I was thinking about the frequent questions I see from teachers asking what loose parts they could use for one theme or another. My perception of loose parts - or any play based curriculum - is that when the teachers determine a theme for the play, it takes some of the agency away from their play. Even when the theme comes from teacher’s observations of what the children are interested in, the planning sometimes becomes more about the teacher’s interpretation of the children’s activity than of the children’s activity itself.
I once had a group of 3-year-olds in my classroom who kept playing "going to Hawaii". One of kids had been to Hawaii with their family that summer, and the idea originated with them. They would say "Let's go to Hawaii", and the kids would run around the block area, and then sit down. One child would announce, “It’s time for lunch”, and bring over objects that they pretended were food. When my co-teacher and I observed the kids "going to Hawaii" we this would be a great start to a travel theme. We brought in suitcases, tickets, and beach props, thinking the children would use the materials we were giving them to extend their play.
This all fell flat.
Once the children were surrounded by all the travel related props, they'd still yell, "Let's go to Hawaii", run around, and then sit down to pretend to eat. They weren't interested in pretending to be on an airplane or at the beach. They used the suitcases to fill with their pretend food, which they’d bring to the block area and spread out a picnic. After several days of observing the play, and talking with the child who was leading it, and their parents, we found out that for that particular child the most important part of their trip to Hawaii was the meal his family had the last day there, and that's what they were re-creating through play. Not packing suitcases, going to the airport, or playing at the beach. Their idea of "Hawaii" was sharing a meal with their family. The child’s concept of “Hawaii” was completely different than the one that the teachers were trying to create.
This is why it's so important for teachers to let go of our preconceptions about how to provide a theme for children, and for us to simply let them lead their own play. We can join in, following their lead, but in the end, the ideas are the children’s not ours. And that's why loose parts are so amazing. A wood circle can be an airplane ticket, or a cookie, or a fish swimming at the beach. If we give children open ended objects that they can use creatively in whatever ways their ideas progress, then they don’t need us to provide props. And if they do need something more from us, or want us to collaborate with them in developing their ideas, they’ll let us know.