It’s the age-old scenario: a one year old’s birthday, a beautifully wrapped gift unwrapped, and the child takes great delight in the box itself, spending hours exploring all the box can offer!
As a child who grew up in the Playcentre era, I have long been passionate about junk play, otherwise known popularly nowadays as Loose Parts play. Hours of exploring, discovering, and just pure joy can be found in the simplest of resources.
Alison Gopnik likens infants and toddlers to scientists. All the faculties involved in exploring and making
discoveries are the same for both; it is just innately built into infants. There is a drive for infants to follow their curiosity and find ways to make sense of their world. Loose parts are a great way for infants and toddlers to exercise their inner scientist.
Ken Robinson describes creativity as being the process of having original ideas, which have value. For infants and toddlers, every discovery they make is, for them, an original idea. Of course we may have seen these moments of discovery a thousand times before, over the years, with all the children in our care. What is important is to remember this is the first discovery for that child; they have found a way to make sense of their world in their own way and in their own time. So the way we acknowledge it is important.
How does this fit within the Educaring® Approach? Magda Gerber recognized infants and toddlers as competent, and able to navigate their own learning pathway. One way this can occur is to create the environment that ensures infants and toddlers have the freedom to follow their curiosity, and to be creative with a generous array of loose parts.
There is no real formula for what to offer children in terms of loose parts. It all depends on how the child interacts with and uses them. And the beauty of this is that it changes over time. An example I can think of is a cotton napkin. For an infant, it becomes something to grab, at first by reflex then by intention. It is lightweight and malleable, able to be easily manipulated by the infant. As the infant grows, the infant may use the napkin as an interactive tool – the classic game of peek-a-boo – and hide their face underneath it. When the infant begins to move around their space, you may notice the napkin being posted – into boxes, or into nooks and crannies. As the infant grows into a toddler, and into imaginary play, they may use the napkin to wrap their babies in. This is what I love about loose parts; the versatility and freedom to be whatever the child wants them to be to work through their ideas.
When looking at loose parts, there are a few that I always seem to love collecting. Of course, one of my favourites is boxes – big ones, little ones, cardboard or tin. In fact, recyclables in general are fabulous loose parts, and are of little or no cost to us. Ecowise bottles are great – from the rinse aid bottles to the laundry detergent bottles. The labels can be removed, as can the lids. I have enjoyed observing infants and toddlers using these bottles in a variety of ways. I also love the Lewis Road Creamery sour cream or ice cream containers – children spend ages filling them, popping the lid on, transporting them, or transforming them into shakers. These are just a few of my favourites; there are many more.
Living in Aotearoa, we are surrounded by all things natural. So offering a variety of natural loose parts for infants and toddlers to explore and use – wooden planks/blocks, large rocks, feathers, sand, water, clay - all can be provide opportunities for infants and toddlers to be creative. Of course, being mindful and ensuring these loose parts are safe for use. This will come down to how much you trust the child to know how to use them respectfully. It will also come down to how much you, the adult, trust the child to know.
This leads to the question of what is my role as the teacher? I am often reminded of Magda Gerber’s words: “Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.” Being able to sit back and observe infants and toddlers exploring loose parts allows us as teachers to learn more about the child and how they make sense of their world. It allows the child time to be creative, to solve problems, to develop those dispositions necessary for life-long learning.
Anita is a NZITC Board member and an educator at Hobsonville Point ELC in Auckland. She completed her RIE® Foundations training in 2010 with Polly Elam.