I have been involved in early childhood education and care for almost eleven years now. In that time, our general attitudes toward play and the resources that promote the ‘optimal’ types of play have shifted and evolved over that period of time. From colourful walls, high chairs and jolly jumpers to forest kindergartens and a return to nature being the best learning environment – we have in my view turned a positive corner and we are starting to progress toward environments that speak to the individual potential that children possess.
There is it seems though still a pervasive thought that an abundance of resources is needed to suit the learning needs of children in early childhood. That if there are a lot of different resources or the same type of resources that children will be less inclined to want what the next child has and resulting in some kind of conflict. There is also the notion that more resources allows children to explore more, build higher castles, draw more intricate pictures, and add ‘complexity’ to their play.
What I have been considering though over the past few years is whether we are focusing on the wrong thing to add complexity and to deepen learning. We have generally associated resources and materials with being the catalyst for deepening learning when it has become apparent to me that we need to focus more on children developing working theories with as few materials as possible.
When we have an abundance of resources, it creates an environment where children think less, create less, and imagine less. Where there is a ‘home play’ area with beautifully made beds, kitchens filled with furniture, cutlery, plates, tables, chairs, and plastic babies that are fully clothed and look as they would if they were a permanently happy three month old – where is the opportunity to create in that scenario, or imagine something new or to even re-imagine what they’ve seen in their real home environments? What’s the point in having an immaculate pre-prepared home like environment if it looks nothing like their actual home?
Instead, consider the opportunities present for children to create their own ‘home’ or at least how they interpret a home to be if there is nothing but boxes, wood, some art and craft materials and some blankets? Every day they could interpret or construct that space into whatever they want to imagine or re-imagine in that moment based on whatever they either individually or collectively want it to be on that day. Imagine the possibilities there would be for deepening learning if children were able to utilise their skills and strengths with materials they can use in whatever way they wanted to create whatever they wanted – I can’t think of anything more empowering and autonomous than that!
When we have an abundance of resources, it creates an environment where children think less, create less, and imagine less.
The best thing about the potential for using loose parts and minimal materials in that way is that it re-defines play spaces. Instead of play spaces being seen as defined areas of play where only certain activities should and do take place in these specific areas, where there might be untold varieties of blocks and types of lego. Through using loose parts, without having set areas of play, having minimal materials means that play becomes functional and process driven, rather than outcomes focused. It means that children have more of an opportunity to play together and alongside one another to construct their own play spaces. It also means that children are no longer passengers in their learning spaces, but the drivers….and innovators.