Plastic is Fantastic (As A Loose Part)!

When I think about loose parts I picture lovely pieces of sea glass, driftwood, acorns and rocks. Plastic is usually the last thing to cross my mind, yet as a loose part it can be so engaging! I wanted to take a little time to focus on its beauty and versatility.

Even though it is sometimes overlooked when we are preparing our learning environments, plastic is a fantastic addition to your loose parts repertoire. Plastic is durable, comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, and is readily available which means most families in your program would be able to contribute a piece or two (hello engagement!).

When we use plastic that would otherwise be considered trash in our classroom we rescue it from the landfill and teach our students a valuable lesson about reusing materials instead of wasting them. As early years teacher Samantha Kent points out, “Reused plastic loose parts are better used creatively than thrown into landfill. This allows children to see how materials can be used in multiple ways.”

“In any Early Years setting, there is no such thing as ‘waste’ – just resources,” explains Andrea Rose, Co-Founder of My Recycled Classroom. “Children need to experience playing with plastics and the things we would usually throw away in order to develop a deeper, unspoken understanding of their responsibility to our planet. Alongside this, we’ve observed at My Recycled Classroom, that enriched learning unfolds in all developmental areas when children are allowed to handle ‘ordinary’, disused items.”

Having a variety of items such as plastic, wood, fabric, and metal that have different textures, colors and weights for the children to use in their imaginative play extends their learning and challenges their thinking. Colorful plastic pieces mixed in with more muted wood cookies and other loose parts can add another dimension to the children’s play.

“We don’t have a lot of color in our play space so I welcome plastic,” explains Tammy Lockwood, early years teacher. “I just prefer it be donated or purchased used.  I’m not keen on purchasing new plastic items for loose parts. While I love natural items and I think that the feel of natural items is best, there is still room for plastic and teaches something entirely different.”

“I like what is free, recycled, and accessible,” says educator Carla Gull, administrator of the Facebook group Loose Parts Play. “Some hits have been the large rings with two or three holes that hold several spaghetti sauce jars together (lots of spinning with those), pvc pipes of varying sizes, large plastic spools, heavy duty plastic crates (will pay for these), pizza “tents” to keep the cheese off the box, plastic netting around produce, and anything with texture for use with playdough.”

Pieces of plastic and other recycled loose parts are amazingly engaging materials for children to explore; they not only add depth to the children’s play but teach them crucial lessons about environmentalism. Let’s save these valuable treasures from going in the trash and give them another life as tools for playful learning in the hands of our students.

Following the Rhythm of Nature in Early Learning Curriculums

There is a chill in the air this morning, a distinct feeling of fall in the crisp breeze whispering in through the open classroom window. It is the time of the year when we begrudgingly say goodbye to bare feet and bundle up in our warm sweaters; we practice the buttons and zippers on our coats and make sure our cubbies are stocked with extra socks and mittens.

As summer fades and begins to make way for autumn Mother Nature paints our learning with a brush of orange and red and brown. The children will soon begin to notice the beautiful leaves scattered on the ground like confetti and I wonder, will we sort them or gather them in to piles for jumping?

The rhythm of the seasons ignites the children’s interests with its myriad of changes and materials; it is a more rich curriculum than any you could plan or buy.

In the spring the children noticed all of the plants bursting to life and they were filled with questions! How did seeds sprout? What do plants need to grow? So we planted a garden, sprouted seeds in cups and sketched the roots, we made prints on fabric and the natural dyes from dandelions, we read stories and made discoveries together.

There were little birds in nests and tiny baby creatures scampering about during our forest trips and we were filled with wonder. We researched how birds hatch, what types of homes little creatures make, and documented our discoveries in drawings.

Water was our focus in the balmy months of summer; the cool stream in the woods became a welcome escape from the heat. We watched the gentle current guide little ships of wood and leaves, laughing as we chased them, our feet displacing the water and making big splashes as we ran through the shallow brook.

We used our tattered wilderness guide book to identify different plants and tiny beasts we found in the wilderness. We practiced pronouncing the big Latin names of species of trees as we climbed and explored together in the depths of the forest.

Then, one day, like magic there is a sudden frostiness in the air that feels like autumn and the leaves begin to change; green fades and orange and red takes its place in the towering trees. We find acorns and pinecones at our feet as the plants prepare to settle to sleep beneath a blanket of snow.

Winter brings with it frozen adventures as we explore in the beautiful sparkling snow and climb the branches of bare trees. We will wonder how the little creatures store food in the winter and talk excitedly about the animals that slumber through the cold months. The children will direct their learning, guided by their discoveries in this lovely icy wonderland, and every learning journey (even the familiar ones) will bring with them something new and wonderful.

Mother Nature is a creative and patient teacher, always carefully preparing the outdoor environment with rich and inviting materials for little hands to discover.

When we allow the pleasant cadence of the natural world to guide our curriculum, and give children the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in outdoor play, the opportunities for learning are endless!

Let Them Play! Messy Play in Early Learning and Care

A toddler sits on the edge of a puddle, grinning as she digs her toes deep into the welcoming mud. Another child joins her and uses the damp soil to paint his arms and face, he is filthy and absolutely beaming with joy as he explores this wonderful stuff with his peer.

At the table not far away a pair of little ones are squeezing gobs of paint on to a log cookie and swirling the colors together with their hands.

“What color will it make?”

“I wonder what will happen if we add water?”

There is no right or wrong way to play in messy explorations.

One child might turn a mud puddle in to a paint palette while another may find a leaf and make a boat to sail across the surface of the water. Everyone can participate in messy play because there are no expectations; the materials are open ended allowing children to use and explore them in a variety of different ways which fosters creativity and innovation.

Take a step back and give the children the opportunity to get messy, discover new things, make mistakes and try again. According to author and early childhood expert Bev Bos, “Our flexibility and willingness to follow a child’s lead will allow remarkable things to happen, if we let them.”

As a fledgling early childhood educator messy sensory play used to make me flinch. The classroom would be a disaster! The horror! Yet, when I let go and began to really allow children to explore the process without focus on an outcome or a product I discovered their learning was much more rich and deep.

Children are naturally driven to learn through messy or sensory play. Though it can sometimes look destructive and, well, messy, allowing children the opportunity to discover new things in this hands on, concrete way is invaluable. Research shows that children build cognitive skills through play experiences in which they have the opportunity to use all of their senses (K. Butcher & J. Pletcher, 2016 – Cognitive development and sensory play).

In my program most of our messy play activities take place outside, especially during the warmer months. Nature provides so many sensory experiences, different materials, and space for exploring. The indoor environment takes a bit of preparation but messy play in the classroom can be just as engaging … just be sure to get the mop and wash cloths ready!

Some ways to support messy play for young children in the classroom learning space include:

  1. Tarps, lots of tarps. Lay them down where you will be allowing children to explore messy materials like paint or clay.
  2. Make sure you use art supplies that are easily washable. Putting a bit of dish soap in paint, for example, can make clothes easier to tidy after exploring with process art.
  3. If you’re worried about stains use smocks to help limit them.
  4. Give out materials in small amounts, allowing more as children request it. This way children get what they need and aren’t overwhelmed with stuff (and you aren’t overwhelmed by mess!)
  5. Seal the messy materials in bottles or Ziploc bags for tidier sensory play. For example, squeeze a little hair gel and sparkles in to a zippy and tape it shut! This can be really beneficial for children who aren’t fond of the icky-sticky stuff.

Whether inside or outside allowing children the opportunity to explore self-directed messy play is so important.

“One of the most valuable gifts educators and parents can bestow on children is messy play,” explains Lesley Cressman, RECE. “In messy play children are able to push the envelope on their own natural curiosity.”

Messy play allows children to learn concepts organically that we would struggle to teach using archaic methods such as teacher directed activities or worksheets. Through messy play experiences little ones discover the scientific process, mathematical concepts, learn to express themselves creatively, and practice social skills such as turn taking and communication.

As Neil Degrassi Tyson said, “Don’t get in the way of children who find it natural and obvious to explore the world around them – even if it means they make a mess of your kitchen or living room. It’s all about your perspective on these things. Let them play.”