By Barbara Isaacs, September 2021
If you are connected with the wider early years community you would have heard about loose parts play; you may have come across articles, or bought one of the books by Miriam Beloglovsky and Lisa Daly. You may also ask yourself: “What is new here, we have always had collections of objects in our craft area or on our project table? The Montessori prepared environment is organised to offer freedom of choice! Do we really need to include loose parts in our beautiful carefully constructed environments?”
As Montessorians we are really proud of the order, the structure, the “completeness and readiness for use” of the materials on our shelves. We rejoice in the pleasing qualities this environment offers to children, particularly at the start of the academic year. I cannot help but ask myself if this pride in what we have created really serves all the children attending our environments? What does the neatness and sequence of the baskets, trays and wooden boxes really mean to children if they can only use each one on its own and at the time of choosing, never muddling them together? I know that the idea of mixing things up sends shivers of disapproval from not only the adults (sometimes also myself) but also the older children attending our settings who have already learned this one very important rule – one at a time, putting away before choosing another and never leaving things unfinished or incomplete on the shelves!
Yet I have also witnessed the joy of the creative process as pieces of sensorial and other materials were put together, often combining ideas of several children, to create a castle, a farm, a dragon’s den, making a delicious meal for friends and imaginary family or using our box of garments and accessories from around the world to create a wedding. I witnessed and cherished these moments, particularly after we introduced the beautiful Community Playthings blocks in the nursery some 20 years ago. Suddenly I could really appreciate how well the children knew the properties of the materials and pieces they had chosen to combine – selecting just the right piece of the broad stair to create a bridge or connect two blocks together, including the colour tables to introduce colour and construct a fence or enclosure or make a little bed. I loved to see how they combined the different accessories and clothes from the “travelling suitcase” adding a handbag, a hat or barbie driving gloves to a sari or kimono or a shirt from Ethiopia – always creating a well-considered picture of themselves guided by their very own inner image of beauty.
Observing these adventures of discovery, I got to really know the children for who they were, what they loved and what mattered to them. I came to understand their concerns, their capacity to negotiate and express their own ideas and demonstrate care and love for each other. These riches in my own learning were there for the taking – I needed to relax and let the children lead. I also needed to trust their capacity to know where all these objects belonged, and where to return them at the end of the day. They were really masterful at this task.
I observed all this long before the ideas of loose parts play were introduced and before beautiful shelves with baskets filled with collections of natural and man-made objects were advertised in catalogues and on Pinterest. I cannot help but ponder at our ability to appropriate children’s own ideas as our own and create a commercial opportunity for ourselves, justifying the learning benefits of these expensive and beautiful new resources.
Yet in every classroom there will be children who will take to the loose parts collections as ducks to water, and provided, we do not make their choices for them and do not interrupt their moments of deep concentration and engagement, they will reveal their unique interests and capacities for creative thinking, problem solving and creativity, especially if a friend or two join them.
To answer my own question Is there a space for loose parts play in our Montessori environments, my response would be yes. And could I possibly suggest that perhaps you do not need to buy any new equipment. We just need to give the children the time and space to be inspired by the objects already available both inside and outside. We also need to be inspired by the things the children talk about or bring from home. I am always surprised by the children’s capacity to combine, connect and create!
If you are not sure about any of what I have written about Loose Parts Play and its possibilities in our Montessori environments, do join Montessori Musings when we have the pleasure of hosting the incredibly vibrant, inventive and fun-loving Alice Sharp this Tuesday 28 September at 19.00 (BST). I hope you will be inspired by her work and energy and will give children in your environments the opportunity to share their creative skills with each other and with you too.