After years of working with loose parts, I’ve come to realize that almost anything can be considered one. We’ve all seen the ubiquitous bits and pieces: string, glass beads, basket filler, wood scraps, tiles, etc. Like me, some teachers take a more natural approach by incorporating objects like pinecones, tree cookies, seed pods, flower petals, pine straw, and dried plants. Materials like these have become so pervasive in Reggio-inspired classrooms across America that some teachers have grown to think of them as a requirement of learning in the Reggio Way.
But to me, it isn’t really about the identity of the objects themselves. The more I observe our students, the more I consider the Loose Parts Approach to be a student mindset more than a descriptor for classroom materials. In my experience, even the single use toys and plastic tchotchkes that are so highly stigmatized can become incredible loose parts when utilized by students who have learned to unleash the learning potential of the objects that surround them. They certainly are in our classroom. At the last loose parts training I conducted, I was very pointed about encouraging the participants not to throw out the bright plastic toys in their classrooms, but instead integrate them with the open-ended materials to create enticing new possibilities for play. I like to say that the learning potential of any given object is determined by the agent, not the manufacturer.
But for our program, which is naturally focused and largely outdoor, loose parts have taken on a different dimension altogether. Our students come in contact with all manner of flora and fauna throughout the day, and in watching their investigations over time, I’ve come to consider their interactions with these organisms to be an extension of the very same Loose Parts Play.
There are some obvious problems with the idea of Living Loose Parts. Firstly, living things of all sizes and types demand and deserve our respect, and if we permit or even encourage children to violate the agency or safety of living things, we need to seriously reconsider the manner in which we guide our students’ play. There is an important distinction that needs to be drawn between using living loose parts and being with living loose parts. As can be expected, there is a tremendous amount of scaffolding required to make sure said explorations don’t result in the untimely end of the creatures involved. In our program, at least one teacher closely supervises living loose parts play at all times, and if at any point the organism seems to be in danger, the play ends.
Additionally, it is essential that students understand that no living thing is only a part to be manipulated. While many of them appear at first glance to be nothing more than a squirmy line or a little smooth ball for the taking, children must understand that these creatures are also living entities with their own goals, emotions, thoughts, preferences, and fears. And while this lesson does not always come easily to some students, once they come to understand it, their living loose parts can actually become a vehicle for play that is almost meta-cognitive in nature.
For example, many of our students have taken to creating structures or simulated environments from inanimate loose parts expressly for the living loose parts in their classroom to “play” with. When they place an animal or plant in these environments, in many ways students have the opportunity to take on a role mimetic of a teacher. While they may not know what it is, they are able to become an active facilitator of the Cycle of Inquiry. By playing in this way, students are able to learn about the interests of a creature, provide carefully curated materials based on those interests, watch as their “students” explore and investigate a new and exciting environment, note the results, tweak, and repeat. By creating the environment, they also initiate themselves into a non-verbal social contract with the creatures they are manipulating; students function not just as researchers in that moment, but also as the facilitators and arbiters of safety in their new meta-classroom.
Children can glean two very important social-emotional lessons from interacting with living loose parts. First, they can grow to understand that learning and exploration are not specific to children, or even to humans. They are universal behaviors that all plants and animals use to both make sense of their world, and to recognize that they have the ability to change that world in significant ways. Many of our students see themselves in the living loose parts they unleash upon their creations. To young learners, this helps humanize the plentiful denizens of the living world, which in turn makes them more likely to treat these denizens with care and respect.
Second, students can grow to understand that their learning environment does not have to be exclusively curated by a teacher. Watching animals manipulate the loose parts they prepare can quickly translate into an eagerness to prepare learning environments for peers, and even for the teachers. By working with living loose parts, students can get a taste of what it means to be responsible for stoking the fires of creativity in others. This can engender renewed respect for teachers, and an eagerness to help create, maintain, and nurture the learning spaces they interact with on a daily basis.
In the end, I am of the belief that nature should never be treated like a museum. The intensity of the connection children feel to entities, places, and experiences is directly correlated with the array of senses they are permitted to explore them with. Sight is a powerful sense, but it cannot be the only one permitted in the presence of living things. For children to feel curiosity, admiration, inspiration, respect, and love for the creatures that share their world, they need to be able to hold them, smell them, see them, hear them, and even (yes, I’ll go ahead and say it) taste them. Encouraging children to play with living loose parts is of vital importance because they are the only classroom materials that can be influenced by students and also exert an influence of their own. With intentionality and careful planning, living loose parts can be an element of the environment that engenders not just curiosity and creativity, but also mutual understanding and, above all else, an overwhelming sense of interconnectedness.