Inspired by the hand-made felt food I saw in the diner at Madison Children’s Museum, I suggested to my friend Nina who has a family day care with her sister that we make some felt food for their brood’s dramatic play. Nina thought for a moment and politely shook her head. The children, she said, enjoyed such rich play with a changing assortment of objects used for food: pine cones, stones, bottle caps, and knobs. She wouldn’t want them to lose that. The felt food I’d seen was so appealing it was hard to let go of the idea, but I knew Nina was right.
The Theory of Loose Parts
Architect Simon Nicholson first proposed the theory of loose parts in the 1970’s at a time when adventure playgrounds in England were inspiring a rethinking of the aged and static design of American playgrounds. Nicholson believed that the loose parts in an environment offer enormous possibilities and invite creativity unlikely in settings with fixed elements. Environments are richer places for children’s play with loose parts that include everything from sand and water to sticks, plastic crates and buckets, hoses, tubing, and more. I still have my worn mimeographed (c. 1976) copy of Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts on goldenrod paper in my archives. Recently the idea of loose parts has begun to catch on with early childhood educators, play experts, and playspace and museum designers.
… and Found Objects
I have an addition to make to Nicholson’s Theory of Loose parts. The best loose parts are objects children find themselves and make their own. Traveling close to the ground, eyes wide open, and fingers outstretched, children notice, pick up, and become proud owners of dropped, discarded, and forgotten objects. Pebbles, sticks, plastic caps, pencil stubs, washers and slugs, wheels from toy cars, keys, and more, become their treasures. Children store and stash them in pockets, backpacks, drawers, and ziplock bags where they can find them, use them, and re-use them in new ways. Just check the bottom of any child’s backpack.
When children find objects themselves, objects adults have tossed or overlooked, they enjoy a feeling of ownership they seldom are able to have about toys or school supplies that are given to them by parents and other adults. No doubt they value their toy cars, doll suitcases, LEGOs, and paint brushes. But they have a special relationship with their very own finds. They are the bosses of pencil stubs, empty thread spools, a rusty bolt, a pinecone, and the very valuable spring from a ballpoint pen. They can collect, sort, trade, forget about, and even lose their found objects. They own them and they decide what to do with them. I imagine this is a sweet feeling of control for someone learning to share and figuring out the rules of property created by others; for someone learning about the qualities, the feel and possibilities of objects and materials.
An Openness to Objects
A child’s deliberate or casual search for found objects is a true child-directed activity, a goal often sought and not necessarily fully realized. Their curiosity about and openness to the potential of materials extends their self-directed exploration. Sticky pine cones, a sparkly button, and a cork bobbing in water deliver first-hand information about the world. As children investigate an object, they wonder why it does “that”, where it came from, and what they can do with it. They have ideas. Children’s questions, imaginations, and previous experiences allow them to make connections, to go further than the information given to them, and to create something new and original for them.
Attractive, enticing, and beautiful, found objects have important attributes–fist sized, mobile, and undefined–that allow children to invent, follow, and finish an experience in personal and unexpected ways. An object can become anything a child wants it to be. Chestnuts can become cooking props, bricks in a dump truck, or boulders in an avalanche. Objects invite conversation, inspire stories, and inform theories. They become game pieces, construction units, a puppet, or a precious addition to a collection of similar objects.
Found items are not only fascinating to children, but they also stimulate children’s personal interests in rocks, vehicles, stories, tools, and tinkering. Loose parts and found objects lead children everywhere and anywhere on their ways to the future.
Children need time and opportunity to become fluent in materials. For most children, the more limited environments of their daily lives, often scoured of loose and "dangerous" parts means more limited access to loose parts and, especially, to found objects. Surely there are treasures to be found between car seat cushions on the way to school. But how do they compare to a daily 15-minute walk to and from school or foraging among the bushes at the park?
Hands-on museums do offer loose parts as props and tools in outdoor environments, and indoor exhibits and studio spaces. They can, and need to, give loose parts and found objects a much greater presence by spreading varied and abundant objects and their benefits across exhibits, throughout programs, and into public areas. Museums might just use some of the interest and imagination children bring to loose parts and found objects in doing this. They can also follow the work of educators from Reggio Emilia (IT), explore how some preschools and museums are exploring and adapting material exploration, and think about some starting points below.
Grow the variety of loose parts and found objects across the museum. Start gathering! Loose parts can be natural and manufactured. They can come from any room in the house, shelf in the garage, or corner of the backyard; from the museum’s fabrication shop or food service vendor. Increase variety by inviting contributions from staff and board; work with local businesses and museum sponsors. As important as quantity is, interesting qualities (textures, shape, rigidity, color, finishes, etc.) are essential. Be selective; consider safety. Be a participant, exploring materials yourself and with other staff. Try a few materials in activities and notice children’s questions and how they use them. Search with new eyes; feel with new fingers; discover with new possibilities.
Be on the look-out for: Spoons, keys, plastic caps, driftwood, beads, cord, paper rolls, ceramic tiles, wire, marbles, postage stamps, bark, shells, feathers, acorns, corks, knobs, s-hooks, puzzle and game pieces, buttons, rubber washers, ribbons, leaves, seeds, pods, fabric, ribbon, etc.
Sort through loose objects around a possible experience. A possible experience is somewhere between casually putting out a bunch of stuff and setting up a structured, supervised activity. Being both intentional and open to possibilities of how children might explore, experience, use, and combine materials is a good starting place. A child may, or may not, use objects as you intend, but may, instead, follow another direction. Some objects might suggest making faces, others building towers, others creating symmetry; others some inner direction towards beauty. To shape a possible experience, imagine what a child might do with a set of objects: arrange, sort or seriate them; build with them or trade them; make up a story or make a game.
A meaningful and inspiring space. Search for a wonderful place for wonderful exploration. Consider unexpected, incidental, places, as well as the usual places like the maker space, recycle center, messy corner, or studio. Children could encounter and explore objects and materials where natural light shimmers and bounces, a window frames a view, or a mobile floats overhead. Places should be out of the traffic and oriented away from distractions. A child might find intriguing objects on a light table in a quiet corner, at a “story table,” laid out under a suspended branch, or in an alcove. Add mirrors for children to view themselves and their creations from different perspectives.
|Puff ball explorations. Photos by Monica Malley|
Presentation. Play around with how to present materials so they are attractive and help control mess. Preparation is key as is making adjustments to find the right mix. Create an inviting order: materials that provoke curiosity, help children make thoughtful choices, and make it as appealing to remove objects as it is to put them back. In the spirit of found objects, re-use interesting containers such as baskets, trays, boxes, and bowls. Think through the supplies children will need. Remember, great explorations are possible without glue or scissors. Work surfaces, seating for children and adults, easy reach to containers and shelves, and display of children’s work are central to presentation.
Reality Check. There are very real challenges in creating opportunities that encourage child’s exploration of and facility with materials. Adequate storage is always elusive; back-up storage will be needed and is always scarce. Also:
- Great care and good judgment is a must when collecting and using materials with young children because of potential choking hazards.
- Involve staff. Take time to develop a shared understanding of the value of material exploration with all staff that will be affected: finding, arranging, facilitating, and picking up materials. Respect their concerns and also invite them to find solutions to display, mess, replenishment, and storage. Be sure to engage them to exploring materials to awaken their memories of discovering and delighting in objects as children and to renew their pleasure and interest in materials.
- Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful.
I must admit that I haven’t lost my childhood fascination with found objects. When I work in the garden and come across a forgotten object, I keep it and place it in a bowl on a windowsill. There is a marble, a square nail, a plastic toy figure, a rusty key, and a ceramic tile. It helps tell my garden’s story.
For more inspiration and guidance: