Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Play Conditions: A Framework


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Photo credit: Vergeront (WonderTrek)

Play Conditions are a bit like Robinsyard. Robinsyard, you ask? 

When my nephew Matthew was 4 years old, he carried a small rolled up piece of paper tucked into a yarn belt that he liked to wear. I asked him what had he drawn on the paper and he replied, “Robinsyard.” I knew he had a friend name Robin, but I didn’t know what a Syard was. So, I asked, “What’s a Syard?” Matthew replied, “I don’t know but Robin has one.” After some mulling about what a Syard might be, I guessed that it was Robin’s Yard. The precise meaning is not so critical. What is important is that: 

 Play conditions are like Robinsyard: It’s hard to explain what they are, but we have them. And play conditions have meaning in children’s lives. 

We may not have precise terms for play conditions, a shared vocabulary, or a taxonomy for them. (We don’t really have a definition of play, either.) We do, however, have a sense of when play conditions are just right: when children are engaged actively, deeply, and joyously in play—play that they direct and find enjoyable. That’s when play conditions are well tuned. Conversely, when interactions are few, focus and attention is brief, conflict is frequent, children’s affect is flat, and ambience is bland, play conditions are out-of-whack with the intentions for the experience, the space, and those children. 

Play doesn’t happen independently of the conditions surrounding it. Since we think, in general, very little about the conditions that encourage exploring, playing, and learning, we are hazy about just what they are and how to harness them. For about the last 10 years, I’ve been exploring the idea of play conditions in planning work, learning frameworks, and master plans. Currently, I am part of a team at WonderTrek Children’s Museum, an emerging museum in north central Minnesota, working with play conditions in a collaborative question-driven, iterative process that explores, documents, and shares insights from children in play-based settings. 

This work is giving shape to a framework that helps get at the complexity and simplicity of
Photocredit: Vergeront (MIA)
and play conditions. Starting with working definitions, this framework acknowledges related concepts, identifies a set of play conditions, and frames principles that tell us something about the nature of these play conditions. 

While the framework focuses on play conditions, it is relevant to shaping spaces and experiences in every kind of museum as well as encouraging inquiry and learning. In fact, museum planners, developers, designers, and educators often draw on qualities and varied conditions in creating exhibits, environments, and programs that engage visitors— but they may not be doing so intentionally nor focusing on play. 

Play and Play Conditions 
Exploring play conditions relies on having a shared understanding of play among staff, team, or partners. This can be challenging. Affected by age, setting, and who’s controlling it, play is not always easy to recognize. It is connected to exploration and learning which children seem to move between seamlessly. Definitions of play are abundant as well. One I am drawn to places the child at the center and works across varied contexts. Play is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated

Viewing play conditions as the qualities or variables of the physical and social environments that are likely to encourage (or discourage) and support children’s play accommodates this definition of play and others. It also recognizes that there can be conditions that interfere with play. 

Photo credit: Vergeront (CMOM)
Play conditions share some qualities with the concept of affordance, the features or property of an object that define its possible uses or how it can or should be used. A chair’s properties afford sitting or standing on it. An affordance provides strong cues about the operation of things. It is an actionable and discoverable possibility. In some design contexts like user-interface, an affordance prompts users to take specific actions. 

While play conditions may include affordances, they are not limited to physical features nor are they directive. More than 3-dimensional space, physical design, furniture, or arrangement, play condition’s qualities are also temporal, social, and affective. They tap into all senses, give cues, and suggest possibilities. Neither a recipe nor a formula, nor a way of scripting children’s play, play conditions are as open-ended as play itself. 

Seven Play Conditions 
An understanding of play conditions emerges from what research, child development, play theory and museum practices suggest will encourage and support children’s exploration, play, and learning in informal learning settings. Dimensions such as space, materials, relationships, and provocations, salient to different aspects of play, help in understanding play conditions. Observations, imagination, and intuition add to this knowledge, filling gaps and inviting us to think together. 

By separating and clustering these dimensions, we discover examples and possibilities, and begin to examine and manipulate play conditions in intentional and new ways. Seven play conditions are summarized below. Each is characterized by the general role it plays, its valued qualities, and a small sample of possibilities. 
  • Image of the Child is about the child’s strengths and capabilities and means engaging children at their highest level of ability; and making their strengths and capabilities visible. 
    • Valued qualities are: children’s curiosity, capabilities, social disposition, caring and empathy 
    • Possibilities that support and reflect the child’s capabilities: choices for one child and different choices for different children; traces of children’s thinking, doing, and making; focus on shared interests, etc. 
  • Context or Setting is about both physical and social space, ranging from macro to micro, where children can explore, play, and learn. 
    • Valued qualities are: safe, welcoming and accessible settings 
    • Possibilities for shaping settings: different scales, large and small spaces; light and sound; recognizable features; wayfinding clues; edges that define and differentiate areas, etc. 
  •  Invitation to Explore is about arranging selected elements to provoke or encourage children to notice and wonder, explore ideas—without giving too much direction. 
    • Valued qualities are: sparking curiosity; the child taking the experience where it needs to go; offering something worth noticing and discovering 
    • Possibilities for encouraging exploration: something fascinating; questions incongruities; multiple provocations; a sound walk, etc. 
  • Materials and Objects is about loose parts, tools, phenomena, art materials, digital media, etc. that give children agency and choice; encourage exploration and experimentation that is physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic; that generate new possibilities; and reveal new perspectives and insights about the world. 
    • Valued qualities are materials that support children’s agency, promote noticing and wondering; change with use and generate new insights; work at multiple ages
    • Possibilities for materials: engage some and sometimes all the senses; are real stuff; can be carried, lined up, and moved; change with use, etc. 
  • Relationships is about children and adults engaging with others; feeling a sense of
    Photo credit: Vergeront (Madison Children's Museum)
    welcome, respect, and connection 
    • Valued qualities foster social connections, value the individual and the group, are collaborative 
    • Possibilities for connecting: exchanging ideas among children; scaffolding; conversation; multiple places and positions, roles or seating, etc. 
  • Content is based in children’s interests and what is fascinating and meaningful to them about the world 
    • Valued qualities are interdisciplinary content; implicit content from child development; meaningful connections for the child 
    • Possibilities for engaging with content: comes through the senses, is embedded in the world, is released through interactions, can be experienced from different points of view, etc. 
  • Time is about a sense of open and unregulated play; time to direct play, follow an activity to a satisfying moment, and find enjoyment
    • Valued qualities are children deciding when play starts and ends; play stretching out over time
    • Possibilities for opening up time come from discouraging distractions and interruptions; allowing experiences to come to a natural end 
 A set of play conditions with examples helps us move away from predictable approaches towards deliberately thought through play set-ups. Working with play conditions nudges us into thinking in the languages of space, materials, relationships, and provocations and developing new ways of thinking. Considering possible play conditions slows us down from leaping to a finished idea or design. We see how play conditions, like children’s play, lean into and interact with one another, virtually seamlessly. We realize, for instance, how Materials are instrumental in creating an Invitation to Explore; how Materials prompt conversations which support Relationships; and how the Image of the Child and Time can’t be separated from other conditions. Finally, play conditions tell us as much about inviting rich play as they do about getting out of the way of children’s play. 

Ten Principles of Play Conditions 
Bringing a play conditions approach into creating opportunities for play takes time. It can be a new way of thinking. Integrating the approach into existing practices can involve problem solving and collaboration, backing up and starting over. Tailoring specific play conditions, these or others, to your context, whether for indoor or outdoor play, is always an on-going process. Paying attention to the following 10 principles along the way will provide support and add to your insights. Play conditions: 

1. Are always present, whether we are aware of them or not, and whether they are favorable to play or not.  

2. Impact children’s agency in their play. Play conditions can let the child direct the play, allow children to make of their play what they need to—or play conditions can interfere with play. 

3. Span all scales. From the full volume of a space, to the smallest loose parts, to open sight lines, to the ambiance of a space, play conditions are all sizes and proportions.
4. Are more than objects and more than space, more than the architecture, design and decoration. They are tangible and intangible.
Photo credit: Jim Roe (SMM)
5. Interact with one another as well as with children making the conditions fluid and dynamic. There is no one, or right, way to create play conditions. 

6. Induce something to happen, not by removing choices, but by creating the conditions that will increase the chances that children will engage deeply in play. 

7. Balance intentions for the experience with opening up possibilities, creating a place between what we think might happen and what we don’t yet know is possible. 

8. Require imagining to build a picture of what might happen if...; how a particular possibility might interact with other qualities and how children might engage with it. 

9. Come into clearer focus over time. Children are teaching us about play conditions all the time. We can learn by observing, listening, imagining, and reflecting on what they show us. 

10. Are more than the sum of their parts

What Happens When… 
Working with play conditions is, fundamentally, forming a hypothesis, or a succession of hypotheses about the relationship between children’s play and ways to support the place and processes of play. While not causal, relationships are operating. And while we don’t know what’s going to elicit play, with practice we can be more attuned to these connections and, increasingly, use them deliberately. 

Prompted by an exploratory question or experiential goal, play conditions help us in shifting from our hopes for play in general to lived experiences of deep, enjoyable, play that engages children’s bodies, minds, and feelings. We begin with conjuring up openings for play with our wonderings. How might we engage children in investigating properties of found objects and using them in their play? What materials might encourage children to change their physical space? How can we support children in setting challenges and taking risks? How do children share their ideas with one another? 

As we interrogate the content of play conditions, reflect on past experiences, observe children 
Photo credit: Snarkitecture

at play in varied settings, we have new hunches, generate possibilities, find fresh combinations, and ask another “what if?” question. We begin to discover, and hypothesize about, connections between the presence of certain features and children’s play. We build theories—temporary explanations—that express what might happen when particular qualities or variables of the physical and social environment are brought together. 
These hypotheses and mini-theories about places for play help us keep track of this world we are creating with children for play. 

Over time, we test, improve, and edit our understandings of the conditions that encourage the kind of play that we hope children will enjoy—rich, flexible, and full of possibilities for them to discover. 

Museum Notes 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Children as Placemakers and Worldmakers


Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Place means something to children discovering their world, who they are, and where they belong. Sensitive to their surroundings, children’s encounters with spaces and places are immediate, multi-sensory, physical, emotional, and full of information. Place, whether it is small or large, familiar or new, invites children to explore, discover, make meaning, and learn. It shapes their understanding, experiences, and ideas. A powerful way for them to know and understand themselves and their world, place calls to them to climb, check out new perspectives, pour water over sand and see what happens, stack sticks, use their whole bodies to measure a space, and hypothesize about what happens here.

Children are natural and active placemakers. Their placemaking is an open, exploratory process of transforming a space through play, imagination, stories, and friendships that brings new meaning to it, builds their knowledge of the world, and expands their sense of self.

Children’s constructions are the most obvious expression of their placemaking and initially what placemaking suggests to us. Images of forts, hideouts, and dens come to mind, hiding places tucked into a hedge or behind the curtain of low spreading boughs. Found across many settings, special places may also be under tables, nestled among sand dunes, in the attic, enclosed by sofa cushions, or deep in the woods. Sometimes ephemeral, children’s places may also be where they return physically and in different seasons. Special places are sometimes enduring and remembered throughout life. 
Photo credit: Vergeront
Seemingly empty spaces­–under the stairs, the corner of a lot, behind the garage, the depths of a snow pile–summon children and invite them to explore their potential; they fill in with their imaginations. Qualities of space–openness, enclosure, height, scale, shape, fragrances, sounds and silences, different textures, even drops of water–suggest possibilities for what a space might become. An old, old tree, a distant view, a rise in the landscape, a remembered story can envelop a space and make an ordinary spot extraordinary. Likewise, something fascinating may call out to a child or pose a question. The blurred pathway that crosses a clearing, a place of brilliant light changing to deep shadow might inspire placemaking.

Placemaking-possibilities may be triggered incidentally: stumbling on an old wooden crate, digging up pottery pieces, discovering a dented hubcap, finding traces of past activities, or remembering the fragment of a story or song. But the power of a place is itself a compelling invitation. Sunlight, lacy shadows, or cool shade can summon placemaking. Subtle, unusual, and capricious environmental conditions–wind, mist, springs, echoes–are qualities that can add drama, mystery, and possibility for shaping space and supporting exploration.

The open-endedness of placemaking supports a wide range of activity. Children hunt for and gather materials; they build and modify their space; and they embellish it with finds and treasures. They climb, chase and challenge one another. Stories live in the dens and hideouts children create. New narratives about events of daily life, movies seen, the lives of dolls, action figures, and cherished animals enter and enliven life inside. Groups form and friendships grow in the shelter of a camp, fort, or snow cave.

Play and placemaking are closely connected in many ways but are also not the same. Clearly the forts, dens, and hideouts created during placemaking become places for play, contexts for pretend play, and backdrops for games. But, at the same time, placemaking is the serious work of children exploring, testing, understanding, and making their mark on the world.

More than Building
Placemaking goes well beyond building forts and hideouts. In this dynamic process of exploration, change, and discovery, children are making a place for themselves in the world. They are mastering materials, building confidence and competence, forging relationships, and shaping a sense of self.

German social intellectual Walter Benjamin noted in 1928,
Children are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry… In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds of new, intuitive relationships. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.

Photo credit: Vergeront
Children use materials and objects, their knowledge of how the world works, and ingenuity in placemaking. Loose parts, found objects, and discarded building materials are instrumental in transforming a space. They use what’s at hand: bricks, boards, boxes, and blankets; clay, cloths, crates, and cushions; sand, seeds, sticks, stones, string, and stumps; Legos, leaves, and license plates. 

Random as they might be, collected objects and materials contain valuable and actionable information about altering a space and realizing a vision. When they gather, move, and arrange materials; when they dig holes; when they drag a piece of sheet metal, children experience properties such as weight, mass, strength, and rigidity. They discover what different materials can do. Sticks help outline boundaries; some sticks bend while others are brittle and don’t. Blankets, burlap, and branches span a distance; stones can weigh down a blanket; carefully stacked stones become a tower. 

In exploring places, hideouts, and landscapes, children are constructing an understanding of space and themselves. They measure space, size, and dimensions using their bodies, hands, eyes, and voices. Through their movements, they know the prepositions of space: under, above, inside and outthroughbetween, and on top of. Being in or outupdown, or underneath, children encounter distant views and unusual perspectives, uncover new routes, and make connections to another time or place. With playmates, they work to make something big happen together. They share secrets, make-up ideas, negotiate how to work together, make up stories, layer in rules, and take on roles.

Children come to know something about themselves as well through placemaking. They
Photo credit: Chicago Children's Museum

test themselves 
against the space, undertake feats, push their limits, and explore their identity. Can I pull myself up on this branch? Can I make my idea happen? Who am I in this space? What can I be here? They search for risk and the promise of challenge perhaps in building small fires, sharpening tools against a rock, or testing the ice for thickness. Moments of fear and triumph sweeten the experience.

As placemakers, children are experimenters, agents of change in charge of transformation. They find a spot that is undefined or open to being redefined and dictate its meaning. As they incorporate new materials and ideas, they continue to modify the space, its qualities, and meaning. This opportunity, ordering the physical surroundings in ways that express their own ideas and interests, is rare for children, but it engenders a feeling of competence and satisfaction. That anonymous patch of dirt transformed into a place with an original identity, yields a tangible, lasting sense of accomplishment.

Often children find something in a space that speaks to them of possibilities and invites them to investigate their connection to the world. In working that space, they develop a relationship with it and come to know it, from its smell, sounds, or silences and from what has taken place there. A special place can stay with children even when they are not there, over time, into their adult lives. Who doesn’t remember a place from childhood, created or found; a shelter for play, friendship, hiding; visited through changing seasons; and revisited over time in our memories?

Related Resources

Originally posted March, 2018

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Observation: Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Photo credit: Aaron Senitt, Guelph, Ontario Canada
Seeing, Un-seeing, Re-seeing

These shifts of seeing again are precisely what the word ‘respect’ means. To look again is to ‘respect.’ Each time we look again at the same thing, we gain respect for it and add respect to it.
James Hillman, City and Soul

Over the past few years, I have been thinking about observation and its value as a tool for learning, stretching our thinking, seeing new possibilities, and being better museums.

Daily, we walk through our museums and what do we notice? We watch a family move through the lobby and pause before the door to a gallery. What is this moment about for them? We see someone step in front of a painting and lean in, peer closely at the lower right hand corner, and step back again. What new insight has that closer look added?  We watch someone slowly brush away gravel to reveal the form of an enormous bone. What happens next? What does it mean for them? What might we do differently knowing this?

These, among so many questions, reveal our on-going search for a deeper understanding of visitors and a greater familiarity with the conditions that encourage and support exploration and meaning making in museums. So much is going on in a single exhibit, program, gallery, or classroom in any one moment. Without thoughtful observation, what can we know and understand about what is happening around us in our museums, in the experiences we create, and the connections we hope to foster?

Yet, as powerful and valuable as observation is in advancing our understanding, thinking, and imaginations, we rarely engage in it extensively in museums–at least, from my experience and in my own work.

Photo credit: Vergeront
Of course, we do observe in museums. We engage in both formal and informal observation in research and evaluation, during prototyping, and sharing visitor comments. We follow visitors’ movements through an exhibit and sometimes sit in observation booths and videotape. This kind of observation, however, is typically short term and narrowly focused. It is intended to answer a single question, assess and fix a problem, or confirm what we already believe. Often it is to check whether exhibits are being used as intended.

Brief observation episodes that are ends in themselves or serve other agendas have a limited capacity to build new knowledge with long-term value that changes perspectives and reveals new possibilities about how people interact with objects and learn in museums.

With this view of observation, we are unlikely to take time to study how families explore together in our museums; how visitors negotiate turn-taking with one another; how children of different ages approach open-ended materials; what traces of use and engagement visitors leave to offer glimpses into their thinking; what having an idea looks like; and what building on someone’s idea looks like.

What We Don’t Already See
How do we go beyond the obvious behaviors we are able to identify and code and the minutes we can count to glimpse the extraordinary moments in museums and other settings?

There is no quick, easy, or single way to engage in deeper observation. More and longer observation episodes are likely involved. Opportunities to think together, to frame shiny questions are important. Time to give our careful and steady attention to what is around us without deciding too soon what is before us is critical. In opening ourselves to being present to what is happening we can create room to notice what we don’t already see.

Photo credit: Reggio-inspired Network of MN
Observation is a process of attending, noticing, capturing, and revisiting. Keeping notes, taking photos and videos, and charting and mapping give value but not certainty to what we notice. What we have captured even temporarily allows us to return to the traces of those moments and ask, what am I noticing? How can I account for it? What does it mean to me? To others? What might others bring to the process to probe what matters here?

As good observers, we must also be observers of ourselves, studying our attention, checking our assumptions, and registering our focus. Questioning ourselves as we observe reminds us that we arrive at subjective interpretations, partial findings, provisional insights, and, hopefully, new questions.

Seeing Differently
As I was working through these thoughts, the subject of observation surfaced in my Thursday study group with Lani and Tom, two retired early years educators in the Twin Cities. As these weekly conversations so often do, this one pushed my imagination not just further, but into a different realm: from seeing more to seeing differently.

Lani had marked a passage to read from Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education by Reggio atelierista, Vea Vecchi. This brief, but extraordinary account of when Vea started in the Reggio schools in the 1960’s describes her year of observation. Yes! A year of observation.

At the direction of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, Vea was asked to observe children in the school. She invited 4 children at a time into a studio space to work with paints in a nonfigurative way. Her observations of 90 children of different ages in the school continued over the year with Vea taking notes on her observations of children and their paintings. She also referred to books by more knowledgeable guides like Jean Piaget, Herbert Read, and Viktor Lowenfeld that Malaguzzi had given her. Malaguzzi then poured over her notes and the children’s paintings. He commented on her observations and shared his interpretations with her. At the end of the year, using his notes and comments, Vea wrote a report for the school on the children’s work; it later became a book.

Vea has described Malaguzzi’s strategy that changed her mental framework and identity from a secondary art educator to a professional in a new role as an atelierista. Malaguzzi helped create the conditions for change with a process of observation, formative reading, notes, discussion and shared interpretation, and documentation through which Vea unlearned her certainties and opened her eyes to the potentials of the children.

See, Un-see, Re-see
Tom called this process: see, un-see, and re-see. In observation, as in many activities we engage in, we think we are being neutral and seeing the truth. Actually we are often affirming what we already think, reinforcing beliefs we have arrived at by other means. This happens for a number of reasons. Learning, memory, expectation, and attention shape what we perceive, see, and believe. Pressures of accountability in schools and other institutions subtly insist we see what we are asked to see around standards and benchmarks. In museums we are susceptible to a dominant view of learning imported from schools that is content focused and teacher directed. We are also eager to demonstrate our value and our impact to supporters with evidence. These factors influence what we see when we observe in galleries, study exhibits, and describe museum visitors.     

Even when we do see something new, we are likely to name it something else, something we have seen before. Twentieth century philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, expressed this as, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Realistically, un-seeing is difficult, if not literally impossible. But we can work to undo old learning, find ways to displace certainty, and see fresh versions of what we are viewing. The conditions of Vea’s extraordinary journey are not easily replicated, but her effort and goal can encourage us to observe from a new stance. We can shift our observation from looking for what we expect, to looking for what we haven’t seen before. We can be open to what surprises us.

Tom, Lani, and I thought together about what might create movement from seeing to re-seeing to create a crack in our thinking through observation by:
• Being curious, open, and eager to be surprised
• Wholeheartedly pursuing the opportunity of the moment
• Revisiting the experience and its possible meanings  

When we are open, curious, and eager to be surprised, we are:
  •        Awake to our surroundings and the people, spaces, and materials
  •        Accepting uncertainty and the complexity of what we are noticing
  •        Comfortable with not knowing what we are seeing
  •        Exposing ourselves to other thinkers and knowledgeable guides
When we wholeheartedly pursue the opportunity of the moment, we:
  •      Are prepared to capture traces of the experience in multiple ways: notes, video, photos,       images
  •      Are open to what we may be seeing that is contrary to the apparent direction and we         follow it
  •      Observe until we are surprised
When we revisit the experience and its possible meanings, we:
  •      Return to all of the collected traces of observation: notes, photos, images, and videos
  •      Pursue questions to reflect on what we have noticed: how do visitors influence each     other in exploring an exhibit? How do ideas about how something works change over   the course of an experience?
  •      Attend to strategies, not outcomes: ways that individuals engage with the group; patterns of choices; leaps in thinking; the roles conversation plays
  •      Share, and invite others to contribute what they see
  •      Stretch to consider what something might mean that is beyond our imagination
  •      Think together: what might we do to make this or that unusual gesture or activity more    likely to happen again?
This is a bigger, more complex, process than can possibly be captured here. In fact, the above list, or any list, is fundamentally at odds with deep, open-ended observation. We must keep in mind that seeing what we already see is a poor strategy for the positive change and transformation we seek for our visitors, our communities, and ourselves. Fortunately, the benefits of what Lani calls a radical openness to what’s out there and what it means are ample and worthwhile: a livelier, richer experience of our work and its potential value. 

Are you ready to be surprised?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thank you, Lani and Tom

Stand aside awhile and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different.
­Loris Malaguzzi

Originally Posted October 2017

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

There are Loose Parts, ...and Then There Are Loose Parts

Photo Credit:

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

Originally Posted June 2018

Loose parts, or at least the term, has captured attention and imaginations in museums, early childhood centers, libraries, nature centers, parks, and playgrounds. The assorted, moveable, and found materials and objects that spark, enrich, and extend children’s play and imaginations can be almost anything: feathers, pinecones, corks, bricks, shells, spools, or sticks.

In a world where increasingly little is left to chance in childhood and play, loose parts are wonderfully unscripted. These uncategorizable pieces and parts come with no specific directions for what they are or what children might do with them. Tucked into pockets, resting as a sedimentary layer in the bottoms of backpacks, clutched in small hands, or reverentially collected at the shore, children find, pick up, and carry treasured objects. They combine, line up, take apart, exchange, and rearrange loose parts in countless ways. In their play, children are writing the operations manual for shells, a cache of pinecones, bottle caps, or buttons with their play and imagination.

Loose parts, however, are not just stuff, junk, or a jumble of pieces and parts no one else wants or can use. To be sure, there are treasures in discards and by-products of households, industry, and, nature. But since children explore the rich possibilities of these objects, meaningful exploration relies on thoughtful selection of materials. Thinking with their hands, bodies, minds, and imaginations, they observe, ask questions, and have ideas. They arrange and change objects, their settings, or even themselves. These explorations and creations are beautiful, but they're not necessarily art.

When children build, collage, or trade objects, they are comparing, sequencing, and seriating. They are exploring and valuing color, size, shape, and materials. As they lift, move, and occasionally drop glass pebbles, marker caps, or paper clips, they are discovering the properties of glass, plastic, and metal. In building with tubes and discs, they deal with balance and stability, use spatial reasoning, and solve problems three-dimensionally. New words about shapes, texture, designs, and structures are essential to describing how the fabric feels, the certain flat blue disc that is needed, or the delight a child is feeling.

The value, however, is not in working with specific concepts, but in the curiosity, agency, imagination, and knowing the world that these materials afford

We might think that only young children are inclined to explore possibilities and make discoveries with loose parts. In fact, regardless of age, exploring materials not only changes the material, but changes the way we see materials. Anyone with limited experience to freely follow their curiosity and ideas about interesting materials and loose parts–and to do so often–will engage in similar ways. As children of every background have fewer experiences of messing around with “stuff” from the basement workbench, sewing drawer, or the town dump, they have less fluency with materials, objects, and their own vocabulary of materiality.

What Makes Good Loose Parts?
There are many objects that can be gathered for exploring in a classroom, an exhibit, home, under the bushes, or at the playground. Are all loose parts equal? What makes the difference between materials that foster meaningful, extended engagement and ones that fail or minimally engage children’s delight, imaginations, and experience?

As Without Windows Misha blogger asks, why not just shop at the dollar store? Cheaper materials do save money. But, he argues, their low cost is at the expense of child labor somewhere else. Why not make loose parts from scrap lumber? The measuring, cutting, and sanding are time consuming. Keva Planks/Kapla Blocks probably do it better with greater precision. Besides, loose parts are more than blocks. 

Why not use toys or commercial play objects as loose parts? Usually these are single purpose play objects. Once a child has mastered the key function—pushing the button to make a pinwheel spin—the child is ready for more. Due to their cost, these objects are seldom in great enough quantities to combine in novel ways. Ultimately, however, when children use designed toys, even very well designed ones, they become consumers of someone else’s creativity. With loose parts, children exercise their own. Loose parts, especially natural loose parts, change with time and use. They acquire a patina, reveal something new about their nature; they decay.

Rich in Possibilities
While dollar store items and commercial toys may be loose and moveable, they lack other vital qualities that imbue loose parts with powers of attraction, fascination, exploration, and discovery. They are open-ended, beautiful, and plentiful.

As Antoinette Portis’ book, Not a Stick assures us, a stick is no single thing in children’s play. It is not scripted; it can be a wand, a baton, a fishing rod, or a snake—or combinations. Like other open-ended materials, it is responsive to children's questions, interests, and ideas and capable of changing use or meaning in a flash. Often an object’s very simplicity or its ambiguity lend versatility and provoke new ideas. Small tree cookies, for instance, are variously stacked into a tower, used for money, become stepping stones, or are incorporated into a design–all in quick succession.

Features like shape, color, texture, and smell make loose parts even more interesting, suggesting new paths to explore. A child may gather all the red objects or all those that sparkle; arrange keys in a radial pattern and then end-to-end in a train; set pine cones on end to create a forest and arrange them in a spiral. Loose parts sized for small hands allow children to pick up easily, bring close for careful visual inspection, and arrange in many ways. Adding paper and markers to the mix can further extend the exploration and thinking.

While saying that beautiful loose parts are more engaging than “ugly” ones may seem obvious, deciding what makes some beautiful is not. In the eye of the beholder will always be at work, but some qualities tend to make loose parts intriguing, attractive, and promising, if not, in fact, beautiful.

When all of an object’s qualities are not immediately apparent, an object can become more extraordinary. Up close, tiny sparkles in the stones are apparent, as is the fringe of the Burr Oak acorn caps. The crack in the stone looks like a bird. Objects that are similar but not identical are intriguing; natural variations in color, pattern, shape, carry information, reveal the diversity in nature and invite new language.

Ordinary objects and materials also become more fascinating when combined, mixed, and set in different contexts. Light interacting with objects shines through, reflects off of them, and casts shadows. Adding mirrors multiplies objects. Water splashed on objects intensifies colors and makes them shiny. Combining ordinary objects points to new possibilities: shells arranged on an oval mat creating a mandala; sticks alternating with stones in a giant running pattern; a giant star defined by sticks filled with colored leaves; or multi-colored glass beads pressed into a large disk of clay.

Ideas about what is beautiful may be particular to the context. In a nature preschool, for instance, natural and local materials might be a high priority. Without Windows blogger, Misha, is particularly interested in “loose parts from the earth” that “can be disposed of in the earth.” Tree cookies, sand, rocks, and acorns might be valued over cardboard and buttons.

At the same time, manufactured discards and by-products can be compelling when carefully selected. Clear plastic colored shapes, especially when placed on a light table, or multi-colored plastic caps in great quantities can inspire designs, patterns, narratives, and self-portraits. Discarded objects like tubes, reels, and gaskets in similar shapes and sizes, and deliberately selected in only black and white invite exploration of shape without the distraction of other colors.  

As important as open-ended and beautiful materials are, seeing objects in great abundance jolts us out of our usual mindset. Perceptions of the object itself and what it can do change. Seemingly ordinary objects like buttons, brushes, cardboard tubes, or rubber bands suddenly seem remarkable. The abundance of objects feels contagious, infecting us with a sense of expanding possibilities. Vast quantities seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, make mistakes, and start again.

When time is also in abundance–when there is time to look closely at each pebble, feel and compare them, arrange them just so, and rearrange them again–then the possibilities for thinking and creating that loose parts offer also expand.