Thursday, November 16, 2017

Where They Are The Experts

Last week I wrote a piece about what is popularly referred to as "loose parts," or what I prefer to call "junk and debris." One reader referring to a body of research that consistently finds that children engaged in loose parts play use more math language and more elaborate vocabulary than children playing with traditional toys or during structured play and wondered why that would be.

I don't know for sure, of course, but I expect that it has to do with the fact that open-ended, unscripted playthings cause children to engage in more cooperative play, which requires communication, not with adults, but with other kids who are likewise learning math and vocabulary. Whereas "toys" and adult-lead activities tend to be more predictable, with many of their answers built into them, children interacting with loose parts are more likely to run across new concepts and unexpected challenges, situations that require children to stretch themselves in order to communicate with one another.

For instance, children building with familiar unit blocks, with their regular sizes and flat edges are playing in a more predictable environment, one that is less likely to present new concepts or unexpected challenges. Children building with a collection of pinecones, sticks, rocks and leaves, on the other hand, are playing with far less standardized building materials, ones that take children to places where they must find new language to communicate about things like relative density, shape, size, fragility, texture, and other aspects of their materials. The answers are not built into these materials.

Whenever children play together without the interference of adults, they are creating their own world, not just through their physical project, but also through the words and concept they discover and communicate about together. Often the words they use are imprecise at first, leading to disagreements and confusion. Often they misinterpret concepts, leading to faulty theories. As they continue to play, however, as they learn more about the world they are creating, their language tends to become more precise and their theories more refined. I enjoy few things more than when children begin using terminology of their own devising, their own short-cut jargon, to describe phenomena they have discovered together.

This is why giving children the chance to engage in unstructured play with junk and debris is so powerful, it removes most of the "scripts" that are baked into regular toys and structured play, freeing children to create a world of their own, a place where they are the experts.

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