I have been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and then yesterday, I read this fantastic post by Diane Kashin on The Environment As The Third Teacher, and I was finally inspired to blog. There are many different components to Diane’s post, but the parts that have me thinking the most are her comments on “loose parts.” I’ve had a love/hate relationship with loose parts. I love the idea in theory. I’ve seen incredible photographs on Instagram and Twitter that show how students have used various items — from pieces of bark to various coloured gems — to create elaborate pictures, to engage in storytelling, to demonstrate math learning, and to share thinking with peers. The documentation examples in Diane’s post align with ones that I’ve seen before, and they make me think of what is possible when it comes to “loose parts.” But then I see what’s happened in our classroom …
My partner, Nayer, and I have loose parts incorporated in all areas of the classroom. We’ve tried to limit plastic toy options and use more loose parts. It’s been a struggle though because the rich dialogue and creative play that we saw in other people’s photographs and videos weren’t happening in our room.
- There was a lot of dumping. Maybe dumping is learning. Sometimes students dumped containers of gems into the tires to create different sounds, but without adult questioning, they rarely considered the amounts or types of gems to create different sounds. The excitement came more from the dumping and mixing of materials than from a purposeful use in them. At the end of the day, I felt as though more time was spent cleaning up than experimenting, reflecting, and learning.
- Students avoided these materials. We put loose parts in containers around the classroom, but often, these were the items that were overlooked. Our most popular items were the plastic toy garage, the train track, the cars, and the plastic people. Sometimes we tried to combine the loose parts with the plastic toys, but often the loose parts were dumped to the side, and the students continued playing with the plastic items instead.
- Modelling didn’t help. We thought that the students might be unsure about how to use these items, so we decided to model some options. We played with the students. But we found that when we sat down with the loose parts, we had very few students that joined us (contrary to other times when there were always many), and when we stopped playing, the students did too. It’s almost as though they struggled with extending this learning on their own.
Over our months in the classroom, we’ve stepped back, and we started to reconsider loose part options and watch the children closely to see what they gravitate to for loose parts.
- We noticed that the large pieces of flooring are always popular. Students use them in conjunction with the blocks to make houses, but they also use them to create roads, racetracks, bridges, and ramps. Putting different tape options around the room has also gotten the students to look at how they can attach these pieces to each other as well as to other items, and this has changed the dynamics of the play.
- Wooden blocks have also become loose parts. Students use these blocks for building, but also for creating skates, holding items up, and supporting the ramps and bridges that they make around the classroom. The free flow movement of these items has almost changed how they’re used because now the students feel comfortable taking them to different areas in the room and using them in different ways.
- Little loose parts work best in play dough and in the sensory bin. We tried to place gems and rocks all around the classroom, but children rarely used them for anything more than dumping. When put near the play dough and in the sensory bin though, these items seem to be used in more purposeful ways. In conjunction with muffin tins, strainers, and cups, these loose parts are often used for cupcake toppings, jewel collecting, and food items. Maybe location matters.
- Wooden puzzles become loose parts. I never would have thought about this one before, but one student in our class realized that the top of the wooden puzzle fit perfectly inside a doll’s mouth. She used the puzzle piece as a pacifier. Pretty soon others were doing the same, and now these puzzle pieces are often used for dramatic play. Sometimes what we need most is a leader to show others some loose part possibilities.
- A box of recyclable materials is always beneficial. Months ago, we started to collect cardboard pieces and small containers. Students are now using these more to create ramps, buildings, and musical instruments. They will sometimes also pick an item from the bin to use in other areas of the classroom as they need it. There are so many different uses for recyclable materials!
When it comes to loose parts, I wonder if schema matters. I think about those students that have only had a limited number of life experiences. If the purposeful use of loose parts comes from children realizing the infinite possibilities for a single item, do students need more background knowledge to make this happen? How do we build this knowledge so that loose part play becomes meaningful and purposeful? I wonder if this happens over time in the classroom, but also with the use of modelling, and the other experiences that we provide for students throughout their time at school. What do you think? What have you experienced?