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


  1. I keep trying to communicate this to my family about buying toys for my children. Ask yourself, "Does it even do anything?" And if the answer is, "No! It doesn't do anything at all!" then it's a good toy.

  2. Love it! We live in a world where an entire industry is dedicated to "learning toys," when I spend so much time helping my family and those with whom I work to understand that open-ended play with materials that require imagination, problem-solving & creativity - along with interaction from us, the caregivers - are the REAL "learning toys." Blinking lights and noisy buttons are great for cause & effect, but not much else!

    Thanks for a great post! Sharing!
    - Ayelet from Strength In Words

  3. If you can make active play an important part of every day, your child will feel how is that fitness is fun. Toys are helps to encourage your child at lots of active outdoor playtime. Encourage your kids with some educational toys and get active your child.
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