While I have paused writing about play environments and am deferring to authors who produce new and comprehensive works on the subject, I will continue to explore subjects about child development I find interesting.
Those who follow this blog, or my personal Facebook page, know that I am very interested in the body’s microbiome. It seems that there are discoveries almost weekly about the role of bacteria in the gut on general health. The recent findings are astounding on how our gut profoundly influences our moods and child development.
Listening to one of my favorite programs, Science Friday on NPR a week ago, they had a segment on a book titled Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin in which he makes a case for fewer baths and much less soap. A part of his thesis is that the skin has its own microbiome that mirrors the gut’s.
I would argue that during the early years, we should consider the skin and gut as essentially one system with the skin being an essential pathway for creating a robust and complex microbiome. I also suspect that the skin acts as an ecology where bacteria and the body’s immune system interact in beneficial ways.
Hamblin’s discussion was compelling in his explanation of the negative impact of too much bathing. He made it clear that hyper-cleanliness has a negative impact on the health of our skin. This is especially true for young children who’s system is working hard to adapt to the world.
Thinking about this, I recalled hearing that, when asked what Elizabeth Warren uses to keep her skin so radiant, she replied, “water.” Warren’s skin success suggests that both doing fewer baths or just using no soap is a good idea.
I also remember the common new mothers’ exclamation, “I could just eat my baby up.” The science on this is fascinating. It turns out that the baby’s body odor creates neurotransmitters in new mothers that are very pleasurable and are an important part of forming a strong parental bond and promote caring. This bonding smell is produced primarily by the infant’s skin, so washing this away may not be a great idea.
In my twenties, I fancied myself an artist. My work was always playful, so naturally, I spent some time learning about kids. What a mistake! I was horrified to discover that kids are so much better painters than I might ever be. Of course, this is a secret that they keep form grownups by scrubbing the heck out of their masterpieces so we can’t see them. I used to trick my students by pulling their work off their easel after a few minutes and giving them fresh paper. Parents loved seeing the work of their little geniuses rather than the typical big dark mess.
I’ve been blogging about play for nearly a decade, and I’ve come to the same place as I did with painting. It’s time for me to stop blogging about play environments as there are better information sources than I can possibly create. Oh, I will still write about what interests me about kids, but if you want to know what sort of environment kids need or how best to support their development, check out the resources I will list below.
I’m only going to list books here as I want you to be changed by what you read. I will list the best online sources in another post as, while these are great, I find that the short form of blogs is less transformative. While these authors are early childhood experts and much of what they discuss takes place in preschools, their advice and insights apply equally to backyards. So, let’s dive in.
Teacher Tom’s First and Second Books.
To prove my point about the value of books over blogs, let me share this experience. I am a loyal reader of Tom Hobson’s blog, and so I didn’t buy his first book as I thought it to be just a collection of his posts. Circumstances caused me to miss some of his posts last year, so I bought his Second Book. Being able to read the posts chapters carefully curated into a narrative allowed me to embrace his perspective fully.
Why should you read his books? Tom sees kids as fully formed and perfect human beings. He has an insatiable curiosity about each child he encounters as a fully formed person with their own logic and goals. He helps us understand that the best way to know kids is by standing back and observing, intervening only when absolutely necessary, and only then at the very last moment.
The following books focus on the play environment, which those of us in early childhood consider being the third teacher. Note that the first teacher is the parent, and to do that job, you will be vastly better at that responsibility by reading and incorporating the practice that Tom so compellingly sets forth.
Nancy Striniste has written the definitive work on small scale outdoor learning spaces. What I love most about the book is that it combines the knowledge of an expert in child development, and the spirit of a gardener, with a how-to manual. She doesn’t just give you the background on why kids love hiding places but also shows you how to create a living willow structure or a mud hut.
The book is copiously illustrated and comprehensive. Need to know what to plant? Is it here? Want to add a bit of drama? How about a stage and the loose part props as well?
Buy direct from the source:
Adventures in Risky Play
The title of Rusty Keeler’s book is a bit of a bait and switch. The real risk in the book is not for the kids so much is it is to our adult propensity to be wildly overprotective. He makes this message work by sharing stories and powerful images that allow us to remember our own experiences growing up. In this way, he opens our hearts and minds to the fun and developmentally essential experiences of risky play.
While Rusty’s book covers many of the same subjects as Nancy’s, his perspective is that of a dad. This comes out in such ways as the section on rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play is a subject that is getting increased attention as early childhood experts have focused on emotional intelligence and the importance of children testing each other. In his discussion, he shares the same perspective as Tom Hobson in that we tend to suppress these challenging moments to the detriment of our child’s ability to function socially.
My Rotary Club recently had a presentation on implicit bias that was fascinating. The discussion resonated with a lesson I got from Professor Sinclair Kirby Miller, which I have mentioned in previous posts; “We create, order, and project, our reality moment by moment.” This simple dictum applies to everything from what we think is real that our eyes see to what quantum physics tells us about the cosmos. This same phenomenon applies to we what adults think children’s play is all about.
For example, there have been centuries of debates about human development and the respective roles of nature and nurture. Modern research tells us quite conclusively that during the first five years, children’s behavior is motivated by irresistible biological drives. The experience with the environment these drives produce the content of what children learn. This process of motivation and action is play.
When adults see a child playing with a fire truck or a doll, they project that they are exploring becoming a firefighter or a parent. In other words, the object is the content of the play. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is going on is that the child is engaged in an internal story. The “firetruck” could just as well be a block of wood. The doll could be a stick and a scrap of cloth. For the child, the specificity of the play object is immaterial. The story content of the play need not be and often is not related to fires or parenting.
The pandemic prevents me from being with children while they play. These sad days I rely on Tom Hobson to keep me in touch with their reality. Links to Tom’s books and blogs are posted below, and I encourage you to join me in feasting on their wisdom. You will quickly find that Tom is very candid about the bias he has to overcome daily to understand what the children are actually doing. He has learned that what we project onto children’s play is generally not correct. In his interactions with kids, he has to become very neutral in his comments, or he will hear the dreaded rebuke, “No silly, what we are doing is …”
Tom has learned that a main pillar of his practice is to stand back and observe. This is also the cornerstone of the Anjiplay method of early childhood education. The results of Anjiplay pedagogy is so demonstrably positive that it is beginning to be implemented throughout China.
That children’s learning is primarily play-based is nothing new. This awareness goes as far back as Aristotle, with stops along the way with Vygotsky, Singer, and Hirsh-Pasek and many, many others. What is new is the studies that establish the neurological process by which we construct inaccurate world models.
In an earlier blog, Play is Good Trouble, I wrote about the relationship between play and democracy in the struggle for social justice. The issue of racial inequity is another example of unconscious bias. As a society, we must all commit to work constantly to build the mental tools to reveal the errors in our assumptions. This starts with coming into situations with the knowledge that you know nothing about what is actually before you and preparing your mind to be open. What is required is allowing the time for hearing and observing. We need this practice to be good parents. We need this practice to be a good community.
The requirements of social distancing are raising havoc with children’s mental health. Researchers are concerned that this may have lifelong damage.
Summary: Social isolation experienced during childhood has an impact on adult brain function and behavior. Following two weeks of social isolation immediately following weaning in male mice, researchers noticed a failure in activation of medial prefrontal cortex neurons projecting to the posterior paraventricular thalamus during social exposure in adulthood. Findings suggest medial prefrontal cortex neurons required for sociability are profoundly affected by social isolation at a young age.
While the best remedy for this is for kids to be able to play in close contact again, that opportunity is still in the future and will be slow becoming anywhere close to pre-COVID normalcy. What can a parent do?
Pets have always been a part of children’s social and emotional life. During the pandemic there has been a surge in adoptions and shelters are finding that animals that would have certainly been euthanized are now finding homes. This means that if you are looking for a pet your choices are limited. While dogs and cats are the go-to option, I will argue that they may in some respects not be best suited for the current situation. Why?
Dogs and cats are traditionally seen as members of the family and their care is a family responsibility. When kids choose alternative pets, those animals are generally considered the responsibility of the child. This change in status has life and death consequence which has profound impact on the relationship between the child and their pet. Put in the bluntest terms, if the child does not care for their pet, the pet will die.
Homes often have these alternative pets, ranging from goldfish to rats. Because of their shorter lifespans and more fragile nature, all of these animals will die during their caregiver’s childhood. While tragic at the time, these deaths are a good thing, as the experience is profound and illuminates one of life’s deepest experiences. How you handle this inevitability will be a real test of your parenting skills. I suspect that this is one reason that parents are often reluctant to take on one of these alternative pets because they know that a difficult day of reconning is sure to follow.
The existential relationship between the child and alternative pet is therefore substantially different than it is with a dog or cat because of the inherent responsibility of the child that is a fundamental condition. The pet will die, hopefully of old age, but it is more often because of neglect, which in itself is a deep life lesson. Less often but more instructive are those deaths that come from a lack of knowledge about the needs of the animal.
From the standpoint of learning, one of the best pets for kids are fish. Fish require a balanced environment in which nutrition, air, light and temperature have to be balanced in a very narrow set of parameters. A fish tank is a dynamic lesson in ecology that helps children get a deep and person understanding of the larger world around them. The problem with fish is that they are not at all cuddly. That shortcoming can be mitigated to some extent by choosing an assortment fish species that have an active social life or will reproduce and thereby increase the child’s engagement.
The best choice for a cuddly pet, other than a dog or cat, is a rat. While many have an aversion to rats, they are incredibly smart, playful and robust. Rabbits and guinea pigs can be good pets as they will play with cats and dogs but are not nearly as smart or trainable as rats. Hamsters and mice have the benefit of breeding well but don’t have much in the way of play value to offer. Parakeets and budgies are fun and, with training and proper handling, can be good choices.
The main goal here is that the child must make the selection and do the work to keep the animal alive and thriving. Whichever animal selected be sure that it has been bred in captivity. This means exotic animals such as saltwater fish are out as are many reptiles and amphibians.
In this post, I will be somewhat provocative to illustrate some of my key points of this series. You may think that it is crazy to advocate for kids playing with fire, especially in the backyard, but I think that you will see that it is actually a great idea. Your concern is safety, and rightfully so. What’s one of the main skills you hope your children will learn? Safety, right? The other ability that they may gain during sheltering in place is learning to be self-motivated and deeply engaged. Playing with fire is a hot ticket to achieve both goals. Here’s how.
First, the preparation. Your shopping list should include; marshmallows – both sizes, gram crackers, toothpicks, and wooden matches. Oh, and a pocketknife. What? Now you want my kid to cut herself in addition to setting the house on fire! No! That’s not going to happen; you’ve got this.
I’m going to design this program for those kids who are at least a mature four-year-old. This project illustrates what we, in the early childhood education field, call “scaffolding,” where the core lesson is added to as children master the challenge presented. Following the “less is more rule,” start by giving out only a handful of marshmallows and some toothpicks. This will trigger the construction phase. Wait until this has run its course and then bring out some color markers. Wait for boredom to set in and add some paper, cardstock or cardboard. If the kids haven’t got the idea yet that this is fun, they can add what they want, suggest string, and let them know they are on their own.
Hopefully, you will have saved some of the large marshmallows because here’s where we introduce fire. Your parenting goal here is to provide as little help as possible. The first step is to permit the children to roast some marshmallows while not providing specific directions other than it has to be outside, and you have to approve the plan for how they will do it safely. That task should take at least a day. More if you can point out the possible hazards that need to be considered. Here’s where you can use some of the wasted marshmallows from the construction project by setting up an experiment to see how combustible these little sugar bombs really are. If you want to use the drama, this creates to get in some STEM learning, and you can talk about calories and sugar in foods and how their body burns them.
We have now set the stage for building a fire. This allows for more STEM with an exploration of combustion and the ratio of oxygen to fuel. You can illustrate this by having them drop a lighted match in a glass jar, covering it, and watching the flame go out. The next insight is to have them discover the concept of kindling temperature. This can be done by holding a burning match to a large piece of wood and seeing that it doesn’t catch fire before the match burns out. Now you can present the knife. The children can use the knife to whittle off small slivers from the wood to act as kindling is a fundamental life skill.
I prefer a Swiss Army knife, but there are many websites with other types suggested and good rules for using a knife. This is a great time to talk about maintenance and sharpening, and I recommend adding a multi-grit diamond sharpening tool to the kit.
I think you can see where I’m going with this post. Each step in the program has a trigger, an experiment, and a product that leads to the next challenge. If you follow this approach, you should have had a month’s worth of engaging activities with a minimum of your time and almost no cost. It’s up to you and your child where you want to take this. I suggest that you can go next to making Smores and then to hotdogs on a stick. From here, the whole area of cooking opens up. There’s a whole world of doing solar oven backing that can be down with almost no supervision.
What this plan sets in place is a relationship between you and your child where you are the facilitator, and the child is the explorer. Once this dynamic is set in place, your child’s confidence and competence will blossom, and level of trust and mutual respect will become the norm.
Who knows, perhaps this one exercise will turn your child on to cooking, and you will have real help in the kitchen. See? Playing with fire can be a good thing.
I’ve needed to take a few days off while waiting for possible fire evacuation orders. While the fires are still raging, our little town is safe, for now, thanks to our terrific firefighters. The heightened stress made me even more aware of the burden all of are sharing that is even more challenging for parents. I couldn’t just sit uselessly any longer and needed to get back to my goal for this series, how to help parents keep their kids emotionally and physically healthy. These few days off have allowed me to get even clearer about the message I want to convey, so let’s get at it.
Since you’re reading this online, I can assume that you are both tech-savvy and need ideas. The preceding four blogs have given you a general idea of what I’m trying to accomplish by giving you useful and practical examples. These stories illustrate the general principles I am employing in this exercise. Before going on to more practical applications, I’d like to be more explicit about these rules to extrapolate from them and apply them more broadly.
Rule One – You come first.
We tend to put our children’s welfare ahead of our own, but in high-stress times you need to put your health first. This is the same rule you have heard every time you have taken an airplane … put your mask on first and then your child’s. In the case of play at home, this rule is critical because kids are hypersensitive to their parent’s stress level, and if you are not in control, you cannot help them. Remember to breathe and to stay in your body, and you will be fine.
Rule Two – Less is more.
We live in a time of abundance and feel compelled to give all we can to our kids. Children don’t do well with a profusion of options. They need deep rather than broad. Children thrive on complexity, but as adults, we tend to think that having many options as a good thing. On the other hand, kids look not so much for more things but for the connections that exist between them and the links that are possible. Too much stuff gets in the way of going deep.
Rule Three – Know the triggers.
Kids come with an innate alarm system that tells them when something in their environment needs to be explored. The examples in the introductory posts and those that follow are based on a primary trigger for playful exploration. I have written extensively about triggers in this blog over the years, and you can do a search here for triggers and get both the theory and a list.
Rule Four – Boredom is your friend.
Two phrases should cause you to perk up your ears; “that’s interesting,” and “I’m bored.” These are two sides of the same coin. It’s hard not to hear that your child is bored and not take that on as your job. You cannot fix boredom! That is your child’s job, and the more you intervene with your idea of what will be interesting, the more you will rob them of the essential tools of self-discovery. If you need a way to get things moving, have them come up with ten things that they think are cool and you, and they will be off to the races.
Rule Five – Hugs
We are in for a very long road to get back to anything like normal human society. Your children are suffering, and, as the pandemic drags on, the lack of social contact is causing ever greater harm to your child. It would be crazy for me to suggest any specific course of action. Suffice it to say that providing social interaction has to be your highest priority. Every parent is faced with the same challenge and is searching for solutions. Join those conversations.
There has been an explosion of interest in the role of the gut microbiome in recent years. The discoveries range from the role of bacteria gained through vaginal birth to their role in Alzheimer’s. I have written previously about the benefits of mud Mycobacterium vaccae (MV) in Getting the Dirt on Play. This installment will look at getting those benefits with the least amount of hassle. My reasoning is to make it so easy to allow your kids to play with mud that it becomes just another toy and not another cleanup chore.
The key to this approach is moderation. Sure, it’s fun, on occasion, to get fully immersed in mud, but that is not necessary for our goal, which is to just get a taste. You see, the bacterium in mud will multiply to the appropriate balance with the 100’s of other species that dwell there. One of the benefits we are looking for is the mood-altering power of MV. Think of mud as Nature’s Prozac in its ability to calm anxiety and elevate the spirit. Kids don’t have to play in mud to get this boost as they can get it with just playing with dirt. You get the same effect from gardening. There are other benefits to getting dirty such as lowering allergies and asthma, but in these stressful times, the reduction in stress outweighs all other considerations.
If you can get the same benefits from dirt as you can from mud, why should you bother with the mess? The reason to add water to the mix is that the tactile impact of mud is a force multiplier. The slithery, gooey, squishy quality of mud has its anxiety-reducing quality. Let’s look at how to get all the benefits while minimizing the mess.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This notion applies doubly for kid’s play. Your first step is deciding what you are comfortable with what your children will get dirty. In our preschools, we use aprons, rain gear, or a change of clothes as our solutions depend on the play materials we are presenting. Having these options ready to pair with the play agenda for the day is a recipe for success.
As has been the case with our previous recommendations in this series of blogs dealing with the pandemic, the primary path to maximizing benefits is setting up the environment. Preschool programs have been dealing successfully with this challenge since forever, so we will highlight what they have found to be successful.
Another common phrase is “everything in moderation,” and it applies doubly in this case. Small amounts of water and dirt are fully adequate to support great play sessions. One way to lower the amount of dirt and water used is to set up another traditional feature of early childhood education centers, the “Mud Kitchen.” These are so beneficial and emblematic of a school that supports play-based learning that I recommend those looking for a school for their children to walk away and not look back if the school they are considering doesn’t have one.
A mud kitchen can be very elaborate or just some tubs and boxes. The key to making this work is to have lots of bowls, pans, bottles, and squeeze sprayers. Adding some marbles, small rocks, sand, lawn cuttings, and Easter egg dyes in containers set up an apothecary so kids can create potions. This sort of brewing up trouble will produce happy play episodes where you will only need to eat some pretend cake or poison once in a while to have hours of relative peace. You will initially have to maintain the materials and set up to some extent but try to transition as early as possible to have the kids gather the ingredients with you to extend the play and kid control.
While any dirt is great, some are concerned with “germs” and don’t trust just digging in the backyard. If that’s a concern, you can start with sand. The two images above are from Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World by Nancy Striniste, which I highly recommend.
Another alternative is clay. Sure, you can buy all sorts of “toy” clay in a myriad of colors and get none the bacterial benefits. It’s so much better to get a 25 lbs bag of air-dry clay for $30 and have enough to last for months. Play clay will also result in great sculptures and tons of slithery fun.
If your child is adverse to mud, a fun way to get them into the slimy play is by doing “finger painting” with chocolate pudding.
Back in July, I posted Kid’s Must Get What’s Inside – Out, where we discussed the innate drive for self-expression. As an artist, I’d like to share more thoughts about the relationship between art and play.
Back in the days when I was teaching preschool, after setting up the paint area, I had a common practice of standing near the easels and watch the children paint. One of the reasons I stopped painting myself was that the kids were often much better at it than I was. While the kids humbled me, the trouble was that they would keep on adding more and more until the paper was just a scrubbed mess. We would frequently chat as the children worked, and I would ask them what they saw emerging, and the answers would be something like “there is a red bird flying.” Occasionally I would ask if I could save the painting at that stage to give to their parents and give them a new sheet. Generally, they consented and later were excited to share the “completed” painting when they were picked up to go home. These experiences, and my work, taught me that what makes an artist is essentially they not know when to stop.
Think about it. We say that children are playing. But we don’t say a painter is “arting.” Why not? This is a cultural bias that considers art a product rather than like play, a process. Throughout history, painting and sculpture were used to create a cultural and public record of a person, god, or event. It is only with the advent of modern art, and more specifically with Dadaism and Existentialism that the notion of artistic self-expression has become the accepted purview of art.
There is a point at which children begin to know when their drawing is “all done.” Typically, you can ask the child-artist about what they have created, and you will get the story behind the image. These narratives will often be quite complex. The ability to complete a work of art comes about when children have developed the cognitive skills to create a mental model of reality. I ask, is this achievement not the highest purpose of education?
The curriculum at Anji Play is the only formal educational system I know of that was realized the monumental achievement of this developmental accomplishment and established a process to reinforce and foster its growth. Part of the genius of the Anji Play approach is this is done in a group process with an emerging communal narrative where children collaborate and extrapolate their playful discovery process. We strive for this cooperative process in teams where ideas are synergistic and result in an outcome that is greater than the whole, and yet it is also the property of the individuals.
As a play system creator, I have always felt that what I build is the armature, the framework, the stage, for the artistic event of children at play. While being creative is fun, the real joy comes from simply watching how the children go far beyond what I imagined they would do.
As I have come to know the playwork of Tom Hobson, Penny Wilson, and Suzanne Axelsson, I recognize that these folks are artists of the highest caliber. They set the stage and provide the props for true art and true play, in which the emerging self-expression of children, both individually and collectively, can flower.
One of the most important messages of this series is that play is not a product; it’s a process. Let’s illustrate this with a backyard project that is great fun and will last over several seasons. Not only is this an inexpensive project, but it will allow children to discover ecological principles in a very direct and memorable fashion.
“Play is not a product; it’s a process.”
This project starts with straw bales. I’m using the term “straw” rather than “hay” because straw is generally the byproduct of gain production and has very few weed plants contained in it. Whereas hay is just field cuttings that can contain things like thistles. Wheat straw is common and best for this project. Rice straw decomposes very slowly, and the bales are not as durable, so it is less desirable.
For most of my life, I have been blessed with living in an agricultural area where trips to feed stores in my truck were weekly. Now that I live in town and regretfully no longer have my truck, I’ve begun to appreciate that straw bales may not be so easy to acquire. That said, rental pickups are inexpensive, and what could be more fun than a trip to the countryside to get a load of straw? Basic straw-bales range in sizes, from small “two-string” ones 18 in wide, by either 14 or 16 in high, and 32 to 48 in long. Three-string “commercial bales” are 21 in wide, by 16 in high, by 3 to 4 ft long. The small sizes are around 40 pounds, and the larger is about 60 pounds for regular wheat straw. You can get as many as 15 bales on a pickup, and that is more than you probably will want, but I always end up not getting more when I could.
If you are going to get more than 4 bales, you probably should invest in a pair of hay hooks for under $20. These hooks will come in handy for your pirate costume next Halloween.
Some commercial straw bales are wire tied, which are very durable. The rope tied bales may fall apart with rough handling, so it is good to use tie-down straps when moving them. These will also be easier to grip that the ties already on the bales. You can get a set of three 12 ft ties for under $40. You may want these anyway to time down your load.
I hope you are getting the picture of what your children will experiencing so far. A drive to the country, visiting a feed store, and all the organic smells and cool tools. Did I mention baby chickens? Yes, you can get bales delivered and offloaded. But that’s not the point. This excursion is the sort of experience they will never get in school and, unless you live in the countryside, they may never get at all.
Before you make this outing, it is a great idea to do some planning. How much space can you devote to this project? Where will it go? How do you want to stack up the bales to make a fort? These are all great questions and, depending on the age of your kids, they should come up with the answers. They can make maps of the yard, use Legos to model the fort. The object is for you to do as little as possible. Note: these bales will eventually get wet, and when they do, they will weigh a lot more so keep them dry as long as possible to maximize the ability to move them around. Don’t stop at just the bales. Add a tarp, some planks, flexible tubes, some lengths of PVC pipe.
Don’t be a Wet Bale
You should get several months of play before the bales get soggy. If you put them on pallets and trap them, you will get more use, but eventually, they will get too funky to be fun. So, what’s next? Strawbale gardens!
The idea of planting into straw bales is an increasingly popular way to create temporary garden beds, and there is lots of information online to guide you in this process. The first crop can be any of your regular vegetables. Many gardeners can get a whole season and multiple crops out of the bales. After multiple crops, the bales will get pretty fragile and hard to plant in. But wait, there’s more. You can grow mushrooms in them. You can gather up the used straw and put it into a bucket or one of the new fabric planters and raise potatoes.
Finally, you will have gotten to the point that what is left over is suitable only for compost and garden mulch, both of which are terrific resources and learning opportunities. Did I mention vermiculture? That’s the scientific name for growing worms. Adding a microscope function to your smartphone will allow the kids to take a deep look into the rich life that has taken root in those once-pristine straw bales.
This is a multi-year adventure for less than a few hundred bucks. The learning, skills, and memories acquired will last a lifetime. Who says that a pandemic has to lead to learning loss?
Many credit Simon Nicholson with developing the theory of loose parts. While this is true historically, as a practical matter, children and teachers have been the real pioneers of loose part play. Over the past couple of decades, programs that support child development have created very systematic approaches to loose parts. I suspect that if I did a comprehensive search of the literature, all this knowledge is written down somewhere, but in my five decades of work in this area, I haven’t run across such a compilation. It is easier for me and, hopefully, more accessible for you for me to write up what I have observed. Before I launch into that exposition, it is appropriate for me to explain why this is an important exercise at this time.
As the Fairy Dust is settling around the Play First Summit and the 75,000 participants begin to process what we witnessed, it is impossible not to conclude that educators have begun to embrace child-directed play as an essential component of early childhood education. It follows that the primary means to that learning is an environment that is largely comprised of loose parts. The next step is to develop a pedagogy for this curriculum.
Generally, I start any analysis by looking for the intention. Be it a poem, a building, or a politician, examining what the intention is behind a made object or action is foundational. When it comes to loose parts, that intention is or should be, to maximize the child’s control. I say “should be”, because all too often the child’s control is compromised by other considerations. Be they cost, convenience, learning outcome, or other overriding consideration, it is important to identify the underlying intention in creating a sound and true pedagogy.
We should also recognize that as early childhood educators, we have been provisioning early childhood education environments for at least the past two centuries and, therefore, have amassed and tested a wellspring of solutions. This means that creating a loose part pedagogy is more like anthropology than creativity—lets’ start by categorizing what we have been doing all these years.
Natural Loose Parts
Without a doubt, natural materials are the earliest loose parts. Sand, water, leaves, sticks, flowers, and dirt are materials that children love and are foundational. While it is easy to say that these sorts of resources are important for early childhood development, we tend to think that their value is, well, natural. However, with our modern understanding of neuroscience, we have another and deeper takeaway. Natural materials provide what Bernie DeKoven, our dear late, Dr. Fun, called complexification. While this term has a specific meaning in mathematics, in Bernie’s use, the term when applied to something playable its meaning connotes increasingly complex layers and branches. His concept was almost like fractals, but rather than ever smaller repetitions of the same shape, play has ever-deepening layers of discovery and engagement. Complexification is one reason the “nature play” movement has so much appeal and sustainability, and why educators try to include as much of nature as we can. The challenge is that other than rocks, nature tends to be fragile, high maintenance, and space intensive. Since ECE tends to be chronically and perniciously under-resourced, we find including nature in our programs challenging. To combat this challenge, as professionals, we need to tie the inclusion of natural loose part play to the child development benefits natural materials provide. The key benefit is complexification and how it is essential to the development of a complex brain.
Combinatorial Loose Parts
What neuroscience tells us is that children’s play is often counterfactual. We can see this in the classroom when children struggle with how some ideas fit together when others don’t. This is the sort of deep learning that is hard to explain to parents or policymakers but is extremely important in children’s cognitive development. The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning.
The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning. The emblematic combinatorial play is a dollhouse as it brings together all the avatars and furnishings of domestic life. Block play can also be considered combinatorial, but in many programs, blocks are restricted to specific areas, and no other props are available; and such block play is just construction play. The same can be said of jigsaw puzzles, which are simple pattern recognition exercises. Returning to the issue of intention, one can quickly see that in each of these examples, child control is limited. Only when loose parts are not constrained to functional silos, do we achieve a deep level of complexification.
Educational Loose Parts
The appeal of educational loose parts is schools can readily answer the question, “what are children learning”? Perhaps the greatest practitioner of educational loose parts was Maria Montessori. Everything in her environment has specific learning embedded in its design. She intentionally used the child’s curiosity as a motivation to discover a fundamental concept she considered important. While one can make a case that this method is beneficial, it is important to note that it is the antithesis of nature-based loose part play. There are no deeper layers to the Montessori apparatus. Once a child has learned what the apparatus has to offer, children find the devices do not lend themselves to combinatorial play. Fortunately, most Montessori programs are not exclusively devoted to this narrow approach if only because kids soon master the content and need more. The lesson here is that materials with specific learning outcomes are not in themselves bad; it is just that they are very limited in meeting the demands of whole-child education.
Junk Loose Parts
Adventure Playgrounds have been around since the 1940s. In their way, preschools have embraced this concept almost as long. The play yard in which I had my practicum 50 years ago was of this type, with cable spools, doors, and tarps. Over the years, ECE has developed an informal inventory of found objects that are useful, such as tires, barrels, boxes, etc. The play yards at Anji Play are one of the best examples of including these well-suited objects. Teacher Tom’s Woodland Park and the Takoma Park Cooperatives also make good use of these materials. Indeed, in Tom Hobson’s Second Book, he extols the value of junk because its very worthlessness allows children to imbue the objects with a new identity. This repurposing is another form or counterfactual thinking. In his book, Tom elevates found objects from junk collected that no one wants, to objects that offer an opportunity for deep learning experiences. Tom embodies the sort of work we need to do as ECE professionals. In our daily interaction with children, we observe learning in situ and thus, over time, come to value the environment as the “third teacher.” We know this teacher may look strange and perhaps a bit dangerous to outsiders. But for those of us who know her, she is beautiful, and we must continue to allow her to evolve without interference or shame.
Active Loose Parts
In my experience, the type of loose parts that, if too often an afterthought in our choice of materials, are loose parts that support active play. Sure, we all have trikes and may call it done, but the skill development of trike riding is so low as to be dismissible. Scooters are far more beneficial motorically. The paucity of active play loose parts is widespread. For example, many programs I visit have no balls, which may be due to the fear of thrown objects, but the ability to catch is a rite of passage for children. The coordination of eye-tracking and combined with gross motor movement is one of the essential physical skills and are pivotal for such things as reading and dodging cars. A few other examples include a hula hoop, which is s such an evocative object for movement. A few 2x4s will be used for balance, wide board for a slide, ropes for swings. As a play systems designer, I cringe at the climbers attached to most commercial apparatus that offer only walking-gate type of movement, feet straight ahead hands to the side. For gosh sakes, we are primates! It is fairly easy to get downed trees from landscape maintenance companies or park departments that have many limbs that offer complex movement challenges.
The preceding is a start on a Pedagogy for Loose Parts or Child-Based learning since this is also true. This topic can and should become an online manual with all the associated links to Pinterest pages, references, and examples. Since America has come to realize the essential role of ECE in the economy, we will need a whole new generation of ECE teachers. While students may be trained in what to buy to equip their classrooms and yards, we expect that they will not also be given much background into the deep developmental value of junk. It is unlikely that, unless we create it, they will encounter a comprehensive manual that ties best practices to the emerging neuroscience in a systematic, constantly updated, and accessible format.
In this introduction, I’ve given the idea of a Loose Part Pedagogy a push. Let’s have some fun filling in the pages.