that, it’s hard to pretend that nothing happened. If we keep turning them away, we’ll leave them to their own ideas and a growing fear, and when they’re older, they will find the information by themselves and that will not always be good for them. We don’t have to have an answer to every question, either; we can say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I have to think about this’ or ‘let’s look for an answer together’.

ZD: What knowledge should we have when we bring a child to a museum or a gallery?

The child will get something out of every work of art by themselves, as long as we don’t force the conclusion on them. When creating exhibitions for children, it’s important not to have a specific ‘didactic’ goal. Just developing the aesthetic imagination is a lot. And let’s remember that frequently, the most important influence on our child comes from our reactions. If we get offended by something, the child will conclude that there is something suspicious about this particular work. If we give the child the freedom, however, they will develop an attitude towards the work by themselves.


Ula Malko — psychologist and trainer, co-founder of Bliskie Miejsce [The Close Place]; she supports parents and specialists working with young children, conducting consultations and workshops with them

Ewa Solarz — curator of exhibitions and author of books for children

Zofia Dubowska — head of the education department at Zachęta, author of books on art for children

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