Monday, November 06, 2017

I Worry About "Loose Parts"

I suppose I'm happy that the concept of "loose parts" play has taken the early childhood world by storm these past few years. It seems like not a day goes by that I don't discover a website dedicated to loose parts play, or a loose parts workshop for teachers, or a new book that will help us better understand it. Of course, it's an idea that's been around since the advent of children, one that was once just implied in the standard understanding of play: when left to their own devices kids tend to pick up whatever is at hand and goof around with it. Then, over the course of modernization and commercialization, we came to understand the idea of "toys" manufactured specifically for children's play, and many of us adopted those things as the hub around which play necessarily revolved.

Children, of course, still continued to play with loose parts, some of which were these toys, broken, modified, or otherwise, but we adults lost sight of that amidst the bright colors, flashing lights, and annoying noises of those objects that came from toy stores. And as toys became cheaper and more prevalent and better marketed our homes and classrooms have come to be overwhelmed with them. But even then, children continued their loose parts play. Who among us, for instance, hasn't joked that our kids prefer the boxes the toys came in over the toys themselves?

So yes, I'm please that there is a renewed focus on the open-endedness of things like rocks and sticks and pinecones, of toilet paper tubes and mint tins and yoghurt containers, of old tires and planks of wood and house gutters, but I worry that we are on the edge of turning those into just another commodity to be bought and sold. I worry that in our embrace of loose parts play we are concentrating far too much on the loose parts and not enough on the play. I worry when I hear teachers fussing about their "loose parts" collection, hovering over the children lest they damage or misuse or lose their precious loose parts.

The children at Woodland Park have been engaged in loose parts play for as long as I've been the teacher there, but you'll rarely hear me use the term. I usually just call it "junk," or in the case of items that come from nature like leaves or sticks, I might refer to it as "debris." Whatever it's called, the key element is that we didn't pay for it and I have no concerns that it will  be damaged, misused, or lost. Most of what you'll find on our playground came either from the earth itself or from the garages, attics, and recycling bins of the families who have enrolled their children. I often say that one of the functions of preschools isn't to use stuff, but to finish using it. We still have toys around, but most of them are broken in some way -- the cars have lost wheels, the dolls have lost their heads, and the balls have lost their shape. When we do spend money it's not on toys or loose parts, but rather on tools and furniture, things that need to be sturdy.

So while I'm pleased that more and more of us are discussing the value of loose parts play, I guess my caution is that we don't lose sight of the fact that you don't need to go shopping for these things and you don't need to "teach" the children how to play with them. Your world is already abundant with loose parts. Your recycling bin is full of them, your cellar is choc-a-bloc, and a broken toy is often much better than a new one. Our main job is simply make junk available and to step out of the way. The kids, as they always have, know what to do with it.

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