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: