When is There Too Much Stuff?

An example of limited abundance at Anji PLay

As we continue to explore popularizing loose part play and making it available everywhere, we are presented with the question of how much stuff is required and when is too much a detriment to play?

I’m not a trained researcher, and I try to keep my compulsive nature in check, so I can’t claim to have done an exhaustive search of the literature. Besides, it would break my budget to pay for all the papers in which the abstracts hint at relevance. That said, this is a critical issue for parents who want to use loose parts to maximize play-based learning. Answers should not be hard to find.

Absent good research, we can begin to tease out some insights into this subject. One need only look at how loose parts are managed in programs such as Anji Play, Montessori, and Regio Emilia to recognize how the loose parts are presented. There are three commonalities to note:

  • There is a certain sparseness to the affordances. When there is abundance, this tends to be of similar things, such as blocks.
  • There is also diversity such that the various play modalities such as pretend, constructive, active, tactile, discovery, and creative are offered.
  • Finally, the role of the adult is very carefully choreographed, so additional materials are introduced into ongoing play episodes at critical moments.

One of the most cogent discussions I have seen on this subject is a paper by Diane Kashin, A Thinking Continuum: A Search for Complexity in Early Childhood Education Practice. Her discussion of the loosely structured vs. highly structured classroom is instructive, and I urge you to take a few minutes to read it.

My point here is this. We can design a community-accessible loose part play system that meets the first two criteria. Helping parents develop the sensitivity to manage loose part play in a communal and public setting is a challenge of a whole different order and kind.

First, there is the issue of training. Parents simply can’t try to become early childhood educators. Even if they went back to school, most critical skills are not imparted by the academic curricula but by the practicum. They can observe master teachers interact with children.

There may be a way to make some of this hands-on learning available. While being physically present is ideal, one can learn a great deal from video. In this video, Anji Play founder Ms. Cheng Xueqin describes the important role of the teacher with Jesse Robert Coffino, Co-Chair of the True Play Foundation. This is a great introduction to the practice. In addition, Anji Play has posted many YouTube videos that are extremely instructive.

A unique element of the Anji Play method is the emphasis on reflection. This is a very subtle technique that most harried parents will overlook. Trying to stuff the practice into an online platform seems insurmountable. Can it be done? Maybe.

The approach I’d like to establish is “best practices” for the loose parts. These follow well established and effective early childhood education norms they are:

  • Storage – The way loose parts are stored for easy access by children is well thought out.
  • Clean up – It may seem crazy to many Americans, but kids want to be useful and participate in maintaining their living space.
  • Schedule – Parenting is so much easier when the child’s life falls into regular eating, sleeping, and play periods.

The system we are contemplating can follow the bike rental technology and establish procedures to ensure the loose parts are checked out and put away in an orderly fashion. The accompanying app can also provide a scheduler to assist parents in establishing and maintaining a rhythm to family life that accommodates their needs and normalizes their child’s life.

While this is a very brief discussion about the challenges of making loose part play available in public places, it suggests a path forward. Success will require a very well-thought-out physical system combined with an online portal for parent support.

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