Intentionality with Loose Parts: Playing, Tinkering and Messing About

By Diane Kashin and Cindy Green. Cindy and I go way back to the early nineties. As colleagues who became friends and later critical friends, we share a similar passion for anything related to early childhood education curriculum. We also, over the years, have felt strongly about supporting our community by sitting on committees, volunteering on boards of directors and providing workshops and workshops and more workshops. We also love to talk curriculum over and over and over again. We both remember first being introduced to loose parts. Loose parts is a theory that was originated by Simon Nicolson, in the How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts. We didn’t hear about loose parts when Nicolson wrote this article in 1971 as were still in highschool! We didn’t hear about loose parts when we did our ECE training, nor did we when we practiced as early childhood educators and attended numerous conferences and workshops ourselves.

Nicholson How Not to Cheat Children

It wasn’t until we were introduced to the work of Margie Carter and Deb Curtis in the late 1990s that we learned about these marvellous materials that can transform children’s learning experiences. Loose parts became a hot topic of discussion at the college where we both worked. We started to incorporate loose parts into our classes to teach our ECE students and we struggled to explain to others what they meant as so many were looking for clear-cut definitions – what are they and what aren’t they? We have both settled on these three elements. Loose parts are open ended materials that can be:

  • Combined
  • Transported
  • Transformed

Cindy and I have both retired from full time teaching so that we can collectively and individually have more time to work, train and support those working in the early years. In preparation for an upcoming session in the fall, Cindy visited me at my cottage in Grand Bend, Ontario where we spent the better part of two days tinkering and messing about with loose parts. Tinkering is a new term for us but we like how it suggests a hands on approach to learning, something we have always incorporated in the classes we teach and the workshops we provide. Messing About is a theory developed by David Hawkins who along with his wife, Frances, has left a lasting legacy that supports the use of materials in early childhood education. To read more about Frances and David see this link to the Hawkins Centers of Learning. Hawkins (2000) maintained that adults need time to play with materials in order to realize their potential for learning. By experimenting, you might realize that when you combine different materials what you are really doing is exploring concepts such as balance, aero- dynamics, and velocity, for example. When you then offer these materials to children, you will be more confident in scaffolding their understanding and experimentation with these concepts. Hawkins understood the importance of offering materials to adults and children as a way to learn (Dietze & Kashin, 2016).

Material Possibilities

Beverlie Dietze and I have written about messing about in our new textbook, Empowering Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education and have included the above table which appeared in our first text on Playing and Learning. To understand materials as tools for expression, you need to experiment, explore, and investigate the different material choices in order to discover their possibilities. Hawkins (2000) suggested that you “mess about” with materials; you will not know how to support aspects of learning unless you “have been encouraged to explore and appreciate the mani- fold ways these simple materials of childhood play are related, as subject matter, to the style and character and history of the great world around us” (p. 52). We encourage exploring materials indoors and outdoors. We invite you to play with others in your experimentations and record your discoveries before offering children those very same materials. To understand materials as tools for expression, you need to experiment, explore, and investigate the different material choices in order to discover their possibilities. Hawkins (2000) suggested that you “mess about” with materials; you will not know how to support aspects of learning unless you “have been encouraged to explore and appreciate the mani- fold ways these simple materials of childhood play are related, as subject matter, to the style and character and history of the great world around us” (p. 52). We encourage exploring materials indoors and outdoors. We invite you to play with others in your experimentations and record your discoveries before offering children those very same materials (Dietze & Kashin, 2016).

Sorting materials

The session we have been planning will be focused on How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years and we wanted to frame the workshop on three components: Theory, Application and Practice. Our intention is to provide the theory, give participants the opportunity to mess about and play, tinker and inquire (application), and then be able to bring it back to their programs and apply it to practice with educators, children and families. Our idea was to create multiple “mystery bags” with the same materials that would be an invitation and provocation to inspire tinkering and messing about. The materials in the bags are loose parts! We liken this experience to cooking shows where contestants get a mystery box and they must use everything in the box but also have access to the pantry to create an original recipe that will wow the judges. In addition to the mystery bags we will provide our “pantry” of frames, mirrors, platforms, clipboards, paper and baskets. To determine what materials to include in the bag and to offer on the side we had to collect, talk, mess about, play and tinker.

Rocks

materials

tree cookies

Cindy's creation

Diane's creation

Our collection was intentional and it emerged during our playful experience. Collecting rocks on the beach was both memorable and fun. It also gave Cindy an opportunity to come to know the place that has been a sanctuary and inspiration for my writing and creativity. We talked on the beach about the importance of place and giving the opportunity to children to connect to a place. This is important to teachers as well as children. It is about relationship to place. We talked about the importance of intentionality in the selection of materials as well as how to make the materials aesthetically pleasing in their arrangement so to reflect an invitation to play. The materials chosen were thoughtfully considered in their ability to provoke deep thinking about movement, colour, design, balance, symmetry, line and texture. We put much thought into where we resourced our materials and we avoided the temptation to run (or in case, walk) to the dollar store. We also included what we term “connectors” in the bag but we were careful not to use tape or glue to avoid “consuming” the loose parts. Our intention was that the participants in our session could deconstruct their creations and put them back into the bags for future use. We hope to engage these early childhood educators in a discussion about the differences between children as creators and children as consumers which we both recognized once again as the voice of Carter and Curtis. In the time spent engaged in this process of planning for loose parts play, Cindy and I hope that our passion for the possibilities of these materials will be contagious both in their beauty and function.

12 thoughts on “Intentionality with Loose Parts: Playing, Tinkering and Messing About

    • We are using wool, string, clothes pins, scissors. We also discussed using wire and rubber bands. There are many options to make the construction and the deconstruction meaningful. Let us know what you come up with 😊

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    • Indoor climbing gyms tend to donate climbing ropes or otherwise recycle them and I’ve found them happy to donate them for my children’s use in the backyard. Climbing ropes are heavy and nice to handle. Bicycle shops recycle tubes (rims, and tires) when they replace them for customers. They have LOTS. It was recommended to me to cut out the valve from the tubes and then cut them into lengths. These work well as connectors and joiners, among other things. I’ve seen some inspiring pictures/stories of children playing with the rims and tires as well but have yet to try that.

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  1. Until reading this, I thought that the importance for educators to mess about was more metaphorical. That they need to play with ideas, think outside the box or rearrange furniture. Of course we literally need to tinker and mess around with the materials we present to our children!

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    • That’s wonderful news. Maybe one day we can mess about together! While tinkering about with materials and thinking outside the box and coming up with idea I would content would give you triple the learning impact!

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      • While we were messing about it certainly gave us moment to pause and ask ourselves numerous questions …. we wondered about what materials to collect, how to resource, contain and arrange them? Would we create tinker boxes, fabric bags or baskets? What might adult learners find most inviting and why might this be so? How many materials would create a “collection” and what was the balance between natural, found and upcycled ones? The day was bright and sunny and our play became interactive with light and shadows that were being radiated through the lattice fence. We took notice of how all the materials transformed when the sun was dancing upon them. Truly beautiful …. Was it necessary to include “fresh” twigs and pieces of driftwood? Absolutely … imagine the thinking that this could provoke when wondering about the similarities and differences in the wood! (I almost missed that but once Diane shared her intention, voila, we need to collect more driftwood)! Ahhh, the tree “cookies”. What is it that we find so fascinating about them? We need 500 pieces …. I made a call and we have a plan …. there will be a wood cutting party in the near future. Anyone want to join in???

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