Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Introducing Loose Parts - Playdough

In my last post, I talked about the challenges teachers can fact when they first start searching for ways to introduce loose parts in their classrooms. Thinking about which materials to use and how to introduce them can be overwhelming. One good starting place is to think about one material, or one classroom area, and how adding loose parts can extend and enrich the children’s play.

Playdough is a material that easily combines with loose parts. Loose parts can be stuck into playdough, playdough can be wrapped around them, or they can be used as tools to cut, stack, and connect.

One of my favorite objects to use with playdough are plastic hair curlers. The first time I used them, I expected children to use them as rolling pins. Which they did, but they also stuck them into playdough, stuffed playdough inside them, and used them as building blocks for sculptures, often with the playdough connecting the pieces.


Craft sticks, candles, pipe cleaners, or anything else that can be poked, stuck, or pushed into playdough sparks children to think about ways to make holes, experiment with balance and height, and of course, pretend to make birthday cakes, popsicles, and all sorts of food.


Small objects like beads, buttons, and counting bears can make impressions, be covered and hidden, or simply arranged in a sturdy playdough base.

Whatever the new objects, they will encourage children to think “What can I do with this?” Which is the purpose of loose parts play – giving children the opportunity to wonder, to experiment, and to approach the activity and materials with no pre-conceived notions or expectations, so that the learning is completely about the child’s ideas, and driven by the child’s process.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Loose Parts and Intentional Environments

One of my favorite types of materials are “loose parts” – open ended materials that can be used and manipulated in different ways, providing limitless opportunities for play and exploration. When teachers talk about incorporating loose parts into curriculum, they often focus on what loose parts are: which objects would be best to use, and how to display and store them in the classroom. I’d argue that more important than what materials to select is how children are encouraged to use them, and how teachers create an environment that promotes creativity, open-ended play, and freedom for children to use the materials the way that they choose. Nearly any collection of objects could be loose parts. The teacher’s role is to present these to children in a way that encourages this open-ended exploration.

When discussing loose parts play, I often hear teachers searching for ways to get started, or suggestions for how to introduce loose parts without “getting out of control” or “making too much of a mess”. I think “out of control” and “mess” are personal opinions that differ by individual teacher, but that in general, intentional planning of the environment can help the children structure their play in a way that is both open ended for children and manageable for adults.

With that in mind, here are some ways that I’ve introduced loose parts:

1. Playdough

Playdough is a material that easily and naturally combines with loose parts play. Objects can be pushed into or hidden in playdough, or used as tools to roll, press, and make holes. Or playdough can be a loose part itself, used to fill containers or connect other objects together.

2. Sensory Table 

Sensory table play often focus on the tasks of filling and dumping containers of sand, water, or similar materials. Adding loose parts to the sensory table creates new challenges, such as searching, sorting, classifying, stacking, building, and connecting, as extensions of familiar sensory exploration. Containing these materials within the physical boundaries of a sensory table or sensory bins adds scaffolding for children who may be overwhelmed by having a large assortment of objects, or for teachers who may be worried about mess and clean-up.

3. Art

One common aspect of loose parts is that they are transient – they can be used, re-used, re-imagined, and re-purposed. But they can also be combined with glue, paint, and other art materials to make more permanent creations. 

4. Housekeeping and Pretend Play

Loose parts are the original pretend play props. We all have childhood memories of collecting sticks and rocks and using them in our play. The rocks might be soup stirred by a large stick spoon, or a seashell or seed might become a treasure searched for as part of a complicated adventure. Loose parts provided alongside housekeeping or other dramatic play props allow the children to extend their pretend play themes and use materials more imaginatively.

5. Manipulatives

And of course, loose parts can be used on their own, just like any other manipulative. Building, sorting, classifying, patterning, arranging, lining up, stacking, enclosing, filling, dumping… 

...the possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Table in the Sand Table - Part 3

I’ve experimented before with “a table in the sandtable” to provide children with a work area to place and arrange materials. I’ve also created pegboard surfaces that children could use not only to arrange materials, but to experiment with the physics of sand as it pours through holes. I had always used a full length, rectangular sensory table for these experiences, so switching to a classroom with a smaller, square table presented new challenges for how to design a similar play apparatus.
The solution was a smaller wire storage shelf. This one had parallel lines across the top instead of a grid, and I wondered if the children would use it differently. For a pegboard top, I used a Lauri rubber pegboard, held on with pipe cleaners.

As with the longer closet shelf and pegboard, the children were quick to use it as a table to rest their materials.

Someone discovered that plastic animals balanced easily between the metal bars. Someone else watched with concentration while pouring sand carefully through the holes.

And then, someone tipped the shelf over, and the activity was completely transformed.

The table, slats, and holes were forgotten. Now, the interesting part was seeing what could hook over the sideways table leg, and it became a convenient place to hang small buckets of sand, which quickly turned into a place to feed the toy animals.

Until someone turned the table completely upside down, and discovered another use.

And once again, I was amazed by the limitless extent of the children’s explorations, their ability to use and transform objects, and the endless experimentation that can happen when we give them the freedom to use the objects in their own way.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Painting Their Way - Tempera Cakes

A few weeks ago I wrote about letting children decide how to use the paint provided to them, even if the teacher has a different plan. When we say that we value “process over product” we’re often talking about letting children decide what to create, but not necessarily letting them decide how to create it. Process oriented art activities still often involve teachers encouraging (or requiring) children to use a brush, or to try out a specific painting tool, or cautioning not to use too much paint, or suggesting children finish one painting and start another. One of the challenges of truly valuing children’s process is allowing children to control and make decisions about the process, without forcing the teacher’s values and ideas onto them.

One of my go-to art activities are watercolor and tempera cakes. For the younger children, I wet the cakes ahead of time to make it easier for the children to get paint onto their brushes and to eliminate spills. Set up this way, watercolor painting is usually an activity the children can do independently without assistance.

The children started painting broad strokes and stripes on the paper, then swirling their brushes to make circles of color, then eventually holes.

But then one child picked up a tray, turned it upside down, and pushed out the paint. Just as I was about to say, “The paint needs to stay in the tray”, I decided to say nothing and wait to see what her plan was. She moved the disc of paint around on the paper, making some stripes and marks, and then pressed it down, forming circles around the paper.

Another child noticed the paint on the first child’s hands, and tentatively pressed one of his own fingers into a paint tray. The other children followed suit, and soon, they were all grasping the wet tempera cakes into their hands, and pressing handprints onto the table.

Eventually, painting gave way to exploration of the trays themselves, as the children stacked them to build towers, and reached between the layers of the towers to get paint onto their brushes.

So, what happens when we as adults let go of control over the process and let the children use materials the way that they choose? They create art.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Painting Their Way - Pouring Paint

It started as a simple watercolor paint activity. Two colors of liquid watercolor paint in spill proof cups, and sheet of watercolor paper.

The children started to paint with the brushes, but soon one child picked up the cup and began to pour out the paint. “Spill proof” doesn’t mean “pour proof”, and soon drips of paint were puddling on the paper.

I suggested, “Why don’t you try using your brush?” which she did, as she poured, and then let her brush fall to the paper. Obviously, this particular artist wasn’t interested in brushwork today. Another child, observing her neighbor's work, put down her brush and turned to pouring and shaking the paint cups instead.

The paint tumbled into in blue and purple pools on the paper and the surrounding table. I brought out some paper towels to wipe the table. The children took the towels, but instead of wiping the table, wiped their paintings instead, watching as the color soaked through the towel and the paint swirled on their papers.

In the end, their paintings were beautiful blobs of muted color.

The paper towels too were works of art, and the children examined the shapes and designs they had created as they soaked and wiped them through the paint.

Watching this process, I kept thinking of the contrast between how we teach child artists, and how we value adult artists’ work. Even as I watched the intent with which a child was determined to pour paint onto the paper, I still felt a need to encourage her to use her brush. How many other teachers would have put a complete stop to pouring out paint, because “that’s not what the paint is for” or “we’re using brushes today?”

These children were in complete control of their artistic process and were completely engaged in the exploration of how liquids move and are absorbed. Teaching is more than instructing the children what to do, it’s knowing when they don’t need instruction. We look at works by Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, and are mesmerized by their technique, and by those artists' ability to think outside the limits of conventional art. We need to be able to look at children’s art the same way, and trust that they know what they are creating, and how to create it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Size Lesson Does Not Fit All

After observing how engaged my two-year-olds were while filling containers and exploring the concepts of empty space and fullness, I decided to introduce some other materials that involved filling spaces.

I set up a pegboard and pipe cleaner activity that a previous group of two-year-olds had used extensively, lacing the pipe cleaners through the holes, passing them back and forth through front and back of the board, working intently both alone and alongside others. I thought the children in my current class would have the same experience.

Several children did put the pipe cleaners through the holes. One child even laughed happily each time he pushed a pipe cleaner through and it disappeared as it fell through the hole. But within minutes, the pegboards were forgotten, and the activity turned to gathering up the pipe cleaners, each child grabbing for as many as they could hold.

My attempts to redirect the children to the pegboards were completely ignored, as the game became to pick up as many pipe cleaners as possible and hold them tightly so no one else could take them.

Then I said to one of the children, “I don’t have any. Could you please share some with me?” She handed me one, to which I said, “Thank you.” Then I pointed out another child who didn’t have any. Could she give some to her? She did, and that child smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Soon the gatherers were handing pipe cleaners to each other, exclaiming, “Thank you!” and then laughing as they handed them back for a “Thank you!” in return. The pegboards and filling activity was completely forgotten (not that there was a lot of interest to begin with). Their play was about passing materials back and forth, not about filling holes or fine motor development or any of the tasks I had considered.

While I was a little disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. The original pegboard activity that was so enticing had been planned based on observations of those children’s activities. Not just on my guesses of what they might be interested in, but by introducing materials for play that they had shown interest in before. Those children weren’t just interested in the concept of filling holes, they had helped teachers hang curtains on pegboards, and came up with the idea of threading pipe cleaners through holes on their own. Their participation in the planning of the activity (even if they didn’t realize it), is what made it interesting to them. But another group of children, with a different set of interests and experiences, focused on another aspect of the activity, simply gathering the pipe cleaners into bunches and passing them to each other. 

As teachers, we’re so often pulled in by Pinterest pages and curriculum guides that show us perfect activities for every concept, every theme, and every topic. Sometimes those activities are just as interesting to the kids as we hoped they’d be, and sometimes, they inexplicably fall flat. The best teaching is an interaction between what we as teachers know, and how children see the world. There is no one activity, no one size fits all curriculum plan that will work for every child or every class. Our job is figuring out what fits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Loose Parts and Schemas: Enclosing and Transporting

I’m always fascinated by young children’s drive to fill and empty containers, and how a simple collection of containers and things to put inside can engage children endlessly, as they fill and dump, arrange and rearrange, and carry their collections from place to place. Teachers sometimes try to label these activities in curriculum terms like “sorting” “identifying” and “classifying”, but so often, what engages the children is the simple act of combining materials together and exploring the relationship between empty spaces and objects, between containers and what can fill them.

 One way to describe this play is through schemas. Enclosure (putting objects in containers, or creating containers for objects) and transporting (moving objects from place to place) are more than simple motions. They’re the ways that children experience and create understandings about the world around them.

I watched this play develop in my two-year-old classroom recently, first as children began to scoop loose parts from large baskets into smaller cups and bowls.

First, the movement was from one basket to one bowl, but soon, they lined up rows of containers, distributing rocks, shells, and poker chips into all. They weren’t interested in sorting or counting, just moving the objects from one container to others.

 Next, they sought out containers with tops to fill just slightly or to the brim.

And carried objects to different areas, seeking out anything that could be used as a container.

I don’t know what the children’s criteria were for choosing materials, or deciding where to put them. I don’t know what connections were being formed in their heads, and I couldn’t label the specific“science” or “math” or even “problem solving” skills that would satisfy a prescribed list of early learning standards. But anyone could watch these children at play and see without a doubt that they were engaged, they were curious, and that they were processing the environment around them. This is how meaningful learning takes place.