Loose parts – a teacher’s reflections

It is so great to hear feedback on our posts and see the impact knowledge sharing has in our ‘community of learning’.  I thought I should share this reflection from our reference group member Daniel Hutchinson – father of two young girls and a primary school and music teacher pursuing inventiveness in education…..

I was looking around the school for a place for my Grade 5 class to situate a gardening project, taking photos as I went along.  The search took me to neglected corners of the school grounds, including this area behind the kitchen. At the time, I assumed that these tyres had been strewn around or discarded and gave them no second thought, apart from perhaps observing that if we chose this site for our class garden, we would need to clear them all up. 


Later, and after reading the Just Playing blog on portables, pop-ups and loose parts, I saw this photo and these tyres differently. There is clearly evidence here of children at play. The tyres no longer appear random, and their meaning is plain: one can imagine stepping stones or a bridge, a pattern and a form. This game would possibly have had rules and a narrative all of its own, and the fact that it was played out of sight of teachers and other children, tucked around a corner in an unsanctioned space, gave it all the more allure and enhanced considerably the aura of fun and privacy.

While the tyres remain as a witness to the activity that took place, it takes an educator alert to the creative, transformational ability of children to see the value of what occurred here and to reconstruct the potential meanings of what may have happened. Not only the value of the “loose parts” that were selected and managed (note the large pile of tyres to the left that is left unused), but also the meaning to the child of encompassing an empty, marginal space.

As an educator, it is not necessary to direct, observe and document every moment of the child’s school experience, and it is good to leave space for other things to happen outside of the ambit of the classroom or the curriculum. To pick up clues of how children have remade and reinterpreted their school environment from traces left behind freely at play adds perspective to everything that we are trying to instil in our learners and all that we are trying to achieve in education. Providing undeveloped and unformed spaces to children for their undisturbed use and incorporating the creative potential of “loose parts” (by accident or design) makes for a potent learning environment, despite what the traditional playground or sports facility may have taught us to present to children. 

In this case, it may not be a garden behind the kitchen, but it has already been cultivated into something in the mind of the child.


One thought on “Loose parts – a teacher’s reflections

  1. Daniel Hutchinson says:

    Something that has been on my mind since I wrote this piece has been a sense of appreciation for the minimalism of the playful scene I unwittingly found evidence for behind the kitchen. The simplicity of the use of tyres within this space I find increasingly interesting.

    While “loose-parts” architect Simon Nicholson is quoted on the blog as proposing “both the degree of inventiveness and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in (any environment)”, I would suspect that there is no simple proportional relationship between the possibilities of play and the quantity / diversity of materials available to the child.

    Instead, it is conceivable that when children are allowed the freedom to make unfettered use of materials in an environment, as individuals or in a group, that a quality of play emerges of a completely different order to what occurs in a more directed scenario, or with “fixed parts”.

    The “number and kind of variables”, while allowing for different combinations and inspirations to occur, are less important than the freedom of these variables to become transformed in and through play. It is therefore possible for a high degree of inventiveness to be found in play with a highly limited number / kind of variables at one’s disposal.

    Think of what a child can do with mud and you get the idea!

    But I also feel that this idea is worth exploring in other contexts. What qualitative difference arises when children choose their own literature setworks and comprehension questions, pick their own instruments and improvise in music class, or set their own path in mathematics and science subjects, over the conventional mode of learning when all these decisions are already fixed and taken on the child’s behalf?

    What are the advantages of preparing a “provocation”, as in the Reggio Emilia schools, mixing the joy of encounter and discovery with the joy of learning – and how can these methods be experimented with across different disciplines and school phases?

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