Most successful early childhood educators are masters at presenting loose parts. Some because they have a natural intuition for children’s play, others because their student teaching was under a master teacher. Unfortunately, too many new teachers in today’s rapidly changing world of early childhood education find themselves at a loss of how to begin.
When creating a loose part play space, a teacher who has no background with play-based learning will tend to use a criterion for selecting elements ranging from “Kids like to play with this” to “It’s recommended in the catalog and fits my budget.” We can do better.
Let’s start at the beginning. Children’s spontaneous play follows three steps, 1) Discovery, 2) Practice, and 3) Expression. The initial presentation of loose parts should be paced to mirror this sequence, introducing new elements progressively as children master the possibilities of the parts.
There are also fundamental play modalities, 1) Constructive, 2) Active, and 3) Social. As children play with different intentions, we often misread how they use loose parts in their play. For example, children may construct forms and use them for active play or social play.
It is critical to observe the children’s intent, so when the play idea has been mastered, it is clear what sorts of loose parts to introduce. For example, if the children have built a tower and are jumping from it, this play pattern suggests adding parts that support challenging movements such as ladders and planks. However, if the children are engrossed in a story they have created, then costumes are more appropriate.
Establishing a successful loose part play area requires setting up “norms” for the space. If all the possible add-on elements are immediately accessible, the play will tend to be chaotic, unfocused, and frustrating for the kids.
By presenting the basic loose parts and introducing new elements as the children’s play dictates, teachers model the three steps mentioned previously. In practice, this means initially keeping the augmenting elements out of reach in the play area. Children quickly learn to bring out the parts they need without supervision. The parts can be presented, so they have free access. New children learn these norms from “old-timers.”
While neuroscience in this area is still in its infancy, it is becoming increasingly clear that children learn through pattern recognition. While the best studies have looked at language acquisition, it is reasonable to extend the findings to loose parts, as such systems constitute a physical “language.”
As we consider the presentation of loose parts from a language standpoint, it brings up some interesting questions. For example, what if we have one setup containing lots of wood blocks and another with some blocks and various other stuff? How is the play different?
Thinking about the ideal loose parts play setup brings up another question. How much complexity is needed to support long-duration play episodes? In my experience working in zoo environments, there is a point at which there is sufficient complexity for the animals to exhibit normal behaviors. I have been unable to find any research that addresses the minimum. Since we have limited space and budgets, it would be helpful to know the ideal number of parts needed to maximize play-based learning.
As we begin to rollout the Toy Box program, the issues addressed in this post become central to success. In the Toy Box scenario, supervision is by parents rather than teachers. Children will engage with the loose parts irregularly rather than daily. This use pattern means that most play will be focused on discovery and suggests that the complexity of the parts should be kept to a minimum.
When looking at the three types of play constructive, active and, social, each will have distinct use patterns. For example, social play with elements such as costumes will be the easiest to implement with the least negative consequences. Portable obstacle course components can promote active play. Constructive play will be most successful when designed for the specific fixed equipment on the playground or when limited to soft elements such as cardboard.
This discussion also highlights the need for the Toy Box program to include a robust parent information platform to support them as they introduce loose parts onto playgrounds. Not only will they want answers to their questions, but they will also need support to address the inevitable concerns of other parents sharing the playground. While developing and testing such a platform will be challenging, the educational value for the whole community is substantial.