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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The story of - Loose Parts

Uppdaterat: 26 sep. 2023

I often see posts and discussion about open-ended toys and materials...

loose-parts and sometimes wonder how "open-ended" is being interpreted... as for some it seems to be about taking away certain materials like cars, play food, etc because they are coded... which is more extreme than how I interpret it... but how extreme can we go? What are open-ended toys... or open-ended play? I thought I would take some time to explore these ideas... I also see, repeatedly, rather intense discussions about plastic, coloured/neutral and natural materials... and often natural materials are being framed as the "Reggio Emilia" way... and this post is here to say that it is not about it being plastic, or coloured, neutral or natural... what is important from a Reggio Emilia inspired perspective is the thinking behind the choice of materials... Reflecting on the relationships between materials, the interactions between the children and the materials, the context of the materials, the sustainability of the materials... what are the materials saying to us... do the same materials impact adults and children in same/different ways... do materials have different statuses? Why? Is this the same hierarchy structure in all cultures, or does this differ? Do we allow ourselves to consider this when dialoging on an international level?

Loose-parts as a named theory has been around for a LONG time... my entire lifetime in fact. But really we can trace back even further to Fröbel and his "gifts" - specially designed open-ended materials to encourage the children's play and imagination. As educators this is exactly what we need to be doing... to think carefully about what materials we are presenting to the children. How we think they will impact them and their play and their learning... but also carefully observing to see if it is, indeed, as we thought it would be, because frequently children play and explore in ways that we had not anticipated. This is how we learn about what "loose-parts" or "gifts" to introduce and also how we combine those gifts, what order we present them, all at once, or one at a time, or...? it is all going to have an impact.

Maybe, though, I should explore what a closed-ended material is... if there are open ended, there must be closed-ended... and the word "ended" is important. The fact that the activity comes to an end... so a puzzle or a book has a closed end, in the sense that you can finish the puzzle and then move on, you can finish the book and then move on - and that there is one way that the play/activity comes to an end (of course both can be done multiple times - but there is a beginning and an end to the activity - although there are some that will then use puzzle pieces and books in other ways to up-cycle etc... but this was not the original intention of the puzzle and the book - so even closed ended objects are not fully closed) Open-ended means that there is no pre-determined end - the children (or any person using the material) can use it indefinitely, so to speak without coming to an end, or decide upon a multitude of endings... it has an exponential potential... playing with cars, pretend food, blocks, play-figures can all create this open-ended play... It can, of course come to an end, if the children so choose. Sometimes I think that people there is confusion and that anything that is coded with a specific way to play is not being seen as a loose part. I have seen images of a tree cookie next to a slice of plastic cucumber with comments suggesting that the piece of wood is open and the cucumber is closed... as the cucumber can only be a cucumber... but that is really belittling a child's power of imagination (or revealing the limit of adult imagination) I have seen plenty of children over the many many years I have worked in ECE using plastic cucumber slices (and similar items) in a great many possible ways... as money, treasure, things to float, as frisbees for the figures they were playing with etc etc... Just as I have seen children use plastic bananas as telephones, microphones, guns... For me, it is about our relationship with the materials and the freedom we give the children to experiment and play with them. If we say to children that they can only use the fake cucumber as fake cucumber... we have limited the use of the material... but we have not closed the play... the play the child can have with the cucumber can be limitless... it can be a home-scene/restaurant/hospital/picnic/pirate scene of which there are numerous possibilities and directions to pursue... if we allow the children to use the cucumber in any way they can imagine, then we open up even more possibilities...

Similarly we could do the exact same with the wood-cookie, and say that it is a slice of wood and not a cookie... I mean why are we calling it a cookie? Isn't that putting a role on the wood? I love loose-parts... I think they can offer children many possibilities... to construct, to art and also in their role play - but I think that in the eyes of the child a pretend cucumber slice can be a loose part...

For children with delayed language, learning a new language, with autism etc then being specific can be of an advantage - a fake slice of cucumber can help them connect with the other children if they are labelling it cucumber - calling a slice of wood a cucumber might not be as helpful... it is always about context... about the needs of the children and providing materials that support their learning and well being rather than meeting the play status other educators apply to materials. Educating is not about keeping up with the latest fads and fashions or trying to be as "amazing" as another teacher sharing stuff online... it is about interacting with the children you work with, it is about listening to the children and their learning journey and providing the right materials that allows them to play, as well as giving them the knowledge and experience for the play to evolve. Closed ended materials and play also have their uses... they can support children with understanding start, middle and end... to be able to persist, concentration etc... and I would find it hard not to find someone that would say a book is a bad thing... it can be a catalyst to play... but the book in itself is closed ended - in the fact that we start reading, there is a middle and there is an end... and when you get to the end... then it can be repeated, but it does not go on... open ended play can go on after it as a child can invent how the story continues... but that is the child not the book. I think as with all things it is not just about night and day (closed or open-ended) but also about about dawn and dusk and that this should not be a one or the other discussion but an encouragement to deeper reflection about the materials we use and our attitudes.

We need to think about our choice of materials from a sustainability point of view... what are we saying to the children if we are constantly using single use plastic to recreate activities seen online... what responsibility do we have as educators about how we use materials and our impact on the earth - this shared planet of ours. You can read more about this in my post about sustainability here I think we need to reflect on trends in education... are we just following someone else's idea because it looks great, or because of their popularity, or have we thought through why this approach or activity or resources are meaningful for the children you work with? Don't just jump on the bandwagon, reflect first - it might well be that this is the best thing to try out... there again it might be that it needs some refining before it is really suitable for your children... or should be avoided altogether in just your setting. I do use single use plastics as loose parts, but then they have become multi-use plastic ... At the end of this post you can see some images and films of loose-part play that include such plastic - the small cups you see in the film are about 3 years old now (2019)... Some do crack and expire over time. I do try to limit how much plastic I use from an environmental point of view, I choose plastics that are non-toxic and I am very aware of the problems plastics cause on nature and especially our oceans... from giant floating plastic islands to all the horrible micro-plastics formed over time. I also strive not to buy new things, but use what is already available, or second hand (thrift/charity) shops.

Do templates kill creativity? - this post is about exploring the idea that it is not the template that kills the creativity but the attitude of the educator... if the educator is only allowing a single story of creativity for the children... only templates, and only specific ways of using them, then yes, I think templates are a bad thing... but if templates are a springboard to creativity, just one of the 100 languages of imagination and expression... then I do not see them as killing creativity... Sometimes I am told that I should not encourage others to use templates, because I am giving fuel to those that abuse them... at the same time I also believe that we cannot treat all educators in the same way... because then the idea of the single story is being abused in how we communicate about templates... there is not just one kind of teacher that over-uses templates and prevents children from exploring many other avenues of creativity... there are many different kinds of teachers, with many different kinds of classrooms with many different kinds of needs and abilities. If our focus is always listening to the children and understanding their needs and enabling them to light their own learning fires... then templates will be used only when needed... and as part of a larger play and learning diet. Many see the forest/nature as a higher status play space than play-grounds that are adult made... mostly on the basis that adults have determined that they are used in one specific way... I argue that it is not the equipment that limits children, but the adults in the space with the children that do that... I have seen children playing all sorts of different games and play on the exact same equipment... I have also seen children play the exact same play in a playground as well as in the forest... we adults need to take a step back and rethink our impact on children's play and how our own attitude enable or limit children in their daily play and interactions with materials around them. Sometimes we are fretting about the materials and resources, when really it is OUR relationship with these items that is the real issue.

(see these posts for more reflections on this topic I truly believe that it is the attitude of the adults that has the biggest impact on the loose part usage. I have seen spaces filled with the most glorious loose parts, but there has not been a full freedom to how these parts can be used... nearly always a pedagogical lens is placed on the way they are viewed, and the rules of usage; or fear of them being used in ways not approved of. Being play responsive as an educator requires us to observe the play and ensuring that the stuff we provide (even the word materials is loaded with bias) can serve both the play and the pedagogy, and that we should not be forcing pedagogy into the play, but allowing the play to inform our pedagogy.

Anyone that follows my instagram will know that I love being out in nature, in slowing down and looking closely. Those that have followed my blog for a long time will also know my love for loose-parts, natural elements and imagination (I mean the word is in my blog name... also the word INTERACTION... as in interacting with materials, each other, the world around us) What is important is that we reflect on the materials we are offering the children... how accessible are they, why these ones, what can be viewed and not reached, why? What aesthetics are you opting for, why? Do the colours of your place reflect the needs of the children? Do they stimulate children who need stimulating, do the soothe those who need calming? Is there space and materials for big play and small play... what sounds do the materials have, what smells do they have... how does this impact the children and you, as an educator? Are there materials and resources that can only be used with an adult, why? (and don't think I think this is a bad thing.... together play with adults has its perks too) is the furniture allowed to be seen as a loose part? Are you, as an educator, seen as a loose part? (I have often been turned into a climbing frame). Enjoy the process of thinking about the materials YOU make available to the children... and learning more about the relationships between the children and the materials and between the materials. Lets look at materials from the point of view of them telling many stories.

Loose-parts, stuff, resources, open-ended toys... they can all be guilty of the single story if we don't spend the time reflecting.

Digital learning, tablets, computers can also be used with loose-parts to add yet another dimension to their story and how they can be used....

2023 reflections

This dialogue continues to be one that floats in social media.

And today the term loose-parts mindset came up... the idea that educators need to have a certain mindset to be able to see the openness of loose parts and not schoolify them.

Personally I am not keen on the word mindset at all... because the word set means fixed, and for me the whole point is about being flexible - so maybe mindflex is better. That we need detach ourselves from growth mindset ideas (yet another way of thinking that is ableist I think) and start considering how can we support children in their flexibility, to be able to see life from multiple perspectives, to engage with the world using all their 100 languages and beyond etc?

It requires for many adults to unlearn the prescribed ways of doing things that were taught in school (and still are being taught) in order to deal with the fears of doing it wrong, and seeing mistakes simply as another language of learning. Of letting go of fixed agendas in order to see new learning journeys that we once did not know even existed, or dared to pursue... I also think it's time to reclaim the word activity. Instead of it only conjuring up adult controlled interactions, I feel that it should revert to what the word means... the quality or state of being active - so we can have play/autonomous activity, teacher-led activity, facilitated activity. We need to name what the problem is - adult control and interference, not activity - because if we keep labelling that activities are bad, we are not addressing the actual problem.

furniture as loose parts

nature items

adding strings of light changes how loose

using ice as a loose parts

using loose parts to create a 3D map

mixing natural and man made loose parts

loose parts designed to make a statement... this is "LOVE"

where to offer the loose parts impacts the play... in a darkened room with a light table, on a bright room on a normal table, on a mirror, many or a few...

The children are always great at finding their own loose parts when we are outside... stones, sticks junk... anything they can get their hands on becomes transformed... as part of play, or constructed into something... or lined up and sorted... so many possibilities

paper can be loose parts. From small paper... to massive paper that children can play under and make tunnels from...

overheads... they always make me think of what possible materials can we put on this, what combination, how will it look, how will it inspire... what play will evolve...?

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