by Mary Jo Sutton, 2011 Children, Youth and Environments 21(2)
This article focuses on loose parts in outdoor learning environments as part of the informal learning field, particularly children's museums. The Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California is the base for the research. It has over 275,000 visitors a year, which can really impact how things are used and consumed, with a median age of 3.9 years old for children. Mary Jo reviewed several research studies used at the site, such as the summative evaluate through the National Science Foundation grant of the space, another study by the Natural Learning Initiative with Robin Moore, a visitor study by the Partnership of Playful Learners research project through the Chicago Children's Museum. Some studies looked at the timing and tracking of groups, "sweeps" to record density of people in each area used, and interviews with adults. Others mapped spaces for learning behaviors. Video track was used as well as an online survey for members. They suggested using a pedometer in future studies to track how much movement is happening. They focused on Lookout Cove and Outdoor Tot with complete descriptions in the article.
A few things I liked:
Synonyms/descriptors for loose parts: movable elements
Mary Jo's working definition: "Loose parts can be any collection of fully movable elements that inspire a person to pick them up, to re-arrange or create new configurations, even realities, one piece or multiple pieces at a time. They can be small or large enough to require multiple hands or full bodies to move them. Loose parts require the hand and mind to work in concert; they are catalysts to inquiry. Loose parts are the flexible edge of an inviting open-ended interactive environment that allows participants to make an imprint of their intention. Experiences with loose parts provide a profound yet playful way for children to form associations between learning and pleasure."
Quotes/Info I liked:
"Loose parts come in an almost endless variety of forms sizes and types--natural and synthetic."
"Loose parts are hypnotizing and irresistible to children under six years old, almost calling to be touched, stacked, carried or collected." (I would argue above six, too!)
"Each generation of parents and early childhood educators who closely notice the way young children literally "grasp" their world in some way become proponents for loose parts."j
"Based on prior experience we knew these props would optimize permission to play in personally defined ways; they would expand the opportunities for interaction and help carry thematic content."
"The behaviors linked to a successful exhibit included: 'pretend play, observing, using tools, building or taking apart, comparing and sorting, natural science pretend play, experimenting, creative/divergent use, discussing previous or other experiences, wearing costumes, [and] local references." Borum and Kelly 2006, 70)
Moore from NLI coded loose parts in their study as "fixed manufactured, fixed natural, loose manufactured, loose nature or none"
"Loose parts helped to intensify dramatic play by framing understandable roles or playful experimentation."
"The thematic loose parts enabled children to become bridge workers and prompted them to do their "important" jobs" (Borum and Kelly, 2006)
Seven tons of gravel and sand were moved by Tonka Trucks or little hands over 2 years. Willows sticks were broken down.
"Plants near the nests were stripped of leaves, berries and flowers and thrown into the nests. Elsewhere, natural bits were gathered up en masse or were arranged in small circles or collections around the site, carried by small determined hands and focused minds under narratives that only they knew."
"All this "no boundaries" resource gathering makes me believe that having so many loose parts available has a kind of broader effect on the mindsets of the kids; they see the whole place, not just the exhibit components as a possible loose parts supply opportunity."
"Every material is considered and tested for its potential for use and judged fitting based on color, tactile qualities, or shape."
"opportunistically acquired"-loved this term for how some elements were gathered as loose parts.
"I believe the wild and powerful experiences created by these young people will be deeply anchored in their memory."
"Extraordinary settings . . . especially when they contain loose parts, hone imagination's edge to change not just one's environment, but accustom the mind to think in "what ifs" and why nots." They are catalysts for transforming the way kids see themselves and their capacities."
This looked as adults and children as co-explorers playing together. Some play advocates are discouraging this type of play, though it is entirely appropriate in a museum setting.
Place based learning is important. The connection to the place and environment can be strong!
Important related theories/people mentioned:
Friedrich Froebel, 1841, props to foster learning, hands-on activities for children in Germany, object manipulation, wooden shapes in kits that Milton Bradley later marketed
Maria Montessori, 1907 "young children engaged deeply with hand-sized loose parts they could arrange and display", created sets of learning props
Simon Nicholson, 1971, Theory of Loose Parts, "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."
Types of loose parts: costumes, puppets, plastic animals, illustrations of animals, sand, gravel, rocks, plants (unintentionally), anything children could detach, shovels, hard hats, dump trucks, sand, sifter screens, brooms, smooth potter shards, construction vests, rivets, connection plates, water, shells, sticks, leaves, flowers, berries, pine cones, seed pods, plush animals, beanie babies, water lily cushions, blocks, aprons, etc.
Application to museums/public places with loose parts:
-use open-ended experiences, hands-on elements, able to change outcomes, loose parts can inspire inquiry
-They changed the landscape for ease of toddler navigation and to help plants survive. Curbs and railings were put in.
-They added signs with questions and phrases, photos, cast animals, etc.
-Some things (like doubloons) quickly were lost to curious pockets. (Side note, we had a sand digging pit in a nature center where I worked. I am sure lots went into pockets. The kids loved the "treasures" and often asked if they could bring it all home. I encouraged them to leave it for our other friends to find.)
-4 out of the 5 most used exhibits had loose parts
--Think about what might become unintended loose parts as kids pulled the willow hut apart and used the sticks as loose parts. Pinecones and rocks were not intended as loose parts yet were used by the children extensively. Think of long term effects of interaction in the play space--what will need replenished over time?
-use low fencing, especially ones that "grow roots" and can't be taken apart.
--"Remediation of the landscape" is important to consider--"All parts of any plant can and will be touched, stomped, pulled apart and shredded." Some of this is seasonal. Use temporary nets to help plants move to the next season.
Curious Kids Museum
Children's Discovery Garden
Russ Nature Preserve
We also love the wind tunnels in museums! See what we have at our house--this is a nice size of a library, classroom, small museum or nature center, etc.
Kodo Kids Wind Tunnel