Friday, March 25, 2016

Transporting and Transforming Loose Parts

One of my favorite materials to use with older preschoolers are large glass beads (aka glass beads or sea glass). You can buy them in bulk at dollar stores or craft stores, and the children use them in limitless ways – as pretend food, for sorting, or for arranging into patterns and designs.

Unfortunately they’re too small for toddlers and twos, or for any child who puts objects in their mouths. So I was thrilled to finally find glass beads and shapes that were bigger. Just to be sure, I checked them with a choke tube to make sure they were too wide to be choking hazards.
I put the beads out on a brightly colored metal tray, and some more in a bowl next to it, surrounded by a few different types of containers.

As the two-year-olds began to explore these new materials, their focus was mainly on transporting the beads from one container to another. A few of the children gave the containers a careful shake, and then a more energetic shake, noticing the difference in sound as the beads rattled against wood or against metal.

Soon other children came over to see what was going on, and wanted beads of their own. One of the beauties of loose parts play is that there’s usually a lot of the loose parts materials, which makes it easier to share, even if you’re two-years-old. The child carrying the bulk of the beads in a wooden box carefully reached inside and pulled out two beads to hand to each child. Two beads – one for each hand – seemed to be a satisfying solution for everyone, and they sat, examining their beads.

As the morning went on, more beads were passed from child to child, and more containers were filled. Soon, some of the beads were transformed into “gold doubloons” that were hidden in “treasure boxes.” Some were carried to the kitchen and transformed into food to put into the oven, and water to pour into the sink.

And some beads stayed on the shelf, as children transported them from one container to another, sometimes with their fingers, sometimes by pouring from one container to another, watching as the physical arrangement changed as the beads were lined up, stacked up, or simply put into a pile in a bowl.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Thinking Small

I’ve written before about how the scale of art materials affects how children use them. Large paintbrushes and large paper elicit broad, wide brushstrokes, while smaller brushes encourage smaller and more precise movements across the paper. The same situation happens with sensory materials. Large scoops and shovels encourage large movements – which isn’t a problem unless the teacher doesn’t want vibrant, active movement at the sensory table. So often, teachers repeat the refrain, “keep the sand in the table” or “it’s not okay to throw sand”, after giving children huge shovels that naturally call for swinging sand over shoulders and across the table. And there are the natural spills that happen when a large bucket is filled and turned over. If the teacher wants the sand to stay in the table, then the first step is to plan the environment and choose materials that will make it easier for the sand to stay in the table.

In addition to helping classroom management, for younger children, smaller scale scoops and containers can be easier to hold and manipulate. It’s easier to fill a small container than a large one, and easier to provide enough material in the table for all the children to be able to fill their containers.

I set up a sensory table filled with moon sand, small plastic bowls, and measuring spoons. The measuring spoons have the added characteristic of being able to mold the sand into domes or balls. I added large plastic shapes that the children could bury in the sand, or use to fill their bowls.

Over several weeks, I changed the containers, and the objects that were hidden (or could be hidden) in the sand. The most appealing were small plastic animals, which they children covered, uncovered, and placed on top of the cakes that they molded in their containers. 

The one constant as the objects changed was that they were all small. Small enough to fit in their hands, small enough to hold a cup in one hand while holding a spoon in another, small enough to fill up and proudly feel a sense of accomplishment. And small enough for the children to clean their spills independently, allowing them to take ownership over their activity, instead of needing a teacher to manage it.