Republished posts written as @tecribresearch

The posts on this page are the work I did on my first blog. They are not in any particular chronological order. As much as possible I have tried to leave them as they were originally written. I enjoyed going back to them to re-read and reflect. I hope you enjoy them as well.

Dialogues with places (originally published as Loose Parts, Big Ideas, Reggio Inspiration and Early Learning as a Beach)

I love beaches. While on these endless stretches of sand and surf I find myself drawn to opportunities for reflection and inspiration….and as a constructivist educator, standing on a beach, it is impossible not to be moved by the endless invitations and provocations to engage with the many loose parts lying all around me. As an educator who has visited the preschools of Reggio Emilia and the Ateliers of the Loris Malaguzzi Centre, it is impossible not to be awed and humbled by the learning potential of loose parts.

Gift of Loose Parts Italy 2011

A “gift” of loose parts prepared by the children and left at the entrance of one of the preschools of Reggio Emilia during my Study Tour visit in 2011

The Theory of Loose Parts

“Loose parts” is a term seen frequently in literature about Early Years Education and we find it popping up all over the place on Pinterest. Recently I saw a pin with a definition of loose parts, but the source was not indicated. Although I am extremely excited that Pinterest has showcased this incredibly important philosophy, I often wonder how a practice becomes so prominent when the theory behind it is less evident.

Loose Parts at the Pinery

Following my niece as she runs off to explore a treasure chest of loose parts waiting on the other side of the dunes at the Pinery in Grand Bend.

The theory of loose parts was established by Simon Nicholson in his article, “How not to cheat children: the Theory of Loose Parts” (Landscape Architecture October 1971). He said that in any environment, the degree of creativity and inventiveness is directly proportional to the numbers of variables in it. Loose parts provide the variables children require to create new options in their play. A beach is a good example of a loose parts learning environment, with plenty of move-able and adaptable materials, such as sand, water, rocks and shells.

Documenting Loose Parts on the Beach

Documenting some of the loose part compositions we discovered on the beach.

Loose Parts in Reggio Emilia

The project “Dialogues with Places” (2006) in the infant toddler centres and preschools of Reggio Emilia, was designed with the aim to gain a better understanding of children’s knowledge-building processes in relation to a spatial dimension. In past projects, children had explored streets, parks and different places in town but since the Loris Malaguzzi Centre was under construction, the children were invited to “think of a gift that would please them and would please the place.” During the project children experienced many provocations with loose parts. The gifts offered by children involved many varied compositions of rocks, leaves, sticks, flowers, pebbles and feathers (objects they had discovered in their outdoor explorations). Teacher’s carefully observed and documented the children’s interactions with the materials. One teacher commented in her documentation, “Children distill and lift everyday objects out of ordinariness.”

Loose Parts in Winter Garden Reggio Emilia

Loose parts compositions inside one of the “Winter garden”, an outdoor classroom at and infant toddler school in Reggio Emilia.

Some of the extensive documentation of the dialogue with places project follows:

“The children gather the materials and combine, overlap, and align them in a compositional research that is sometimes intentional, sometimes random, sometimes unexpected, in which the search for beauty can be clearly perceived.  We have to make them beautiful…Pietro 2yrs. 7 mos. The children weave dialogues between forms and materials, creating compositions that hold traces of the story of the materials and the places where they were collected. This is the feather…the bird that comes to eat the crumbs left it there…Laura 2 yrs. 11 mos. (p. 53).

dialogues with placesdialogues with places

Later in the project, children visit the empty Loris Malaguzzi centre (the same one I visited on a study tour in 2011) to offer their gifts. The process the children engage in as they create a loose parts composition named “the road” (similar to the line of materials you can see created in the Winter garden in the image above)  is described in the documentation of a teacher:

“Children, places, materials, it is an intense and refined dialogue…The composition created in the “Room of Columns” finds its own spatial organization and visualization using various materials to “retrace” a long joint in the floor that marks the different blocks of concrete.

The children choose twigs and sticks, similar in shape and materials, and gray stones analogous in colour to the floor. They line them up according to rhythms and “rules” that are precise but also allow variations in both the material (a pine cone, pieces of bark) and the placement (horizontal, vertical, oblique).

The children enter into a “dialogue” with the place and materials, changing their gestures, postures, and strategies to better study them.

They touch, probe, select, place, remove, shift…

Each child uses his or her own different individual methods and strategies; starting the placement of the “finds” (loose parts) at opposite ends to then meet in the middle, positioning themselves alternatively at opposite points of the composition or on the same side, creating mini-compositions that join together to form one large group composition.” (dialogues with places (p. 57)

As I read, once again, the documentation above I find it impossible not to reflect and consider the essential importance of loose parts in children’s foundational learning environments. I am reminded of the many ways that children will learn the importance of placement and line, patterns and symmetry, aesthetics and beauty. Rocks in a line are reminiscent of notes on a sheet of music, a language written as visual representation of an organized sound. Lines of loose parts, started at opposite ends to meet with equality in the middle is a process analogous with creating a mathematical equation, a language that necessitates creating phrases that are symmetrical(or even) on both sides. Reading and writing, both involve taking an arbitrary symbol and equating some meaning to it; the feather that stands for the bird that eats the crumbs.

The gift of a composition further invites the children to experience the building blocks of math and literacy, music and art with beauty and individuality. Writing letters on a straight line on a worksheet for example offers only one way to learn the intricacies of a letter. Loose parts, like hand writing, are unique to the creator, the artist. Painting with a brush or drawing with pastel creates a work of breathtaking art. Playing a violin in an orchestra or a fiddle in a band both result in an aesthetically pleasing sound. Giving children many invitations to engage with loose parts is essential to the commitment to respect and honour their hundred languages. 

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