My Kids Taught Me About “Loose Parts”

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“Creativity is… proportionate to the variables” available in an environment…Sarah Wright, Bing School.

Paradoxes often reveal the truth about concepts.  One grows older yet is young at heart. Energy and creativity spark intellectual growth, yet it is the pauses that allow us to connect with the profound.

The more thoughtful the creation of the learning environment, the more students benefit from the teacher’s skill; and yet, children are actively creating their own learning from the inside out guided by their intrinsic curiosity.

The better a teacher plans in order to respond to children, the more each child will learn how to think. I know this from research; yet, as I look back on 40 years in the profession of education, I see I have learned the most from my own children.

With limited funds, my children were home with me most of the time when they were small. No t-ball for tots or music for munchkins.  My kids and I played together, and with their dad.

As infants, my kids had the run of the kitchen; Martha Stewart would be horrified to know that cooking utensils and paraphernalia were divided into two categories: breakable and unbreakable.  The kids played unfettered while I cooked until at some point in their growth they wanted to cook, too.  Out came the dough machine for pretzels, the like of which you have never seen!  All shapes and sizes.  I had no plan;  my years as a teacher did not tempt me to create “learning opportunities.”  I just watched them to see what they needed.  And what they needed was stuff. Lots of stuff;  loose parts.

We were not super-parents; although my husband amassed a huge collection of mismatched mechanical parts and gizmos, the often-referred-to “cockpit” never manifested.  He did, however, manage to build a substantial sandbox in the backyard for the kids.  I’m beginning to think the trade-off was a good one.  Although a cockpit sounds very exotic and a big project with dad might have been fun, looking back on the proposed vehicle I wonder, “How many times can one be an astronaut or a pilot?”  On the other hand, the kids and their friends played for hours each day in the roughly hewn, 8×8 wooden frame filled with sand, and on many occasions, water and mud as well.

When my eldest was four, a neighbor came to the house to ask her to play.  At six years old, boredom overcame his preference for playing with boys his own age, until Scott showed up across the street.  Jenny was jettisoned for a more suitable playmate, and she was filled with rage at the insult.

I encouraged her to talk about her anger. Did she want to draw a picture?  She put every angry thought into the portrait and then we burned it in the sink.  She smiled, but then said she wasn’t finished.  Could she write more?  So together we created, “My Angry Book.”  In the book she drew pictures of everything that made her angry, page by page, and asked me to write the words for her.   The paper, the pen, the attention of a caring adult, and eventually a book: all loose parts assembled by the child.

Give my son a ball—of any kind—and he was happy. His challenges were in his mind…and he constructed all manner of games and dramas as sports were his passion. His toys stood unused unless friends came to play. Once in a fit of frustration, toys covering the floor after a play date ended, and no hope of help from him to clean up, I put every toy in the garage. He didn’t miss them. In fact, after a month Kris innocently asked, “Can I have a garage sale and sell all the toys? I never use them…”  On to our next learning adventure:  the yard sale!

Our youngest, Katie, came 10 years after her closest sibling,  born when I was no longer an “at home” mom. This new life was one of scheduled frenzy.    I enrolled my 15-month-old daughter in a toddler gym and song program.  As I watched her interactions with the colorful and specifically designed playthings, I realized:  she is really not doing much more here than she can do at home and we never returned.

Full of loose parts, our house consisted of child safe furniture, mattresses and futons on the floor that could be manipulated and changed.  Pillows, blankets and books were abundant, and used as building materials in our house. Kids could be safe and cozy at home working on gross motor skills and intellect, and I could start dinner and not feel guilty about denying my child an opportunity to learn.

Sarah Wright, a teacher at Bing School at Stanford University, shared the theory of “loose parts” attributed to the architect Simon Nicholson: “In any environment both the degrees of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it” (attributed to Nicholson and published by Hughes, 1996).

The list of variables available to students at Bing include: “sand, water, dirt, hills, the bridge, black top, grasses, plants, pine cones, trees, flowers, berries, twigs, sticks, birds, bugs, and animals.” In order to apply the theory of loose parts, a teacher must be very resourceful.  A scripted, packaged reading or math program has few “loose parts” by design.

As I think back to the wisdom of my children’s explorations I see a paradox. We strive to bring into the classroom the very things that children will need  in real life. Yet we sit them at a table and give them a scripted curriculum.

Schools must use meticulous care in planning the educational environment to inspire “the having of wonderful ideas” (Eleanor Duckworth, 1987). Teacher planning, mixed with the knowledge of the child creates effective instruction, the kind that builds strong brains.

Educational researchers Fisher and Frey present a framework for teaching that resonates with my memories: “concrete experience, observation and reflection, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation” (https://fisherandfrey.com) Babies crawling and then toddling from one drawer or cupboard to the other embody all of the traits—observation, reflection, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation, on the concrete experience embodied in my kitchen as they explored concepts of sound, size, and gravity.

It’s hard to think of any other way to keep a very young child engaged the length of a stew recipe, and harder still to think of minds able to work independently in a classroom, sustaining focus on one task, were it not for the experience gleaned from compelling and fascinating exploration.  It’s much easier to envision a student working independently on a mindless worksheet spinning off into daydreams, distracted by a tapping pencil or a class at recess out the window.

Angry Jenny could have fumed all afternoon; or mom could offer her some tools. In a classroom, as children master the skills of holding a pencil and writing letters, we provide opportunities to draw and write. We can roll out an assignment that begins the same for everyone with the goal of correct spelling. Or, we can create elaborate venues for further support of those initial skills: a writer’s workshop, a focused lesson, lots of paper, friends, books, experiences about which to write, and a time to share writing with others.

The paradox: the more we prepare in appreciation of the child’s skills, expectation of the child’s actions, and the more “loose parts,” the better the child is able to act upon those parts in new and creative ways to increase the effectiveness of his/her learning.


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