Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Little World" Is Still Dead

It really wasn't that long ago, although it seems like a lifetime, when we first consciously introduced "loose parts" to our outdoor classroom. You can check out the posts I wrote about it by clicking on the "Little World" link over there in the right hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's Topics." I don't think there are any other aspects of my personal journey as a teacher better documented here on the blog than the path from there to here.

A couple days ago, I linked to an article about the Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand that had achieved a multitude of positive results from "tearing up" their playground rule book. The article mentioned a "loose parts pit" full of "junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose." As an adult, I tend to gravitate toward the idea of a "loose parts pit," a place to keep the loose parts, much the way Woodland Park started with "Little World" as a place to keep our smaller, cuter loose parts. I sometimes read about teachers and parents beginning their own experiments with loose parts, using terms like "loose parts box," to describe their intentions. 

In these aspirational terms, I see fellow travelers setting out on the journey I'm on. I think I'm a ways ahead of them, but in all honesty, like with most things involving preschoolers, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly where you are on your journey at any given moment. What I think I've learned about loose parts is that you can't contain them in a pit or box, not if you're really going to let the children play with them. I remember quite clearly the day that I decided to give up on harassing the children with comments like, "That belongs in Little World," urging them to return to the designated area, or at least to return a particular item there when finished. It was a classic case of attempting to push water uphill. I was, once again, scouring our outdoor space, rounding up all our stray loose parts when it struck me that they weren't so loose if they had to stay in one place. I know, it seems to obvious now, but back then it was an epiphany.

And so, from that moment forward I stopped harassing, stopped fretting, stopped worrying that cool things would get lost forever. I stopped worrying and learned to embrace the true nature of loose parts which is, self-evidently, to be loose.

Today, one can hardly take a step without discovering some small figurine or florist marble or part of something that used to be something else, the direct legacy of Little World. The same can be said for the larger loose parts. We have the wood and tires, of course, but also galvanized steel garbage cans, ropes, ladders, planks, traffic cones, and logs, among other things, none of which are confined to a pit, unless, of course, you want to define the entire place as a "pit," which some have, dismissing our school with the epithet "junkyard chic," a term I've come to embrace as a positive.

Lately, the "hot" items have been a roll of plastic fencing, which Gus pulled from a stash of stuff I've always thought of as adult supplies, and a pair of old automobile snow chains that Henry tends to drape over his shoulder an trudge around like a ghost from a Dickens story. At the end of each day, I might find these loose parts anywhere, abandoned at the end of play, perhaps still in a place where I can deduce how they were used, but usually not; usually by the time I come across them they don't look like the creative playthings they are, but rather, to my adult eyes, like "junk."

I'm grateful the parents who send their children to our school understand and support the way loose parts have been incorporated into our day. I still feel a pang of self-consciousness whenever we have prospective new families tour our facilities, however, which they do this time of year. Intellectually, I know that those who are offended by our "junkyard chic" are probably not good fits for our school anyway, but I still have to fight the urge to tidy up beyond our day-to-day efforts in my desire to make a good first impression. And, of course, for every one of those judgmental parents, there are others who enthuse about how much fun her child will have playing there.

What I've learned is that loose parts cannot be contained in a box or even a pit. It is in their nature to be free, to be lost, then found again, to be here then there. It is in the nature of loose parts to be loose and to make that happen I must every day fight my own urge to contain them.

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Amy said...

I love the idea of loose parts - both big and small - but I'm a family child care provider with grass in my play space. I'm worried about the loose parts being eaten by the lawnmower and/or ruining the lawnmower.

Do you have any suggestions?


Teacher Tom said...

Honestly, Amy, and I know many disagree about this, I would like to see everyone give up on lawns. Several of our families have intentionally killed them and planted gardens, created pathways, and/or mud pits. There are environmental reasons to get rid of lawns as well.

JMH said...

Moss lawns are lovely on the feet, nearly unkillable and don't need mowing...

Stephanie Schuler said...

Great stuff, Tom! Looks like the kiddos had a blast!

Unknown said...

We're beginning to lose 'bibliographic control,' our term of art, in the Bush Library. Legos, dominoes, mancala stones, wires and LEDs from the electronics activities, yarn, and, oh yes, books. Since it's a space used for multiple purposes by multiple constituents (including J H-H, who paid me a rare and welcome visit yesterday re. History paper), we have to maintain some semblance of order. But every day as I walk out the door I notice some lovely little construction left in a corner. Kind of cool.

Diane Streicher @ Diane Again said...

That is the true gift of spending time with children, isn't it. They remind us to fight our odd little adult urges, and embrace their beautiful, uninhibited sense of creativity and freedom.

Eliza said...


I can easily understand that you do not worry about prospective parents who dislike the junkyard chic look as I agree that not all families will be a good fit with every program. What I am wondering is how you deal with inspectors and health regulators who require that outdoor play materials be stored in a covered container....I have even had an inspector require me to WASH AND SANITIZE the outdoor toys! I shook my head and thought about raising a white flag on that day.

Teacher Tom said...

We do not have to deal with inspectors or regulators, Eliza. I'm quite sorry that you do.