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Loose Parts in all their glory

 “As soon as they arrived, children simply started playing, with whomever and whatever was around and interesting to them. Three girls were “talking” on their “cell phones”, using rocks they had found on the ground. Later on, they created an “office”, hauling over cinder blocks, which had been left beside the park after a festival. Several kids were playing foosball on an old foosball table that had been donated and fixed up by the kids. Two girls found several boxes from the supplies Megan had brought and were creating a house with ribbon, fabric, paint, and tape. One boy wanted to play ping-pong on the cement ping-pong table in the park (the same table later became a doctor’s office, house, secret hideout, Pokemon headquarters, and many other things throughout the week). Two boys were absorbed in drawing Pokemon characters (later in the day, a bunch of kids joined in the Pokemon games, without any actual cards or even necessarily a background knowledge of the “real” Pokemon game – including using bricks, cinder blocks, bottle caps, pinecones, and sticks to convert a wooden bench into a Pokemon “battle ground”). With a piece of cloth, one girl built her own swing. This led to the construction of a “house” made out of strips of cloth on the ground, ropes, and more swings. I was impressed with how engaged the children were in their activities, only asking for help with things like cutting tape or tying ropes onto trees. Loose parts play equals risk taking, having a variety of easily accessible materials and supplies, and giving children the freedom to make choices.” -Bonnie

“I went with a group of kids to the Champ des Possibles, a green space about the size of three city blocks and used by a variety of people, to look for snails.  Around the walking paths there were indigenous plants and grasses, almost as tall or taller than the kids, weaving through smaller and larger bluffs of trees and small hills or ridges. The children were totally engaged in exploring this space that they had come to know”. -Jim

This August, as you may have seen on CCP’s Facebook page, Bonnie and Jim from CCP (and also my loving parents!) came to visit Montreal and spent a few days observing and participating in The Lion and The Mouse’s Adventure Camp day camp program – an entirely outdoors summer camp based on free play in natural settings. Afterwards, we debriefed about their experience and I asked them to share some of the moments that really stuck out for them or just general observations. The biggest take-away for them, as noted above, was the use of loose parts and how children use loose parts (found in the existing environment/ play space or provided by adults) to create or shift their moments of play.

The theory of loose parts was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s and have influenced thousands – millions? – of teachers, parents, early childhood educators, playworkers, landscape architects, museum directors, and more. Nicholson proposed that it is “the ‘loose parts’ in our environment that will empower our creativity. That is, “materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials”. (http://www.readingplay.co.uk/) As Nicholson (1970) laid out in one of his articles, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

I heard about loose parts a long time ago in my work with young children, and more so when I started learning about the Reggio Emilia approach. However, I didn’t really understand the theory of loose parts until I began my Playwork course last fall. In my experience with the Reggio Emilia approach in North America (to no fault of its own, but that is an entirely different discussion) loose parts are often presented as beautiful additions to adult-created play spaces, and to me seemed limited, controlled, and highly “curated”. In playwork, and of course through Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, I discovered a different understanding of loose parts – that pretty much any object could be used to make almost literally ANYTHING without an adult agenda, a specific curriculum, or “theme”. Having empty cardboard boxes, tubes, yogurt containers, TAPE, rocks, rope, paper, blocks, and other supplies readily available for children to use and manipulate as they see fit can create the most interesting objects or moments of play.

Particularly influential for me was an article I was sent in my course about loose parts in a children’s museum: “The best loose parts are objects children find and make their own. Traveling close to the ground, eyes wide open, and fingers outstretched, children notice, pick up, and become proud owners of dropped, discarded, and forgotten objects.” Adults-including myself- often dismiss these discoveries as irrelevant or as garbage, and indeed these “loose parts” are often actually destined for the garbage, such as bottle caps. However, it is pretty rare that kids get to make decisions on what they own, and truly “own” things not given to them and ultimately decided upon by an adult, so being able to gather pinecones, rocks, bottle caps, etc., is a wonderful feeling.

 

One of the fantastic elements of loose parts are that they are often free or very inexpensive – the biggest “supplies expense” in many of our programs is tape (and trust me, we use a LOT of tape)! It doesn’t take much to incorporate more loose parts into our play spaces or homes. More important than what materials are provided, because “loose parts” of one kind or another are all around us, is communicating to children that they are “allowed” to do as they wish, that there is no “final product” we are expecting them to make, and giving them the time and freedom away from a scheduled activity (and of course, being open to a bit of mess). Letting – or encouraging – a child to pick a few flowers or gather rocks on a walk is already a start. Have some tape, rope, old sheets, elastic bands, clothespins, bits of material, scissors, recycled objects, and perhaps some bottle caps available and you will be amazed by all that will come of it!

-Megan

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