Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Loose Parts

When our daughter was young, she accumulated lots of junky toys. Honestly, you can't blame her, but rather grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, friends of friends and just about every adult in her life who would arrive on our doorstep, or greet us at their doorstep, with something plastic they'd picked up from a Happy Meal or cereal box or dollar store. Or perhaps they were acquired from stockings or birthday party favor bags or as the impulse item rack. You know what I'm talking about: things destined to be treasured for a moment only to wind up as detritus at the bottom of a toy box or closet.

No one warns new parents about this phenomenon and even if they did, I doubt there's anything we could have done about it other than to perhaps be rude to well intended loved ones or more Johnny-on-the-spot about disposing of it the moment our child's little hands moved on to something else. When I started teaching, I had the idea of occasionally culling my child's collection by scooping up a shopping bag full of the stuff for my students to use to make really cool glue collage, but found that the kids would often much rather play with these "new" toys than make art from them, so I started just dumping them into our sensory table, a set up that has become known as "The Bottom Of A Kid's Closet."

There are all kinds of things in there, from Magic 8 Balls and mini Etch-a-Sketches, to dolls, baubles, action figures, yo yos, boxes, bags, puzzles, and wind-up toys, to which we've added things like doorknobs, springs, puzzle pieces, inoperable electronics, and just about anything that can hold a child's attention for a moment or an hour. Parents often remark that they're happy "this isn't at my house," which I hear as, "This is what my house looks like."

Sorting out "similar" items, like all the "girl" dollies, is a common loose
parts activity.

Looking back over my 10 years at Woodland Park, I can see that this was the beginning of my own discovery, as a teacher, of "loose parts play," an idea that has evolved through a concept I originally labeled Little World (read from the bottom up if you want to follow the story) into a post-Little World era, and now to an outdoor classroom that embraces loose parts as the thread that holds it together. Parents now arrive from home with their own shopping bags to contribute to the cause.

I often find stashes of loose parts after our day is done: this collection, which I
believe was the work of a group of 3 girls working together, I found stuffed
between a pair of large pillows under our loft.

Yesterday as I helped to ease a new group of "campers" into the beginning of our second summer session, I began playing a story, using a pair of little leprechaun figurines that were part of my original Little World set up, an oyster shell, an alphabet block, a wine bottle cork, a ceramic frog, a rhinestone earring, rocks, and a pine cone. I didn't even really tell a story, but rather just started each sentence with the words, "Once upon a time," or "Along came a . . . " and children filled-in the blanks.

A couple times a year, during one of our all-hands-on-deck school cleaning weekends, I give a parent the job of scouring the outdoor classroom for "broken stuff, dangerous stuff, or anything that seems like it's useful life is over. This is an important job. I never give it someone who asks for it; who prides herself for her ability to be "brutal" about throwing stuff out. No, I save the job for a parent with a soft heart, one who I know has her own detritus strewn life and is not brutal at all: one that knows it's not about using stuff, but rather using stuff up, even the junky, disposable toys that came from a Happy Meal.

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Unknown said...

This is such a sweet post, Tom. My daughter is definitely one of those kids who collects what I impolitely refer to as "crap".

When she was very young, I briefly had a fear that she might become a hoarder because she had piles of this stuff on her bed in bags and boxes. To the undiscerning eye it looked like junk, but she actually played with almost every trinket and scrap.

She's still a collector, but she's also a most inventive and imaginative artist and story teller...thanks, in part, to her ever-expanding collection of this stuff.

I now call her my little magpie, always on the lookout for something shiny to decorate her nest with. :)

Stephanie said...

I think it's great that you were able to "up cycle" this "junk!" I too do not like to just throw things out. Almost everything still has some life in it.

Kerry said...

I have two boxes of stuff from my own childhood (let's just say my own child is grown up now) that I haven't been able to get rid of--they are scraps of fabric, old film can lids (the metal basin-shaped ones) and various other objects. They were used as household supplies for dollhouse dolls and small barbie dolls, and I haven't been able to get rid of them because I still remember what treasure they were!