Loose Parts as Curriculum


As followers of this blog have no doubt noticed, I am not a big fan of preschools that focus on academic learning. I come to this opinion not just because I attended Pacific Oaks College where we learned a different approach to early childhood education but also from over fifty years consulting with ECE programs and designing their play spaces and apparatus. While I have shared in this blog many of the studies that address the problems of an overemphasis on academics, I have not shared my personal observations and I will do so now.

I can walk into a classroom and know instantly if the teacher is an academician. The walls will be festooned with “art” which show the children are all doing the same project. The letters of the alphabet will be prominently on display.  A quick trip outside will show lots of trikes, a play structure which is essentially a set of stairs leading to a slide, and occasionally a sandbox. While being with the children during their outdoor play time, the staff’s behavior will be predominately correcting kids actions and chatting with another teacher. They react in horror when I suggest that they not put out the trikes for the play session. At such times I have to force myself to continue to work with the center and console myself that I can only make things better, not do a complete makeover.

For several decades now, we have known that children have different learning styles. These styles are generally identified as logical, physical, verbal, aural, visual, social, and solitary. Most kids are not one style but a hierarchy that ranks these in order of preference the child has for each style. Academic preschools generally support a very narrow range of learning styles.

ECE teachers often complain that their job is exhausting. That’s how they justify using the children’s outdoor as a break time for themselves. Perhaps they should consider that the reason their job is hard is that they are working against the child’s interests and learning style. Give children to freedom to choose what they are interested in and how they want to explore those interests and what was once work becomes play.

Not that changing from an academic curriculum to exploratory learning is easy or that once transitioned that the teacher’s role is reduced, rather it is changed as well. In this model, teachers are resources and mentors for the children. Their role is now observation and knowing when, for example, the addition of some props will allow the intense interaction of the children at play to continue and deepen. An often unseen and underappreciated new role the teacher finds herself in is as materials collector to find cool stuff to feed the voracious curiosity of early learners.

In no way do I mean to suggest that the educational goals get thrown out the window. Instead, there is now a different, and substantially better way to achieve those goals. Nancy Dougherty, in her article, What is ‘Curriculum’ in the field of Early Childhood Education? writes:

Although there are many definitions for curriculum, they all include this concept:

goals and plans for children to acquire skills and knowledge through activities, experiences, and opportunities.”

She goes on to identify the various domains that are typically included in an ECE curriculum such as social and emotional, language and literacy, and cognitive development, etc. The change is NOT in the goals of ECE. Rather it is a change from trying to teach these, to establishing an environment and a relationship with the child that allows these domains to emerge.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest let me share what I suggest teachers do to implement this transition to active learning. I will use the active playspace as my example, but these suggestions apply equally to the classroom.


The first is scaffolding. I use this term in both the physical and metaphorical senses. In the playspace, the children need a sense of place and they need elevation. This can be, as we see in the AnjiPlay centers, as simple as ladders or in the above picture a constructive play storage unit with tons of elements.

My second recommendation is, to the greatest extent possible to use loose parts. This works with the ladders in the above example, and it will work in any other functional area of the playspace.

My last recommendation is to consider the presentation of the materials. Children love serendipity but they struggle with chaos. Learning how materials are best stored and presented is one of those invisible skills a master teacher possesses and works continuously to improve her skills.


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