The folks who have been creating children’s educational toys have been shortchanging us for decades. Kids will play with just about anything. That kids play with the materials in most early childhood programs is no evidence that these materials are as beneficial as possible. A great example of this is the ever-popular hollow blocks. These are excellent examples of loose-part play toys that have been around for decades and are in nearly every early childhood education center.
There is no question that kids will play with them, often for extended periods. But ask yourself, after the first few play sessions what more can they learn besides how the shapes fit together? I assert that block play devolves to social play in short order, not that this is a bad thing, but could we do something more?
Our recently departed and much-loved play guru, Bernie DeKoven, used the term “complexification” for the idea of maximizing playful learning by making the environment multi-dimensional … more stuff means more complex play and more learning.
Visit nearly every preschool, and you will find the environment laid out into functional spaces; the kitchen area, the reading nook, and the block play space. The materials in each of these areas are siloed and rarely mixed. Teachers are taught to program these spaces. School supply catalog merchandise their products along these same categories. And so it has been for decades. And let’s not even talk about the lack of travel between indoors and outdoors. This “traditional” ECE format seems set in stone. The result of all this stagnation is that designers of educational materials find themselves trapped into these narrow and shop-worn classifications.
What will happen when we begin to look at the physical plant of an ECE program as a system of interoperating elements? I’m not suggesting a rigid requirement that everything has to fit with everything else, but that the apparatus and space are thought of, and planned for, dynamic and fluid mobility. How are the boundaries between functions presented to allow for flow? How is the presentation of materials transformed? What changes need to happen to storage?
The good news is that there are many examples of precisely this thinking that creative teachers have pioneered. Puddle Jumpers Nature Preschool is an excellent example. The way that Teacher Tom organizes space is also worth checking out. The rapid rise of AnjiPlay and Regio Emilia centers shows that this approach is rapidly becoming a trend.
We need to think about how much more we can get out of our school equipment if we allow for the mixing of functions. As Bucky Fuller taught, one plus one doesn’t equal two. These synergistic combinations can be transformative.
For many teachers and administrators, taking this new path will take commitment and patience. The good news is that there are great exemplary programs and organizations like NAEYC that are there to help make the transition.