Monday, August 8, 2016

Unexpected loose parts for play

I was out walking today with the very lovely Juliet Robertson from Creative Star Learning who is in town sharing her passion and expertise with educators around Australia.

We started talking loose parts, as you do.

I was reminded of a red and blue plastic slide that we had at my old preschool.  It is one you see in backyards all over the place, and I always felt that being plastic and a bit naff it was out of place in our natural setting.  

But it was gifted to us, and we put it out to see what would happen.  Turns out, the children shared none of my aversion to plastic fantastic and it soon became an oft used "loose part", used in ways we would never have dreamed.

It was the perfect size and weight to be dragged by one child, or carted by two.  And it was - dragged and carted all over the place.

While rarely used for what it was intended by us adult sized people, it was perfect for jumping off, flinging things down, holding things up or blocking things off.

Where I saw an ugly plastic slide, they saw potential.

The play-a-bility of this slide made it a keeper.  But it wasn't the slide itself that made it a successful addition to our outdoor space.  It was the permission the children had to use it in their own play plans.

If we were precious about keeping it in one place, or "slides are for sliding down" the slide would have ceased to become a valuable loose part and remained a slide, neglected for the most part.

The potential and possibility of this, and of any, loose part be it natural, found or man made lies in the permission the children have to use them and in the time for uninterrupted play and exploration they have to create, imagine, scheme, construct, experiment, practice and revisit.

When we give children this permission, we are respecting their own play choices and empowering them to follow through on all the glorious plans and imaginings they have swimming around in their heads.  

With permission, the slide could become anything they wanted it to.  Without permission, it would remain an ugly piece of plastic.

Needless to say, the slide stayed and proudly took it's place among an eclectic mix of loose parts.  

None of them pretty to the adult eye, but all so immensely useful to children on a mission!

What unexpected loose parts are in play in your setting?

Like more information on loose parts?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Why I love what I do

Long time readers of Let the Children Play will be familiar with the big themes in my professional life:  Progressive education, loose parts for play, outdoor play - preferably in natural settings, creating environments for play and more recently respectful education and care for infants, inspired by Magda Gerber's educaring (r) approach.

When something clicks with me, I get my teeth stuck in and I don't let go!  This is one of those very exciting aspects of early childhood education.  There is always a world of possibility open in front of you to delve into, try on for size and see if it is the right fit for you, and for the children and families you work with.

I've been wondering exactly what it is about these overarching big ideas that have hooked me, and haven't let me go.  What is it that continues to excite me, inspire me and wish to the gods that I had my own centre where I could put everything that swims around in my head into practice?

What is it about progressive education, uninterrupted play, loose parts and the freedom, time and space to use them and the educaring approach that just seem to make so much sense to me that it is virtually a no-brainer?

I think it comes down to a basic belief that children are, quite simply, more amazing than we give them credit for.  Children come into this world as phenomenal learners, intrepid explorers and seekers of knowledge and understanding.

All of the big ideas in early childhood education that I hold dear - as diverse as they are - take children seriously.  This is what clicks.

For example:

Progressive education and the educaring approach active participants both advocate for a "doing with" rather than a "doing to" approach.  They encourage us to see children - no matter how young - as active participants in learning.

Loose parts invite children to make their own play choices and play spaces without adult agenda and to become scientists, creators, engineers, collaborators that they are.  

Playing outdoors, in natural spaces, opens up a world of possibility and opportunity for children that simply aren't available indoors, and gives them the opportunity to develop connections to their natural world.

The learning environment as the third teacher recognises the power that environments have to either hinder or support children's engagement and learning.  It goes beyond the physical arrangement of space, and encourages us to truly understand the children using the space to create places, relationships and routines that respect children as the amazing learners that they are.

If you hold this belief at the heart of your practice, then your goal becomes not to impart your own knowledge or agendas onto children, but to create a physical and emotional environment where children can do what they do naturally, and best.

Letting go of the need to control, or to "teach" doesn't mean that there is no longer a place for the educator.  Far from it. 

All of these big ideas place teachers in the role of facilitator, keen observer, life long learner and collaborator who sets the scene for play and learning to flourish.  You need to be flexible, intuitive, knowledgeable, empathetic, curious, creative, interested, prepared, connected and to think quickly on your feet.  

All of these big ideas invite us to watch in awe and wonder as children's learning unfolds, and to share the joy and excitement of the children.  

Children really are phenomenal learners.  When we trust in that, amazing things happen.  Being able to witness it, and to share in it - this is what I love.  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Passive toys make active learners

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have long been a fan of the theory of loose parts.  

My experience at a preschool rich in loose parts showed me that children's play is enriched in ways almost too many to list when children have time, freedom and access to an array of interesting, opened ended materials both indoors and outdoors.  Loose parts are, quite simply, the essential raw ingredients for creative and imaginative play.

Loose parts go hand in hand with children's play schemas - those repeated urges we see in their play that children seem to be irresistibly drawn to time and time again.  Team your loose parts to be responsive and supportive of the schemas you are observing and you really can't go wrong!

Loose parts go hand in hand with schemas

Since spending more and more time in the world of infants, it has become abundantly clear that simple, open ended materials also open up a world of play opportunities for even our youngest children.    

Magda Gerber referred to these as passive play objects.  She says:

"None do anything.  They will only respond when the infant activates them.  In other words our active infant manipulates passive objects."

If we believe that babies are amazing learners and intrepid explorers of their world, then doesn't it make perfect sense to resource our nursery and toddler rooms with materials that spark curiosity, ignite the imagination, encourage exploration and can be used in a myriad of different ways?     

Recently I had the pleasure of observing children at play with passive objects.  In a room full of resources, what captured this child's attention, and held her focus?  Small boxes with lids, silver bowls, mixing cups and hair rollers.  

They may look deceptively simple, yet open-ended objects are the resources that are most likely to be used over and over, and stimulate the imagination, creative thinking and problem solving of children regardless of the age. 

Meanwhile, this child - not yet crawling but by no means immobile - was exploring a simple piece of fabric:

These silver bowls were in high demand.  They nest inside each other, and are perfect for the gathering, carrying, emptying and mixing that toddlers love to do:

When children play with passive play objects like these, they begin to manipulate them in increasingly complex ways.  This allows them to 

"really plan and scheme and use physical objects as tools.  By the time babies are eighteen months old, they understand quite complicated things about how objects affect each other.”  (Gopnik, Meltzoff, Kuly).

What passive play objects would I recommend for nursery or toddler rooms?  Here are some examples that I have been seeing recently.   

Here are some ideas I spotted in Kmart recently:

Magda Gerber (1986) states, 

play objects for infants need to be those which the infant can look at,touch, grasp, hold, mouth, and manipulate endlessly, never repeating the same experience. It is easy to find such objects in your own kitchen or in a dime store.”
 Whatever you choose to call them - loose parts, open ended toys, passive play objects, once you embrace them in your classroom it can change the way you purchase resources and intentionally set up your infant and toddler learning environment.   

What can you see to add to your collection?

If you would like to learn more, here are some wonderful places to visit:

6 Gifts that encourage child directed play - Janet Lansbury

Creative toys engage babies - Janet Lansbury
Simple infant toys make things happen - The Child Centred
Better toys for busy babies - Janet Lansbury

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Be the Spark that Ignites the Flame

Emmi Pikler ignited a flame that changed the lives of the young children at Loczy, a home for children in Budapest, and continues to inspire parents and educators to this day.  

Light years ahead of  her time, Pikler understood just how important the relationship between infant and carer, the care moments, free movement, self initiated play choices and uninterrupted play time were to a child's healthy development and wellbeing.  

Source:  The Pikler Collection

Magda Gerber, mentored by Emmi Pikler, traveled to Los Angeles and carried the flame with her.  Gerber's Educaring® Approach incorporates:

"...a deep respect and appreciation of the baby as more than a helpless object, Magda Gerber’s Educaring® Approach encourages infants and adults to trust each other, learn to problem solve, and embrace their ability for self-discovery. When allowed to unfold in their own way and in their own time, children discover and inspire the best in themselves and in others."
- Resources for Infant Educarers

Gerber founded Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE®, an organization that continues to teach her Educaring® approach to this day.  RIE® has a mission to:

"Through our approach which honors infants and young children as equal members in relationships, we are dedicated to creating a culture of people who are authentic, resourceful and respectful. Our work is inspired by the natural integrity of infants and the formative power of relationships in their lives. When allowed to unfold in their own way and in their own time, children discover, manifest and inspire the best in themselves and in others. We are profoundly committed to sharing the opportunity to see infants with new eyes."


RIE ®associate Polly Elam, mentored by Magda Gerber, traveled to Australia carrying the flame to a group of Sydney educators attending the 2 week RIE® Foundations: Theory and Observation Course.  As one of the lucky participants, my eyes were opened to new  possibilities of a being with, and learning from babies within the context of an early childhood service.  

Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury Gerber carry the flame through their online presence in their blogs and on Facebook.  Generous in the sharing of their knowledge and experience to newbies like me, Janet and Lisa are both inspiring and supporting parents and educators alike from all over the world.  


We can't all create change on the level of these inspiring women but we can make a difference to the children in our care.  

We can examine our core values and beliefs, and learn as much as we can about how young children learn, play and develop.  

We can think  about what we believe to be important in an infant curriculum.  

We can understand the power of relationships; respect infants as individuals and trust in them as phenomenal learners. 

We can give children the power to make their own play choices, and the time to follow their own play agendas.  

We can mentor.  We can share.  We can advocate.  We can model.

We can be the spark that ignites the flame in our own learning community.

Our babies deserve it!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Educators: Protectors of children's space

In my job I make babies cry. 

I certainly don't mean to.  I visit different centres, and sometimes this means entering the spaces of infants and young toddlers.  When I walk into a nursery, I sense a shift in the atmosphere. There is a stranger in the room.  A 5 ft 11" giant.  At the very least, my presence interrupts play and children stop what they are doing.  Sometimes they tense and go still, like Meerkats on high alert.  At the very worst, they cry.   

Imagine for a moment you are in the sanctuary of your own home, and a couple of strangers walked in and wandered around, and then left.  Imagine this happened again, and again. How would you feel?  What would this do to your stress levels?  To your feelings of safety? Could you feel ownership over a space that clearly wasn't your own?  Is this what it feels like for our youngest children?

Only about Children Cremorne

I pondered this as I sat quietly, observing last week in a nursery room, soaking in the atmosphere.  It was lovely.  The physical environment was uncluttered, and visually calming, educators sitting on the floor, children on laps or close by.  Calm and unhurried.  Nothing more important to be doing than to be together and get to know each other.  It was clear that supporting these little people, some who were very new to the centre, to slowly build that sense of trust in their surroundings and in their relationships was the priority.

One child braved leaving the safety of her primary caregiver's lap to explore the climbing equipment set up in the room.  What a big moment!  Suddenly the door opened - a family had arrived to collect their son.  She froze, started to cry, and hurried over to the comforting lap.  Wide eyes watching, more tears as they leave.
Only about Children Cammeray
Each door opening heightens the unease of the children.  Tears, seeking comfort.  Doors opening, new people entering and leaving, memories of their mum or dad doing the same thing, feelings of separation re-emerging, mixed with discomfort.  

There is nothing more important than creating a sense of security and safety for our children in early childhood settings.  Children separating from their families for the first time are experiencing not just anxiety, but stress in a totally new world, with giants they don't know comforting, feeding and changing them, and putting them to sleep. Strangers performing intimate caregiving tasks in unfamiliar and unpredictable surroundings.

How often do we allow 'giants' to intrude into a space we want children to feel is their own?What impact does the foot traffic throughout the day, or our own voices and movements have on their levels of stress?  How often do we unintentionally add to what is already a stressful environment with our voices, our movements or our desire to constantly rearrange the room and resources?

Only about Children Turramurra

Becoming a protector or guardian of a child's space, and reflecting on our own actions through a lens of respect for the children as individuals goes a long way toward creating an emotionally safe and secure environment where children can build trusting relationships with the people in it.       
As Pennie Brownlee says:

"We will stay alert and stand up to protect the children in our care from harm. Like the Meerkats we will oversee our environments - and the influences in it - with vigilance. When we get it right we might even hear the soft ‘peep peeping’ of contented babies, talking among each other, signalling that all is well."