Thursday, February 24, 2022

"Then We Will All Be In The Middle"

Anthony James

The two-year-old stood at the bottom of the stairway. From her perspective it must have looked massive, probably unlike any stairway she had ever seen, wide enough for a dozen people to ascend shoulder to shoulder. We were in the multi-storied atrium of an art museum and these stairs wound their way to galleries on the top floor.

She stood there for a moment, then took her mother's hand. "I want to go up these stairs," she said. "I want to go up them until they stop." When she lifted her short, chubby leg to step onto the first of the stairs her entire body tipped with the effort. Step-over-step, hand-in-hand she set off on her self-selected journey.

Over her head, her mother signaled silently to the other adults in their party, a father perhaps and grandparents, to go on about their own art museum business.

I've taken hundreds of children to art museums over the years, including my own daughter when she was even younger than this girl. And almost always, it's not the art on the walls, but rather the architecture that draws them in. They want to climb the stairs, to swing on the railings, to get lost in the maze of galleries. They want to scale the statues, press their noses to the windows, test the sound of their voices within these walls, and, of course, check out the restrooms.

Adults know why they are here: to see the artwork. I myself was there to see a certain special exhibit. We tend to utilize the architecture functionally, employing the stairs and hallways to get somewhere, the windows for lighting, the railings as something to stand behind, the walls as backdrops for paintings.

This girl was making a quest of the stairs. Later I found her in the top floor galleries stretching out on one of the benches that only very old or very tired adults tend to make use of. Her mother was standing beside her. "I want you to sit with me," she said, "And I want daddy to sit here too. I want to be in the middle."

Her mother went to the railing to look down through the vertical space of the atrium, presumedly to locate the daddy. The girl followed her, leaning her full body against the glass to see all the way to the bottom. "I see the stairs mommy. I see the stairs where we started. When we go down that's where we go."

This is what so many children are driven to do in new places, to map them in their heads, to understand them. They want to go up the stairs until they stop, they want to discover where this or that passageway goes, they want to explore the unfamiliar space. At least that has been my experience in taking children to art museums, libraries, fire stations, or anywhere for that matter.

Architecture speaks to young children in ways it perhaps no longer speaks to adults. They feel it in ways we don't feel it. It calls to them to run in its long narrow spaces or shout in its echoey chambers. It says climb with its half walls and jump when something hangs from above. Naturally, because of this, when you bring groups of children to public spaces, the security details go into high alert, shadowing the enthused explorers who are not typically behaving with hushed decorum, who are not fixing their gaze on paintings or sculptures. This little girl on her own can be tolerated perhaps, but more than one or two, or older children with bigger bodies and bigger voices, children who behave like children, are frowned upon.

This is exactly what architect Simon Nicholson was writing about in his manifesto that appeared in a 1971 issue of Landscape Architecture entitled "How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play." His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals, we are, in effect, excluding children (and adults) from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, "stealing" it from the children.

That the theory of loose parts emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Nicholson was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. 

Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.

The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as aspects of it are becoming more mainstream. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about freedom, democracy, self-governance, and the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”

I saw the girl and her family one more time before I left the museum. They were all now again on the ground floor, the girl presumedly having experienced the long, wide stairway once more. She had found another bench and was directing her mother and father where to sit, then she took her place between them, the space within the space that she had envisioned earlier. 

She wiggled around, however, seeming dissatisfied. "I want us all to be in the middle," she said, jumping to her feet. "Everybody stand up." Her parents good naturally stood, then she instructed her father to sit in the middle of the bench. "Now mommy you sit on daddy's lap and I'll sit on your lap. Then we will all be in the middle."


"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
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