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The World of Loose Parts: Undervalued Materials, pt 2

When I first started in my new classroom two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the amount of closed-ended toys and primary colors that filled the room. In many ways it opposed my training and my own natural preferences. Although disheartened at first, I realized that change was possible, but it would happen slowly, and it needed to be intentional.

As I sorted through the ample supply of toys and closed-ended materials, I realized that as much as I may not like many of them from a teaching perspective, I was lucky to have them as they could still be of value to my classroom if I looked at them with fresh eyes. Some of the toys I placed into storage while others I sent to a new home. Others, I found ways to re-purpose or include in our studies throughout the year.

However, just because I emptied my classroom of many toys did not mean I had an empty classroom. Instead, I began my foray and experimentation with loose parts. In our classroom, the term “loose parts” is fairly broad and relates to any single or combination of materials that can be used to create. Our loose parts include recycled materials, such as paper towel rolls, boxes, old lids from oatmeal or laundry pod canisters, but as our experience with loose parts increased, so did our collection of loose parts.

After learning about Remida in Reggio Emilia, my co-teacher and I have worked to be even more creative with our loose part offerings. For those unaware of Remida, it is a center in Reggio Emilia where the citizens of the city bring their old manufacturing parts, scraps of cloth, ceramic pieces, cords, leather works, wood shavings and more. The center then distributes these materials to classrooms so that students can give these items new life through their sculptures, inventions and projects. Portland State and the Helen Gordon Center have also begun their own Remida through a partnership with the center in Italy. Coordinators of the Portland site reach out to companies and families across the city to bring in new and surprising materials for the children to use.

Not every child care center has access to a building that is solely used for the storage of loose and recycled materials. However, every teacher can be intentional in the types of materials that they bring into the classroom and how they are presented. I mentioned that as I learned more about Remida, I began to become more creative with the materials I offered. That doesn’t mean that I went out and bought a lot of new “loose part” materials like popsicle sticks, buttons, washers, or marbles. The purpose of Remida is to bring aspects of the city and community into the classroom through the re-use of parts.

To gather an intentional collection of loose parts, I did two things. First, I sent an email to parents asking for items that they no longer wanted. ANYTHING. The items came pouring in, and I was able to use most of them ,with perhaps a few adjustments or cleanings. I received old clothes, which were perfect for sewing and cutting projects. Boxes found their way into every corner of the class. Donated beads were perfect for sorting and counting as well as art projects.

My students truly felt like they won the lottery, though, when a parent who worked as a mechanic gave us a bunch of old car parts. I carefully cleaned the parts and examined them for any potential dangers; then I let the students run free with their imaginations. Two years later, and my students still use those car parts in their robot-building adventures, car designs, space shuttles and barbecuing efforts.

In the picture on the right, you see students sitting on and around a box. What you can’t see is that underneath the box, there is a complicated system of old car vents, cylinders, valve springs and pistons – all making up their car’s “engine.” Once they put the car together, students took turns sitting on it and pretending to drive. Those who were not driving it worked together chanting, “One, two, three – PUSH! One, two, three – PUSH!” as they pushed their friend around the classroom.

The second thing I did was change how I saw simple, everyday objects, including natural ones. Now, sticks become furniture and “Chicka Chicka Boom” trees. Rocks are used in our alphabet finds. Old wires and cords help us introduce the concept of electricity and related vocabulary, like “circuits.” I have even begun to repurpose spice and baby food jars for my students’ use. In turn, my students have created toilets and trash cans with working foot levers.

The children have brought loose parts into their dramatic play, creating imaginative scenarios where they are mailmen with special packages, architects, princesses and more. Loose parts also made their way into a competition to see who could build the highest cup tower and into Physics’ lessons as students experimented with balancing plates and paper towel rolls on cups.

As my students work with these recycled materials, they are learning and gaining skills. Because we take materials from families within the classroom and local places in the area, the items in our classroom reflect the homes and community of the children. They are seeing their home lives and the home lives of their friends reflected in the play. They are also learning how to use their imagination with everyday items they have in their own house.

Furthermore, because loose part play does not have to be permanent, students are able to involve themselves in a practice of “non-attachment.” Sometimes, they spend days working on a sculpture that may only be on exhibit for a week. Then the pieces are re-used by them or someone else for a new project. As they are re-used, students learn to let go of the object while still treasuring the pride of accomplishment and reflecting on their work.

I will be the first to admit that I am still learning about the many uses of and ways to implement loose parts. However, I am encouraged as I see my students expand their skills and learn to manipulate objects to create art, inventions and experiments. Each time I bring in a new addition or set of loose parts, I see an uptake in the engagement and creativity that fills the classroom.

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