Reggio, the Dollar Store, and Transformative Parts

As an educator working in a Reggio-inspired school, loose parts come up in conversation at least once per day.  I have attended training sessions on loose parts and their importance to the Reggio Way on at least five different occasions.  As a semi-compulsive teacher working in a student guided, play-based learning environment, I feel from time to time that I myself have become a loose part for the children to manipulate and utilize for their learning benefit.  Try as I might, I cannot escape baskets filled with eclectic little things.

For those that are unfamiliar, the loose parts approach is a philosophy inspired by architect Simon Nicholson.  He believed that “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.”  Although conceived of in reference to playgrounds and classroom layouts, Nicholson’s beliefs were later applied to the use of educational materials themselves.  In the book Loose Parts, authors Lisa Daly and Laura Beloglovsky advocate beautifully for educators to create learning environments rife with materials students can move, manipulate, control, and change.  In other words, instead of providing objects that have a designated or specific use, educators should provide children with quantities of various, simple, open-ended objects that each child can use however they see fit.

The results of the approach outlined in Loose Parts are nothing short of incredible.  When scaffolded appropriately, many students are able to engage with seemingly ordinary everyday objects in a myriad of different ways over very long periods of focused interaction.  It is an educational method that can breathe new life into mundane, household items.

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The list of objects that can qualify as loose parts is limitless.  Over the past two years, our classroom has utilized clay, pipecleaners, marker caps, pompoms, toothpicks, feathers, lost puzzle pieces, glass beads, plastic beads, yarn, wire, paper scraps, ribbon, packing peanuts, brads, office clips, paper clips, and clothespins (just to name a few).  Part of the beauty of loose parts is that with nothing more than household objects and the right mindset, every moment can be filled with creative and powerful student-led exploration.

But supply and demand tend to make the use of loose parts tricky from time to time. For example, when students show a voracious interest in particular materials, there is sometimes not enough to go around.  Some prime materials get used up in the course of a morning, leaving upset students with unrealized thoughts and ideas.  And that, as many Reggio educators are reluctant to admit, is when the dollar store comes into play.

Why not just pick up a few more foam balls, some felt, and a cheap box of office clips?  And rubber bands?  You can never have enough of those laying around.  In a pinch, the dollar store it is a magical wonderland rife with educational material.  With a loose parts mindset, junky merch can be transformed into a veritable treasure trove of academically engaging and creatively stimulating activities.  Not only that, with all the money saved, teachers are able to stretch educational budgets farther and acquire a greater diversity of items for students to discover and utilize in creative ways.  And although it all sounds like a win-win, there is a paradox lurking at the bottom of that basket of colorful tchotchkes.

One of the cornerstones of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy is that children should be respected as capable and powerful members of the larger community they live and learn in.  It seems wrong to me to purchase bags of cheaply manufactured junk, even if it means my students have the opportunity to do some awesome investigations that day.  The truth of the matter is that the low cost of items acquired in the dollar store can often be attributed to the use of sweat shop labor and abysmal factory conditions overseas.  Many of these sweat shops and factories employ children whose families need their minuscule working wage.  In other words, the children of my class are learning at the expense of children who do not have the luxury to be attending school at all.

So what are teachers to do?  Learning materials cost money, but cutting costs by acquiring cheaper learning materials leads to morally questionable consumer practices.

If only loose parts grew on trees.

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Well as luck would have it, they do.  Over the past year, one of the most stunning realizations I have had as an educator is that the beauty of loose parts doesn’t come from their quantity, shape, size, or color.  Across the board, the loose parts that facilitate deeper investigations are those that are the most open-ended.  The more possibilities an item holds, the greater allure it has to young minds.  As a teacher that works primarily in an outdoor environment, I still find myself in awe of the limitless potential of mud, water, sand, seeds, and wood.  They are literally some of the loosest parts at my disposal as an educator, but they also carry with them an intrinsic solution to both the dollar store conundrums of budget and social responsibility.

First, nature provides these objects to my classroom.  I cannot bring them from home, and my students understand that.  When they have used up all the acorns, hounding me for more acorns isn’t productive; while I am from time to time resolute, I am not literally an oak tree.  Over time, they learn to respect the exhaustible nature of all things, and that the organic method of production is to move in cycles.  If they want to play with mud as a loose part, the reasonable thing to do is to fully utilize the day after it rains.  If they want to play with honeysuckle flowers, they know they have a very limited window at the start of spring to harvest them.  Their learning materials are both free and ephemeral, which makes them doubly valuable to me because my students are careful not to take them for granted.  They don’t come from some store they’ve never been to made by people they’ve never met in a country they’ve never heard of.  They come directly from where they learn, and they produce them with their own two hands.

Second, loose parts from the earth can be disposed of in the earth.  Bottle caps, synthetic feathers, office clips, styrofoam balls, and glass beads are worlds of fun, but they leave behind an ecological foot print a mile wide.  Given the choice between playing with ribbon every day for a year and having the opportunity to encounter a wild box turtle just once with my students, I would pick the box turtle each and every time.  Introducing materials that don’t biodegrade into a natural playscape can make for a very difficult, almost impossible cleanup.  And anything that gets left behind can become food for local wildlife, whether edible or not.

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So in our classroom, we resolve to use what I colloquially refer to as transformative parts.  Transformative parts are any loose part which becomes an entirely different loose part when used.  Wood is a prime example.  My students find a fallen cedar, which they want to use to create a set of wooden blocks.  They measure, mark, and saw the tree, which produces sawdust they gather up as a loose part.  They strip the bark from the branches, and those strips are also gathered up to serve as a loose part.  They harvest the leaves, twigs, branches, and seeds, as well.  For them, wood is a transformative part because as they explore it, it yields no waste.  It only creates new materials to be explored.  At no point during their learning process are they required to clean up or throw anything into a trash can.  If they lose interest over the course of their investigation, the worst they could possibly do is throw their learning material onto the ground, where it will resume what it was doing before they decided to use it for an educational tool, namely decompose.

The principles espoused by Loose Parts are revolutionary and extremely powerful, and I would highly recommend any educator (whether Reggio or not) to give the book a good read.  When using primarily recycled or upcycled material, it can be both sustainable and educationally valuable.  In our place-based outdoor learning environment, Loose Parts is integral to helping students view each and every object they encounter as a treasure that can give rise to meaningful learning experiences.  When all is said and done, the natural world provides every student in my class with a fully stocked shelf of new and exciting items without me having to purchase a single thing.  Our students are limited in their investigations only by the seasons, their powers of observation, and their boundless curiosity.

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6 thoughts on “Reggio, the Dollar Store, and Transformative Parts

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  1. Yes absolutely, the best loose parts are the ones the children discover themselves. I also think when there are not enough of one material, part of the beauty of loose parts is that it encourages children to consider what they might use instead. The remida centre is an important part of Reggio where most of the materials are recycled. I think this is also an important consideration and more thought should be given into how we obtain materials.

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  2. I collected so many loose parts for my students over the years! Especially loved the curly bark of Sycamore trees, pine cones of every size and shape and loads of sweet gum seed balls. These items were irresistible to young children. I kept loose parts in my mini atelier (art studio) AND the block area, too! Great, imaginative play sprouted from these free items. Also collected colored bits of items from parents, plastic bottle caps, fabric scraps, netting from bags of onions & lemons. Retired from teaching but now volunteer with the youngsters at my church’s preschool.

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    1. I’m sure your students found all of that delightful, Jan. Sweet gum balls are a favorite of ours. Recently, we have taken to using the partially chewed black walnut husks we find for the heads of dolls. They have such weird faces the kids can’t help but laugh. Oh, the possibilities.

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  3. I send a note home for parents to clear out their infamous junk drawers (admit it, we all have one) and fill a sandwich bag—also sent with the child—-to hold the junk. We then create tubs to categorize the stuff that has been brought in. Plastic things, remote controls, jewelry, corks, bottle caps, ribbon—after we sort the stuff, it is then up for grabs at our art table, along with screw drivers for taking things apart, glue for putting things together, and wire for stringing things along. It is one of their favorite spots, and all I need to do to refill it is to send home another sandwich bag.

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    1. That sounds delightful, Linda. I remember an area of my science classroom as a young boy that was referred to simply as “Dissection.” Sometimes the table had an old VCR and some screw drivers. Sometimes it had a cabbage and some pastry knives. With the right tools, and especially the right mindset, almost anything can become a set piece for an incredible learning experience.

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