Children of all ages, abilities, skill levels, and genders can use loose parts successfully. Because there’s no right or wrong way to work with them, all children can achieve competence, build on existing strengths, and feel successful and independent. Because loose parts are so open-ended, they can support play for children of every cultural background, class, ability, and gender—but only if you choose them wisely. As a teacher, you’re responsible for selecting materials that do not promote stereotypes. Here’s an example: when we were writing this book, we carefully considered every loose part we hoped to include in it. We did not include boxes with commercial advertising on them because introducing a Cheerios box to the dramatic play area might be hard on a child whose family could not afford to buy brand-name cereal. We also wanted to be thoughtful about not using items in possibly disrespectful ways with symbolic meaning in specific cultures. For example, we discussed using chopsticks as building materials but decided not to because we wanted to respect chopsticks’ role as valued eating tools in some Asian cultures. As an ECE teacher, you want to celebrate diversity and promote equality in your classroom. One way to do that is to choose loose parts that reflect and honor diversity and that don’t stereotype. Early childhood education teachers know that children learn through self-directed play. This kind of play is complex, pleasurable, self-motivated, imaginative, spontaneous, creative, and happily free of adult-imposed goals and outcomes. Children determine and control the content of this play, following their own instincts, ideas, and interests (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group 2005). Loose parts engage children in play involving their entire selves. Sara Smilansky proposed that functional, constructive, and dramatic play categories represent a continuum of children’s increasing cognitive abilities; how children use play materials can be used to assess their development. Functional play explores what objects are like and what can be done with them. For example, Javon spent an entire week exploring colored glass stones. He ran his fingers through them, poured them from container to container, and lined them up in straight rows. He eventually sorted and classified them, first by color and then by mixing similar colors. He created patterns: green, blue, green, blue. His combinations could be repetitive or random, and he commented on what colors looked best together. One Monday when he arrived at school, he went directly to the library. He selected a book with the work of the painter Piet Mondrian. Using sticks and his colored glass stones, Javon re-created Mondrian’s color blocks inside a picture frame. His activity now had a new purpose. His creations were constructive play. The combinations he selected were intentional; we could tell that he had been practicing with a specific plan in mind Play hard with playground equipment designed for both children and adults.
Children engage in constructive play when they create something new using existing play objects. Diego, who was skilled at building complex structures with blocks and Legos, encountered a new set of loose plastic connectors. He started arranging them by shape and testing the many possibilities they offered. He constructed what appeared to be a large, tower like structure. As it grew taller, he added other parts that he identified as the arms and legs of his robot. Eventually, he figured out a way to make the arms move. He played with this robot for a long time, along with other children. Building robots went on for weeks, and more loose parts became used in different parts of the setting.When he returned to school, he spent a lot of time re-creating his hospital experience through symbolic play. He built his hospital with blocks and tree cookies, making it bigger and bigger. Charlotte and David joined him in building it and took on the roles of doctor and nurse. They playacted the experiences Alejandro had endured in the hospital. Rocks became pretend medication, plastic tubing attached to a shoe box became a breathing machine, and a plastic connector became Alejandro’s inhaler. This play went on for weeks. Eventually the children gravitate to other areas of play after Alejandro had relieved his traumatic experience in a gentle way. With so many materials available for ECE classrooms, you need to make choices that maximize children’s development and make sense financially. Today teachers are often expected to provide classroom materials out of their own pockets. Happily, loose parts can often be had for free, and they offer a bonus: they encourage you, and the children’s parents, to reuse, renew, and recycle. Write a note to the children’s families asking them to collect potentially rich materials around their homes to add to the classroom. Provide a list of suggested items (small boxes, jar lids, buttons, fabric). Also, post it in the classroom or distribute it at school events. If you're planning on improving your garden then why not add monkey bars today?
Loose parts offer many possibilities for open-ended learning. Especially in ECE programs where standards and ditto sheets are threatening to take over, advocate for loose parts as support for the acquisition of skills that children are required to demonstrate when they enter kindergarten. Children acquire their first math skills and understanding of numerical concepts when they manipulate small loose parts, like blocks and bottle caps, by sorting and classifying and combining and separating them. They learn one-to-one correspondence when they make connections among loose parts. Once they begin integrating loose parts into their games, you commonly hear them start to count and see them arranging the parts in specific sequences, patterns, and categories by color, type, number, and class. Loose parts lend themselves to classification. The concept of measurement becomes clear when children play with tools like cups, sticks, funnels, and sifters. Measurement, equivalency, balance, spatial awareness, conservation, and logical classification are precursors to higher mathematical skills that loose parts readily support. With exercise being so important nowadays, products such as outdoor fitness equipment would be a welcome find in any Christmas stocking, providing you could fit them in!