By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Have you ever heard something that you felt was so profound that years and years later, you remember what it was and where you were? It was twelve years ago, when I first met Margie Carter and Deb Curtis and heard them speak at a conference I helped organize in my hometown. At the time I couldn’t get enough of Margie and Deb’s books especially Training Teachers: A Harvest of Theory and Practice, Art of Awareness: How Observation can Transform and Reflecting Children’s Lives: A Handbook for Planning Your Child-Centered Curriculum. It was rare to find resources that supported my work in training others in early learning that not only reflected my thinking but provoked my thinking. What stuck with me so many years later is the view of children as creators rather than consumers. It is on page 96 in the Art of Awareness, that Carter and Curtis write about what has continued to be fodder for my thoughts.
The bulk of activities and materials made for and marketed to children are invented by someone other than the child. Parents and teachers think that they are helping children by buying the latest fancy toy or curriculum package. Then they watch as the children become quickly bored and look for the next toy or activity. All of us know the story of the child who plays longer with the gift box than with the toy inside. What children really deserve is an environment stocked with open-ended materials and loose parts, things from nature as well as the recycle bin. When we offer children these kinds of materials, they become creators of their experiences rather than consumers.
Creators rather than consumers is a mantra in the work I do especially when considering the importance of sustainability. In the recent textbook, that I co-wrote with Beverlie Dietze, Outdoor and Nature Play in Early Childhood Education we group loose parts into three categories; manufactured, natural, and recycled. We recommend that sustainability is considered when using loose parts and ask these questions:
When loose parts are altered with glue and paint, will they continue to be used by the children? Or will they be sent home as an individual finished product? When these altered loose parts products arrive home what will happen to them?
I can clearly remember one of the first times that I featured these open-ended materials in a workshop that I did for an agency with multiple school-age programs. As part of the training I was doing I visited the programs to see if theory was being applied to practice. I was saddened to see rocks being painted and sent home when they could have been used in play. I created this button piece as an example of loose parts being used as crafts but left the glue out of the mix. I consider this a craft because an adult would have drawn the lines. Having a transient art experience with children using buttons I think would invite more creative thinking. What do you think? What would you do if you had a bountiful bevy of buttons?
I do have a huge supply of buttons. As followers of this blog know, I love buttons! Buttons are easily transported and they have travelled in my suitcase when I facilitate one of my favourite workshops: History’s Loose Parts: The Button Experience. Even though I have a bountiful bevy of buttons I do not want to exhaust my supply. I want to let the buttons live to play another day.
I have been very fortunate lately, that Wintergreen a supplier of loose parts has supported my work with a travelling “kit” of materials that have gone to Ottawa, Windsor, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia! With the same materials stored in my basement and supplemented by other loose parts generously donated by my friends at Louise Kool and Galt I love setting up loose parts buffets during workshops.
To demonstrate the sustainability of these materials and to support the idea of creating rather than consuming I always have connectors available such as pipe cleaners, elastics, wool, and plasticine. These work to transform the loose parts into various creations but at the same time they can be dismantled, and the materials returned to the buffet, to live to play another day!
Now that loose parts are featured in the catalogues of suppliers they can be purchased, and hopefully there will be some thought given before putting them out to be consumed in crafts. However, loose parts don’t have to break the bank. I can open up a junk drawer or two and find many safe and durable odds and ends that can serve as loose parts. I can also ask for donations from friends and community members. I can spend time in second hand stores looking for treasures like vintage buttons! Natural loose parts can be gathered from the forest or local park. A good rule to follow is to collect only what has fallen to the ground. Taking branches or stripping bark from a tree is not environmentally acceptable, nor appropriate to model to children. In our chapter on loose parts in our new textbook we suggest:
When possible, children benefit from experiencing the loose parts from the place that is their point of origin. This way, children develop a connection to place, which supports the development of pedagogy of place. Children’s lives are shaped by the places they inhabit. Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to learning in all areas of the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this pedagogical approach helps children to make a stronger connection to the natural world in a way that will increase environmental stewardship.
Ann Pelo (2009) suggested that it is the role of the teacher to foster an ecological identity in children, one that shapes them as surely as their cultural and social identities. This ecological identity can be born in a particular place. When loose parts stay in place and children have the opportunity to re-visit this place over time and seasons, the development of pedagogy of place is supported.
I believe we are in the midst of a loose parts revolution – one that takes place indoors and outdoors! I believe that we need to place a high value on these wonderful open-ended materials that support children’s imagination and creativity in amazing ways without encouraging consumption. Let the loose parts live to play another day!