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Children sit next to each other on a classroom carpet. One child has her hand extended, thumb raised.


Paulette Maggiacomo

Paulette Maggiacomo

July 9, 2020

Kisha Reid hooked me into her conference session immediately when she said, “Every single day I see something magical happen in the early childhood classroom”. That is what classrooms should be - a magical place where children are given the freedom to explore what interests them, with materials that are not manufactured, and allowing for children to use them in ways adults may not have thought about. This is the premise of Loose Parts, a term that is credited to Simon Nicholson in 1971. He felt that when children were provided with toys that served only one purpose, it took away all the fun and the crucial learning experiences that come from the creative process.

It requires a change in our mindset to understand this premise. Instead of looking at a manufactured toy that normally serves one purpose, we change to, let’s see what a child can do with this material. As Kisha was transitioning her mindset - it doesn’t happen overnight - she still had plastic toys in her classroom. One of these was a castle in bright colors. Two of the boys wanted to take it outside (what is cool is that loose parts don’t just belong in one place – they can be transported to where a child wants to use it). They found a plastic tube and fit it through the castle, then they poured water through and it creating a moat. Who would have thought of that? Not me, that’s for sure.

Another change in our mindset is that the best loose parts are the ones you don’t care about - it doesn’t matter if they break, are hammered on or painted on. Hmmmm, that doesn’t sound right. Let me re-phrase: It is about the child’s experience. It is about our intent – are we willing to let the child explore and create without our interference?

Examples of loose parts are endless. Kisha finds many through her school families. or at thrift shops, recycling centers, and lumber stores. Of course we may have parts in our home or classroom. Think outside the box: Water, sand, sticks, leaves, flowers, pinecones, shells, bark, feathers, rocks, balls, tires, buckets, containers, digging tools, chalk, ribbons, fabric, spoons, cups, funnels, wood scraps, foam, cardboard, spools….the list is endless.

I promise you that once you are open to the concept of loose parts, you will never look at things the same again (just like when we walk through the Dollar Store)….you will see it through the eyes of a child as a material to explore with and learn from.

Kisha's Top Five

  1. The plastic shelving that you put together. She brought these outside and the children took them apart to make forts and stages

  2. Boxes, plastic crates, wooden crates

  3. Sand

  4. Water

  5. Ladders in all sizes – yes, she has the 10 foot ladder outside. When children want to move it, it requires communication, negotiation, and leadership.

You may be wondering, how does using loose parts add to my toolbox when dealing with challenging behavior? Kisha pointed out that when we use manufactured toys, there is usually a small number of them – but with loose parts, there are so many rocks, shells, etc. and that in of itself lowers behavior problems. Look at the following example:

Briana and Kaitlin want the same stick and start having a tug of war with it. Kisha does the following:

  1. She observes and assesses to see if her intervention is needed

  2. She puts her hand on the stick to neutralize the struggle

  3. She asks if they are having fun

  4. If the answer is yes, then she walks away but continues to observe. If the answer is no, then she uses a strategy called sportscasting. She asks “What can we do?” then repeats what the children say in the form of a question so that the children are coming up with the solutions. There is no time limit to this discussion. It could take one minute or it could take ten, but the idea is to let the children be the problem solvers. Sometimes, a third child may come over and have an idea that works.

Kisha stresses that it is important to acknowledge the feelings of the children. When you name the feeling, it takes the behavior down a notch.

On a side note, I am embarrassed to say that there were times in my classroom when I said, Fine, I will take this and put it away because you don’t know to share. What skills did I give my children to deal with this in the future? How did I fill their tool box? How did I fill mine?

How you set up and organize the environment can have a big influence on the success of loose parts in the classroom:

  • Everything has a home but it can be moved from center to center, indoors to outdoors, and outdoors to indoors

  • There is no time limit – projects can be saved until the next day or the next free play

  • There is no limit as to how many children can be in one place at a time – I know that is so hard for some us. Children will figure out.

How do you start? Kisha shared that it is an uphill transition but once it becomes the norm it is smooth sailing. She suggested to first take out all of the plastic food in the kitchen area and replace it with paper, play dough, shells, pine cones, and pom-poms. Allow the children the creativity to use those materials instead. Once you see how this is successful, try another area. Remember, if you take baby steps the transition will be successful. You can also make collections in baskets and allow them to go home to let the children create. Let the parents see the benefits of using loose parts.

If you would like more information about loose parts check out the following

  • Be Reggio Emilia inspired

  • Read “Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children” by Lisa Daly & Miriam Beloglovsky

  • Google – Kisha Reid for her podcasts and Facebook page

  • Google – Community Playthings

Once again, please send me pictures if you have been inspired by any of the topics in my newsletter or if you were already incorporating it. I would also be happy to come to your site and take pictures.

Until next time, I wish you well.

P.S. Don’t judge me, but I have a vast collection of wine and champagne corks should anyone be interested. You may have started your own collection during the quarantine!

An image of a stick with a list of everything a stick can be: a shovel, a baton, a sword, a microphone
Children play in sand with shells and plastic toys
A quote attributed to Kisha Reid: It's not necessarily my goal to eliminate conflict. Conflict is our opportunity to teach. It's our opportunity to model and support and facilitate that collaborative work.
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