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Learning with Loose Parts

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A first grader carefully arranges tiny blue ceramic chips inside an empty, large, wooden frame. “I created a bluebird!” she exclaims. Another child chooses to lay out the same blue pieces in a straight line across his frame. “It’s a river,” he announces. At a different table, students are experimenting with colorful woven rope, twisting it this way and that, talking to each other as they figure out what it might become. Children around the classroom are carefully placing small items inside of their chosen frame. Periodically, they walk over to a table filled with a collection of items featuring things like corks, shells, wooden dowels, metal washers, old keys, and smooth rocks, while music plays softly in the background. They bring their chosen items back to their work spaces to continue creating until they decide they are finished and ready to share with the teacher. This is our Loose Parts time in 1st grade.

What are loose parts? They are beautiful, interesting, small materials that children can use in creative and open-ended ways. They are things that can be moved, carried, arranged, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials. And that’s what makes them magical: these materials invite the children to think creatively as they manipulate them in whatever way they want. A curved metal bracket can become a bridge or a crescent moon or a wave on the ocean or inspire an interesting pattern of red berries/metal bracket/red berries/metal bracket. There isn’t one way to use or interpret a material--instead, it is a celebration of divergent thinking and innovation.

(Above: Leokai pauses to reflect on his group's creation.)

The benefits of loose parts activities are numerous. They promote creative thinking, problem solving, story-telling, engineering, fine motor development, self expression, and collaboration. They also encourage reusing recycled materials, an effort near and dear to our hearts at Burgundy. Our loose parts invitations give the children a chance to practice their sorting, sequencing, patterning, and other math skills. We see children experiment with balance and measurement, not to mention gravity, weight, and height. We observe them navigate moments of compromise as they share limited materials or work collaboratively on a larger building project. We notice when children express movement through the materials. We listen and take notes as they talk about the story they want to tell through their work. These projects are always temporary, which allows us to model and practice how to clean up and care for the materials so that everyone can enjoy them now and during future work times.  

In 1st grade, our loose parts curriculum has emerged from projects that are already a part of our program, as well as conversations between members of our teaching team. It has been enriched by reference books that we’ve used for research, multiple opportunities to attend conferences at nearby progressive schools, and an on-campus workshop led last year. We are lucky enough to have a school membership to UpCycle: it’s a local non-profit exchange place for recycled materials that is helping us build our loose parts collection. We also have plans to take advantage of nature items found around our beautiful campus to incorporate an outside element to our loose parts. We don’t know exactly where this will end up, but that is part of what makes it exciting and it reminds us to follow the children’s lead.