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