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.

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.