Sunday, October 29, 2017

Purposeful Play and Loose Parts

I’ve had a lot of discussions with teachers who are enthused about introducing loose parts to their classroom, but then become frustrated that the children don’t “do” anything with them. Or, they’re frustrated with what the children decide to “do” with them – dump them all out, mix them all together, or other things that don’t match the teacher’s dream of engaged children arranging natural materials into beautiful designs.

Sometimes children dump and mix because they’re interested in dumping and mixing. Loose parts, especially small, uniform, loose parts, are an excellent sensory experience. Pouring, filling, emptying, and mixing are all natural actions for children. Younger children in particular might find pouring and filling to be more meaningful schemas than sorting and patterning. 

But sometimes children dump and mix because they don’t know what else to do with these materials. In the absence of any other cues, they turn to the familiar – dumping out containers, or mixing objects together to make soup, or ice cream, or some type of pretend food. When we’re introducing loose parts to children we need to think not only of the materials, but what we expect the children to do with the materials. We need to set up environments that encourage children to think “What can I do with this?”

Pomp poms in a basket by themselves suggest dumping. But paired with tongs and containers, they suggest lifting, grasping, and filling. Paired with trucks or dollhouses, they suggest filling, transporting, and pretending.

Containers with different size holes provide a physics experiment of what will fit through them.

Containers of different sizes, shapes, and dimensions challenge the children to explore spatial concepts and experiment with how pieces fit next to, inside, over, and under each other, as well as concepts of number, volume, length, and ratio. 

 Small containers and defined space can encourage sorting.

And, once the children start thinking “What can I do with this”, their explorations will lead the way.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Heavy Work

Teachers talk a lot about the value of “heavy work”. Usually those conversations are about helping children with sensory needs or ADHD, or giving children an opportunity to work off extra energy and increase their focus and attention. Framing the conversation this way misses what the true value is of “heavy work”. Children don’t need to work off “extra” energy. Children don’t have extra energy – they have energy, period. Heavy work is a target for energy, a chance for children to take risks, set goals, and see what they can accomplish, putting their greatest energy at work. There isn’t anything magical about heavy work that increases focus. It’s the act of doing a self-selected task that has intrinsic value and that poses a challenge that pushes children to pay attention, because this task is meaningful to the child.

We all seek to challenge ourselves, to push, to pull, to lift, to climb, to reach, to ascend.

For young children, these tasks are often physical, as they test out their developing muscles and coordination, and as they learn to take risks and test out the limits of their developing bodies and abilities.. How high can I reach? How high can I climb? Can I lift this? Can I push this? All these questions have another question at the core: What am I able to do? Or, Can I do things I didn’t even think were possible?

On the playground, we see children doing what is seemingly impossible – trying to pull or push a rock or tree or pole that is immovable. Or is it? Heavy work is more than just pushing something to use up energy and see if it will move. Heavy work is having the opportunity to problem solve and discover whether you can make it move. Or not.

Having the freedom to experiment with trying to move the object is cognitive heavy work, which is just as important as the physical heavy work. The innate drive to go higher, push harder, and to test limits – both our own, and those set for us, is the heavy work that we all have to do.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Planning With Verbs

As a new school year starts, I'm reposting one of my favorites, that is at the core of my teaching philosophy. It's not what the material is, it's what the child will do with it. Curriculum should focus on the child's ideas and actions, not the teacher's perception of what children should be thinking and doing. 

On the surface, “Emergent Curriculum” sounds easy enough. Observe the children, listen to their comments and questions, and find ways to extend what they’re interested in. Emergent curriculum often takes the shape of thematic curriculum, with the notable feature that the theme is something that the children introduced, not simply something the teacher decided on. A child brings in handful of leaves collected from the playground, another child brings in leaves from her backyard, and the emergent theme becomes “Fall” or “Fall leaves.” Several children choose to play with toy construction vehicles in the block corner day after day, so the emergent theme becomes “Construction”. Teachers plan art activities and select books, plan field trips, and choose materials for every area of the classroom to support children’s interest in the emergent theme.

But how do we know that what we as teachers perceive as the children’s interest is what the actual interest is?

One of the problems I find with planning thematic units is that they focus on a topic – on a noun adults assign to the category of objects that children express interest in. Leaves, trucks, colors, doctors, bakeries, etc. etc. As adults we zoom in on the “thing” that the children are interested in, and sometimes miss the reason that they’re interested in it.

We focus our planning on nouns when we should focus our planning on verbs.

When the children gather buckets full of leaves, are they really interested in the leaves themselves – their shapes and colors, the life cycle of trees, and their symbolic significance to regional seasonal weather? Or are they mesmerized by the texture and the sound of things that crumple and crinkle? Is it even important to the children that those are leaves in their bucket, or are they seeking out any available material that they can enclose in a container and transport across the playground? The things that they are interested in are important, but equally important, and often overlooked, is what they are doing with things that they are interested in. Our planning needs to involve verbs as much as nouns.

One way to do this is to view children’s interests in terms of schemas - the ways that children interact with, conceptualize, and construct knowledge about the world. Rolling a toy truck across the rug might not be an interest in trucks, or construction workers, or building sites – it might be an interest in motion, rolling, or speed. The bucket full of leaves might just as easily be a bucket full of rocks, or pompoms, or crumpled pieces of paper, and the interest is in transporting them from place to place. It’s easy for teachers to name the objects that the child shows interest in, it’s more challenging to observe what the child is doing with those objects.

But that’s what we have to do. To facilitate truly emergent curriculum, our observations and conversations need to hone in on children’s understandings and the concepts that children are grappling with. We need to look past the theme and discover the meaning through the child’s eyes. Sometimes a pile of leaves is about the leaves, but sometimes it’s a different thing entirely.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Summer in the City

I teach not far from where I grew up: a city neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. When I read curriculum ideas and blogs about outdoor play, natural materials, forest schools, and the like, I always feel a slight disconnect. I love the photos of children gathering branches in the woods and building structures out of them, children sliding down a grassy hillside, children splashing by the side of a lake or pond and making mud pies on the shore. But as much as I value outdoors and natural play, those aren’t my places. I felt this way as a child, reading books about children playing in the woods behind their house, hopping across a stream on the way to school, or sledding on a nearby hill. I tried to imagine these scenes, since I knew what woods, streams, and hills were. But I couldn’t imagine them next to my house.

It’s not that I think that city children don’t have opportunities for nature play, or that I feel the difference in environment is something to feel sorry about. Growing up in the city, my friends and I played, just like children do everywhere, and during the summer, we played outdoors. We gathered grass, sticks, and leaves that we mixed into pretend soup or potions. We hunted for rocks, which were sometimes tiny pieces of crumbled asphalt or concrete, but we treasured these as much as if they had come from a beach or wooded trail. There were no trees to climb, but we played under the branches of the neatly trimmed parkway trees, and spent hours gazing up, imagining what it might be like to climb them if we could. We made hiding spaces behind the bushes that were planted neatly in front of people’s houses, or better still, the ones lining the alley behind the house, where no one would see the private clubhouse we created.

There was no stream to wade across or skip stones in. But we still played with water – water that poured from the faucet in a backyard or from a garden hose, gathered in buckets and stirred with sticks, which then became improvised paintbrushes to make designs on the sidewalk. When it rained we watched the water rushing through the gutters, and improvised dams of sticks and leaves to block the storm drain and make huge puddles to splash in.

Our games, like the games of children everywhere, revolved around the materials we had access to. We invented endless variations of hopping, jumping, and stepping games that involved leaping across sidewalk squares, or chanting rhymes as we stepped up and down the stairs on someone’s front stoop. We measured our space in sidewalk squares, distance between the alleys on each end of the blocks, the patches of grass that separated the buildings from the sidewalk, and the ones that separated the sidewalk from the street. A curb could be a balance beam, and the streetlight home base for hide-and-seek or tag.

When I reflect on my city childhood and the materials I had to play with, I’m struck by how we as teachers can get overly fixated in the materials themselves. We need to remember that the magic of outdoor play isn’t about whether there’s a stream or a tree to climb, it’s about the endless opportunities and freedom that an open-ended setting provides. It’s not that it’s crucial for a child to have a stream to splash in, or to make mud pies it’s that a child have the chance to explore whatever is in their environment. A curb can become a balance beam as easily as a log can, the key is in how the adults teach children to approach novel situations and open-ended materials, and how the adults encourage and scaffold the children’s experiences. It doesn’t matter whether the play is in a city or forest, a park or a beach, what matters is that the play happens.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Loose Parts in the Housekeeping Area

I first introduced loose parts play into my three-year-old classroom five years ago. There were already loose parts in my classroom, but not that I had brought in with the specific intention of children using them in open ended ways for their own purposes. The science shelves had baskets of rocks, acorns, and shells with the intention that the children would experience “science” by studying these natural objects with the magnifying glasses and mirrors neatly arranged next to them. They rarely did. But what they did do was take out the rocks and shells, line them up, arrange them into circles and designs, fill bowls, bags, purses, and baskets, and carry them to other parts of the classroom, where most often, they turned into pretend food.

At the same time, my co-teacher and I noticed that there wasn’t much play in the housekeeping/kitchen area. Children went into the area, but didn’t seem to be pretending or even interacting with each other. They’d take out pieces of plastic food and hold a plastic apple or orange tightly in hand, or fiddle with the knobs on the pretend stove, but there wasn’t much social or complex play going on. We decided to see what would happen if we changed the materials: if we took out the plastic food that wasn’t eliciting play, and replaced it with the baskets of rocks, acorns, and tree circles that the children found so engaging. We added dried plants that gave the suggestion of food, but weren’t clearly representing familiar foods like the plastic playsets were.

Right away we noticed a difference. 

There children immediately began to spend more time in the housekeeping area, filling plates and cups and arranging materials on plates. 

The social play increased too, as the activity turned from picking up a single piece of plastic fruit to complex negotiations of passing baskets around, trading pieces, and passing out objects to each other. The rocks, acorns, and tree circles became ice cream, cookies, and soup. Conflict about sharing and turn taking disappeared, because there was so much of each item. Our plastic playset had only one or two of each kind of fruit, but we had a nearly limitless amount of pebbles and acorns that could be passed around so everyone could have some.

As loose parts play took hold in the classroom, the children’s play in every area transformed. Baskets of shells or wooden tree circles were no longer just for “science”. The children brought them to the housekeeping area, hid them in the sensory table, and added them to manipulative and block constructions. As time went by, and in following years, the housekeeping area became less a distinct place intended for pretend cooking, but more a just piece of furniture that looked like kitchen equipment, that was used to hold the rocks, glass beads, dried plants, pom poms, wood circles, and other objects that the children used in infinite ways of their own choosing. They often still used the loose parts as pretend food, but they felt free to use these materials in other ways as well, which is what I wanted as a teacher – not for children to use the materials the way I intended them, but for them to figure out – and act on - their own intentions.

For more about intentional planning for loose parts play:

Monday, May 29, 2017

Loose Parts in the Sensory Table

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about ways to introduce loose parts in the classroom 
with the idea that 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.

One area of the classroom that lends itself to loose parts play is the sensory table. Very often, sand and water play focus on the simple tasks of filling and dumping. These skills are developmentally appropriate, especially for younger children, but are also self-limiting, because once the skills of filling and dumping are achieved, what’s next? The tools that children are given to fill and dump water and sand also sometimes interfere with their play. Buckets and shovels that are suitable for a sandbox take up too much space in the table, and children’s broad motions of scooping often fling sand and water onto other children and the floor, frustrating teachers and leading them to limit this play, or to wonder whether sensory table play is really worth it.

Adding loose parts (beads, shells, buttons, rocks, animals, etc.) to the material in the sensory table can open a whole new dimension of sensory play as children hunt for hidden objects, sort and classify, and pretend. Adding containers and scoops that are small enough to handle easily without taking up too much room or spilling on the floor can help make this area more manageable for adults.

Loose parts in sand lead to digging, hiding and searching, sorting, classifying, counting, and patterning. Combining different loose parts with containers that are different sizes and shapes encourages mathematical thinking and experimentation.

Adding an additional surface inside the table (a small shelf, or a hollow block or plank) gives children the work space to arrange objects and fully carry out their ideas.

Loose parts in water also lead to sorting, classifying, and counting, with the added opportunities to explore scientific properties like sinking and floating. Adding containers such as toy boats, cups, or plates give more objects to compare and experiment with.

Dark water (colored with black or blue liquid watercolor paint) is great to hide objects in and search for them.

Or, the sensory table can be filled only with loose parts – pom poms, rocks, shells, napkin rings, beads, etc. with small containers and scoops, spoons, or tongs for filling and dumping.

The magic of loose parts is providing children with that spark of imagination, creativity, and problem solving to think “what will I do with this?” How do buttons in the sand change the experience of playing with sand? How does filling a tube with sand and counting bears differ than filling a cup with sand and beads? As you add and change the tools for children to use with the sensory material, and encourage the children to add and change the tools as well, their thinking and their explorations change too.

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.