Play, Passion & Purpose

By Jenny Heitler-Klevans

This piece is reprinted from Jenny’s blog.

This morning I spent my time with children, singing, pretending to be caterpillars and butterflies, playing sticks, learning rhythms, and letting children make up their own rhythm and spoken word pieces. I watched as the children listened attentively, engaged in music and mime, laughed at silly puppets, and used their creativity.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the need to re-examine education. He spoke to Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner. Wagner said, “Today, because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

As a teaching artist, I read with interest, but nothing in the article or the comments afterward mentioned the arts as a vital and important way to help children learn innovation and problem-solving.

Wagner went on to say, “We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

What better way to bring play, passion and purpose into the classroom then through the arts? My husband and I often lead song-writing residencies where we help children to create original songs. It is a process-based activity in which the students are creatively engaged throughout the project. They choose the topic and the point of view, organize their ideas, create lyrics, invent melodies, and work together in a cooperative process. The students become invested in the project because it is their ideas, their song. When the song is finished, they record it and perform it in front of their classmates and families. They feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the work they have done.

Yet everyday we meet obstacles – under-funding, over-testing, and always the mantra “we need more instructional time.” Somehow, many people have the idea that if something is fun, children aren’t learning. Administrators, teachers and politicians need to remember that the arts are instructive. Not only that, but they help integrate all the lessons the students have been learning in an enjoyable and meaningful way. People need to dance, sing, act, write and create visual art in order to live a full life and be fully human. If we are deprived of these activities, the world becomes a dreary place and we lose the passion, play and purpose of living.

As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” Education specialists around the world are talking about the need to foster creativity as a way to train people to be more innovative and flexible. We need to make sure the arts are a big part of that conversation.

Jenny Heitler-Klevans is a longtime Children’s Music Network member, and sings with her husband David as Two of a Kind.


  1. Great article Jenny! As I am reading this, I am aware that the opposite is also true about the arts…..learning a piece of music is not always easy and fun, sometimes it requires really hard work and concentration, serious discipline, serious focus. But then after you have focused and worked, you end up with amazing evidence of what focus and work can produce, often in a tangible manner very different than any purely academic endeavor could possibly provide.
    My fifth grade students are starting to work on a boom-whacker piece for their final performance. We did one for their winter performance as well, and we worked very hard on it. As we got ready to work on this one, I reminded them of how well they had worked on the winter song despite all of the complaining and moaning about how hard it was. They then realized that they ALL still remembered how to play that winter piece, though they haven’t touched it in five months. It was quite a revelation for them, that their work had produced something that they truly “own” musically. I know that many of them would not necessarily say that about any of their academic subjects….

  2. Your blog reminded me that, in the 90’s I used to help the 6th grade class at St. James Academy (then only 10 students in a K to 6 school) write an original musical every year! They created the plot, I helped it flow; they wrote song words, and together we created the music. Anyone who wanted to sing a solo did. The process always resulted in amazing transformations, realizations, growth, and satisfaction for all. Students who were shy blossomed, students who were under-appreciated by their peers were recognized, students who loathed writing were suddenly entirely engage din the process. Of course, once the 6th grade grew to 30 students it was no longer possible. But you are so correct, “If we are deprived of these activities, the world becomes a dreary place and we lose the passion, play and purpose of living.”

  3. Great article Jenny.
    I am trying to help lots of teachers resist the domination and perversion of standardized tests that is driving out so much good instruction, especially in the arts. Keep up the great work.


    1. Great article Jenny. Wish we could convince more educators that play IS the way to higher learning! It’s a clever teacher who, just prior to administering those dreadful tests, has her children jump, dance, wiggle and stomp for 5 minutes to get the blood flowing to the brain. Purposeful play!

  4. Thanks for the great article, Jenny! An important call to action.

  5. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the article and this issue. Thanks.

  6. By the nature of our program name you can probably guess I fully agree with you! We have recently attached simple lesson plans to our wisdom SEL tunes and discovered that with this kind of presentation, little by little, teachers are often willing to consider our lyrics common core and classroom appropriate. Since so many states are requiring teachers to move in that direction at present this may actually may finally be a window in 🙂 One teacher actually contacted me instisting I place my songs on her “critical thinking common core” pinterest board. Woot toot! I’m now working our website to change the wording and our look. So much is in the presentation. I do believe there is hope for the future!

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