The Theory of Loose Parts

For the fourth of July Independence Day celebration, I took my daughters downtown to the street fair. Every year they have a section of the fair just for the kids, and every year they have a booth set up with barrels and boxes full of loose parts. On the tables are rolls and rolls of masking tape. Children are encouraged to pick out whatever they want and put it together however they want, to make whatever they want. Every year, it is one of our favorite booths.

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She’s trying to make a guitar.

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Have you ever heard of the Theory of Loose Parts? I have only just heard of it, and I am surprised that I haven’t heard of it sooner. In 1972, an architect by the name of Simon Nicholson proposed the theory, which states:

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.

Basically Nicholson is saying that the more loose parts you have , and the different types of loose parts that you have, the more inventiveness and creativity you will see.

I can see where he is coming from. A few weeks ago, the kids and I got some small electric appliances for the purpose of taking them apart to see what was in them. I also told them that they could create whatever they wanted out of the rubble. I know that they had serious fun dismantling the items…

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… but I didn’t see a lot happening in the way of creativity afterwards. To be fair to them, they didn’t really have enough time or the right tools to make a great project out of it (a hot glue gun would have been helpful, but it was at dad’s house). And as we know from previous posts, time, tools, and tolerance are necessary for creativity to emerge.

Nicholson says that, for the majority of people, there is more to it than that. For most people, whether or not they are creative is a mindset:

The dominant cultural elite tell us that the planning, design, and building of any part of the environment is so difficult and so special that only the gifted few – those with degrees and certificates in planning, engineering, architecture, art, education, behavioral psychology, and so on – can properly solve environmental problems.

The result is that the vast majority of people are not allowed (and worse – feel that they are incompetent) to experiment with the components of building and construction, whether in environmental studies, the abstract arts, literature or science: the creativity – the playing around with the components and variables of the world in order to make experiments and discover new things and form new concepts – has been explicitly stated as the domain of the creative few, and the rest of the community has been deprived of a crucial part of their lives and life-style. This is particularly true of young children who find the world incredibly restricted – a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.

Nicholson proposes providing more loose parts for children to experiment with in different environments so that they can have opportunities to realize their creative potential. Luckily, more schools and early childhood educators are understanding the effect that loose parts have on children’s play, and are providing more loose parts to inspire creativity in their classrooms.

For more information about the Theory of Loose Parts, visit here.

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In A Reframing State of Mind: Using Observations to Assign Intent

Sometimes in my classroom I feel guilty. I feel guilty because, while the majority of my colleagues plan circle time activities and implement them, or do small group activities with the children in their class, I simply watch children. In fact, I have been known to introduce a small group activity, model how it should be done, stick around for moral support, and then walk away – to watch. This technique has served me well for many years, actually, because it allows me a chance to see a child’s thinking without my interference or manipulation. I have watched children use materials in unique, surprising ways. I have listened to conversations that have opened my eyes about where a child is coming from. But most importantly, I have observed children in the throes of social situations to see how they handle them.

This last example has driven co-teachers of mine bonkers. They can see that I see that there is a dispute, but I am doing nothing to stop it. I am simply watching and listening to a couple of very young children attempt to work out their differences. Of course, if things start getting physical, then I step in to help resolve the issue. But until then, I usually just sit back, watch, and listen. The reason for this is that I can learn a lot about how the children settle social disputes and what I need to teach them in order to make it easier for them to handle disputes on their own.

A lot of times, I watch to understand why a child behaves a certain way. Especially with young children, physical actions against other children can be a sign that a child does not have the language necessary to deal with social situations, be they positive or negative. I have had a few children who have gone through my classroom who have not known the language to use to invite themselves to play with another child, or have lacked the self-confidence to approach other children. In most cases, this has manifest as physical aggression against the other child. There has been more than one case where I have had to shadow and watch a child, simply to discover intent.

The important thing to realize is that children have intent. They do not do something just to do it. They act on their environment in order to figure out how it works, but they do not come into this world already knowing how to deal with other people. And as adults, we all know how complicated it is to deal with other people sometimes. We have had years of practice to hone our skills of language and social maneuvering. Young children have not had time to develop the language or the knowledge needed to handle social situations. It is our job, as teachers, to observe them as they interact with their peers so that we can learn what skills and language need to be taught.

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Talking About Emergent Curriculum and Creativity

I recently began putting together the concrete pieces of what a creative classroom looks like. One piece is the curriculum and teaching style. I picked up a book that I have had for awhile: Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice by Susan Stacey. On page five, Stacey outlines her assumptions about emergent curriculum:

  • While framed by the teacher, it is child initiated, allowing for collaborations between children and teachers, and giving everyone a voice.
  • It is responsive to the child, thereby allowing teachers to build on existing interests.
  • In its practice, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator, taking what she sees and hears, and bringing to children the opportunity to discover more, dig deeper, and construct further knowledge.
  • It is flexible in that curriculum planning, rather than being done well in advance, is constantly developing. Curriculum is dynamic, neither stagnant nor repetitive.
  • It enables children’s learning and teachers’ thinking to be made visible through varied forms of documentation.
  • It builds upon the theories of the recognized theorists in our field: the work of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky supports the philosophy of emergent curriculum. Practices embedded in emergent curriculum make visible the work of these theorists – no longer is it contained only in early childhood texts.

Some of these points have been discussed before on this blog, but  most have not. But the framework of assumptions gives a picture of a classroom that exhibits many of the qualities of creativity that have been discussed on this blog.

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In A Reframing State of Mind: Facilitating Creativity

I am not sure where I heard or saw the first suggestion of teachers being facilitators instead of, well, teachers. I have pulled countless books off of my shelves in an effort to find the reference, but it really is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most of the books I own regarding education assume that this mindset about the teacher is the one that is held by the reader.

It occurred to me after reading my last post that perhaps the term needs a little more clarification. I have a tendency at times to be a little general in my writing, and I don’t want to short-change anyone when it comes to this idea. I did a little web surfing, and I found a thought that struck me as the perfect way to reframe the role of the teacher:

Traditionally, teachers are the ones with knowledge and expertise in a particular field. They impart that knowledge through a variety of means to their students. Facilitators build on the knowledge base of the group of students to find the answers to questions.

I read a very good example of this in one of my books (the one I have been searching for). A class was curious about how shoes were made. During a class discussion, the student expressed the desire to visit a shoe store to find out. Now, a teacher would have simply explained to the students that shoes are not made at a shoe store and told them where shoes were made. However, in the example the teacher booked a field trip to the shoe store so that the children could see for themselves that shoes are not made there (this example was found in Developing Constructivist Early Childhood Curriculum: Practical Principles and Activities by DeVries, Zan, Hildebrandt, Edmiaston, and Sales).

Approaching teaching in this way shows a level of respect for the thoughts and ideas of the children. By respecting where they are coming from enough to pursue their ideas, teachers encourage children to be honest about those ideas in the first place. By Encouraging children to be honest about their ideas, teachers can get a much more accurate picture of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that children hold, and can work with children to correct those misunderstandings. But remember – as a facilitator, teachers do not just hand over the right answer. They work with students to find the right answers. That is the key difference between a teacher and a facilitator.

By reframing the role of the teacher in this way, we teach children the skills they need to become lifelong learners. This is because we are learning wit them. This attitude not only encourages honesty from the children, but honest from ourselves as we recognize the fact that learning can be a cooperative experience.

For more information about the myth of progressive education and right/wrong answers, visit this post.

Stigmatizing Mess

In a recent post I wrote about how our education system has stigmatized mistakes and how we could possibly be missing out on creative genius simply because we are viewing mistakes as negative feedback rather than as attempts to understand. Today I want to address how mess has been stigmatized.

When I set out to write a post or create a workshop, it is never a clean, straight-forward process. Books become scattered and piled up as I focus on research, papers scatter as I discard one idea after another, and I have an app on my phone and iPad that literally becomes clogged with virtual post-it notes and index cards. The paper that I am writing this post on right now is littered with notes in the margins for future posts, and scribbled editing notes to remind myself of entries when I type out the post. Yes, I am that old-school. I have to write by hand first. But the point is that creating and creativity is a messy business.

I have met a lot of teachers that frown on mess. And I can understand their point of view. I mean, why clean up more mess than you have to, right? But then I think about an activity that I did in my two-year-old classroom. Each child had an ice cube tray. Half of the wells in the tray were filled with water. Half of the water had yellow food coloring in it and the other half had red. Each child was given an eye dropper to use to move water around in the tray. The potential for mess during this activity was huge. After the children had mastered the steps needed to work the eye dropper, they began to experiment with dropping water onto their hand, or the table, or anywhere else they could observe the water that they dropped. I have done this activity many times with many different groups of children, and the progression of the experimentation is almost always the same. I become curious as to what the children would miss out on if I cut their experimentation short. I really hate to think about it.

Any time a young child experiments with a phenomenon, there is usually a mess involved. I had a child a few years ago who was obsessed with emptying baskets. While this behavior was an appropriate one for the child’s age, the act drove me nuts because all of the toys were on the floor and created a safety hazard for the other children. But we began to work on sorting skills as we put toys away. We turned the mess into a positive learning experience. And obviously, the child that continuously emptied baskets was gaining some sort of knowledge from it.

One of the unfortunate tendencies of many teachers and parents is to do things for the child in order to minimize mess. We talked in a Building Positive Relationships post about the negative effects of doing things for children, especially after the age of two when they show their first strong independent streak. We discussed a cookie-cutter craft in which the teacher had cut out pieces of a flower, provided the glue to the children, and showed them where to glue the pieces. Aside from the fact that the children obviously weren’t challenged by this craft, they didn’t learn anything from it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, three-year-olds can be provided with safety scissors, small bottles of glue, and construction paper so that they can cut and glue paper themselves. Using scissors and squeezing glue bottles helps strengthen fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and increases a child’s feeling of confidence and independence as well. Will their finished product look like the cookie cutter craft? No, not at all. But in the cookie cutter craft the teacher did 95% of the work, so saying that the finished product is that of the child is a stretch anyway. By providing the materials for the child to do it themselves, we are assured to gain a product that is uniquely the child’s work. Is it messier than the cookie cutter craft? Infinitely more messy. But we can argue that the mess is worth it for many reasons. The child is gaining valuable skills in doing the work themselves, and they are productively engaged in an activity rather than just sitting at a table waiting for their turn to glue items onto a paper. When we do things for a child, it dampens the natural curiosity that children have – not to mention their independence.

Children have the uncanny ability, it seems, to know the skills that they need to work on. It is our job to provide the tools, the time, and the tolerance for children to be able to thoroughly explore their world so that they can not only gain an understanding of it, but a mastery of it as well. If we provide:

  • The Tools – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the tools that they need to use rather than doing their work ourselves.
  • The Time – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the time that they need to develop them. In my post on the Theory of Concentrated Attention I discuss being mindful of what children are trying to learn through their actions and providing them with the necessary time to learn the skill.
  • The Tolerance – Being patient with children is a must when they are learning. They do not have the skills that we have so we must be tolerant of their early attempts to master something, no matter how messy the activity gets. And if the activity poses a safety hazard to others, it is our job to be tolerant enough to figure out how to modify the activity so that it can be done without running the risk of hurting anyone.

We can’t do this by cutting an exploration short or simply not providing it. To do either would short-change the children and not allow them to develop the skills that they need to understand and engage in the world around them.

Stigmatizing Mistakes

Steve Jobs had a reputation for not releasing a product until it was “perfect”. He knew what he wanted and didn’t stop until that ideal was achieved. Decidedly, he had to make a lot of bad attempts before the perfect product was achieved, but did any of those bad attempts equal a mistake?

Mistakes have a bad reputation. Many schools have actually banned red ink because of the fear that pointing out mistakes with red ink would lead to increased stress and lower self-esteem.Standardized tests have increased the negative connotation of mistakes as high test scores have increased in value – at least to school districts and administrators. But the score of the test tends to be where the mistake stops. Instead of viewing a mistake as a learning opportunity for students, mistakes have come to be viewed as a flaw on the part of the teacher or even of the student. A test with a lot of mistakes threatens the reputation of child and teacher, rather than signal that the child just doesn’t get it and may need additional help understanding the subject matter. On top of that, multiple choice tests do not allow teachers to see the thought processes of the students, making it harder for them to try to figure out where the students’ understanding of the subject matter breaks down.

Case in point: my journey learning math. The entire time I was learning math when I was in school, the entire process seemed arbitrary – except for addition and subtraction. And I kind of understood the point for multiplication and division, but that took me a while. Once I got to algebra my understanding of why I was doing what I was doing disappeared. I understood how to do algebra; I didn’t understand why. Once I hit trigonometry my understanding of how and why was non-existent. I failed trig, and I never attempted to try again. I was completely convinced that I was horrible at math. Now I watch my 16 year old daughter taking pre-calculus and dreaming of being an architect and I wish that I had understood math as well as she does. When you get to the core of it, math is so beautiful and helps us understand so much of the world around us – if you understand it. I think about all of the pioneers of algebra and calculus and I wonder how many mistakes they made before they got it right. And think about the creativity that had to be involved! Each of those pioneers had to think outside the box to come up with the math that we teach in schools today – no one had come up with it yet. Imagine what would have happened if they had gotten it wrong and had been hit by the negative stigma that mistakes carry today.

One of the hallmarks of true creativity and creative genius is the ability to see mistakes not as something negative to be frowned upon or avoided at all costs, but as a stepping stone to the right answer. As I have been writing this post, it has occurred to me that a better way to describe a mistake would be as an attempt. An attempt to get to the right answer or to create the best that you can. There may be bad attempts along the way, and there may be good attempts, but in the end there will be something that has been created or understood through learning about what it is that is being attempted. And the most wonderful part is that the learning process is continual. More knowledge can always be gained in order to understand and create even more. If Steve Jobs had simply stopped when he created the first Mac, we wouldn’t have all of the great Apple products that we have today. But creativity tends to build on itself, and innovation is achieved through that building.

How many creative geniuses have we lost simply because we have stigmatized mistakes and valued right answers over understanding? I don’t think we will ever know, but I plan on changing my own vocabulary and mind frame. I believe I will substitute the word “attempts” for “mistakes”.

Do Schools Kill Creativity? Discovering Sir Ken Robinson

In a previous post, I mentioned the “Look at a Book” review that I did a few years ago. I am going to start doing these reviews again, because I really enjoy reading, and I really want to share the information with others. This month I will be doing a review on Sir Ken Robinson‘s book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. 

If you have not experienced Sir Ken Robinson, you are really missing out. This man has been researching creativity for a long time, and he really has a lot of interesting things to say. I highly recommend that you check out the video below to perhaps gain a new perspective on creativity.


I do not own or claim any rights to this video.

The Spark

As I sat writing my last post my mind began to go back to all of the wonderful things that I have started throughout the years on this blog: the “Look at a Book” review idea that generated only one review; the posts about applying Conscious Discipline in the classroom; a scattering of surface-level diving into different topics of interest to me; and a smattering of posts dealing with psychology and philosophy as it relates to early childhood education.

Don’t get me wrong; I am thoroughly proud of what I have accomplished. But I can’t stop thinking big. Somewhere at some time after I wrote my last post, a spark ignited in my brain and the creative juices began to flow. My brain began coalescing all of these independent accomplishments into one big picture because I am passionate about all of these pieces, and somehow I new that the pieces fit.

Have you ever experienced the spark? It seems to light up your whole being as you begin to think about “what could be” and what is needed to turn “what could be” into “what is”. Anything seems possible and dots seem to connect themselves.

Have you ever seen a child get the spark? As a teacher, you talk to them about something you are learning about and they make some connection and they are off! As a teacher, I love those moments and I try to milk as much learning and expression out of them as I can. Those sparks are where true learning and creativity happen, and rolling with those sparks makes the time spent learning that much more enjoyable for everyone.

Imagine your life if you could not follow those sparks. There are plenty of teachers out there who, for one reason or another, can’t follow the sparks that ignite the children’s creativity. The pressure to pass standardized tests makes it hard for teachers to have time to pursue meaningful, internally motivated learning opportunities.

Due to the emergence of my own creative spark, Project: Preschool and Uplifting Freedom with be celebrating creativity for the month of June. We will be exploring what creativity is and how we as teachers can cultivate and encourage a spirit of creativity in the classroom. We will explore the role of curiosity in creativity and take a look at some prominent thinkers and pervading attitudes concerning creativity. I am truly excited about this journey, and I hope that you will join us.

What A Year

About a year ago, my house got broken into. Computers were stolen – computers that I needed for my business. Games and gaming systems were stolen, and a gun that my fiance kept was stolen. While sorting through the reality of the situation, we decided that the best thing for us to do would be to move. We moved in with my fiance’s mom. We stayed there until the end of February, when we moved into an apartment.

I have read many of the posts that I wrote during the past year, and I am astounded by my lack of mental clarity during this time. I guess that is to be expected, considering the transitions that we went through during that time. The feeling that you have to leave a place that was your home because it is no longer safe is a very emotional experience. I’m not sure that I had ever really gotten in touch with my emotions about it during that time.

Since we have moved, I can tell that my mental clarity is much better. And looking back on all of the mental craziness that I have been through, I have to give myself the respect that I deserve for sticking by what I believe in when it comes to educating the children in my care. I didn’t give in to compromise. I questioned that choice over and over again, but today – as I look back on everything that has happened and think about where things are now – I am so glad that I did choose not to compromise. That choice has carried me to where I am now.

I can feel that my mind is clearer. Lately, I have begun to apply aspects of Conscious Discipline in my classroom again – without even trying! It is like it is coming back to me, second nature, because I feel safe again and in the right frame of mind to begin building relationships with the children in my care with the respect that I demand that everyone around me use when working with me. And I haven’t really begun to demand that others use that respect as much as they should in my classroom, but I think that I am going to start. My classroom has truly been a different place in the past couple of weeks, as I find my footing and deal with the children differently. And there is even more to it! I have found myself beginning to plan differently than I have in an entire year, and that planning has led to a classroom that is more involved, busier, and learning more than it has in an entire year. And all because I didn’t compromise. I am still not compromising, because even the classroom that I am in now is not the ideal situation. But I have turned it into an almost perfect situation simply by my mindset, and I am taking it day by day.

I have also gone back to school. I have found that my degree is almost a necessity at this time, and I am working hard to get it. At this time it should take me about a year to get it, and between that and the planning and research that I am doing for my classroom, I will be quite busy for the foreseeable future. I am hoping that, with my new clarity of mind, I will be able to post more often as I learn even more about myself and the career that I love.

Remembering How To Play

I look back at some of my more recent posts and I feel that I owe my readers an apology. I’m not even sure that I know who that person is that wrote those posts. Someone sad and lost, I think. That is where I have been for the past six or seven months. It took me a while to figure out why, but I think that I have finally gotten myself together.

I wrote recently that the children in my class do not know how to play. I think that a more accurate assessment of the situation is that I have forgotten how to play. My philosophy of education, which I so fiercely defended when I was in my first co-teacher position, went straight out the window when I entered my second. I was so focused on the special needs issues of the classroom that I neglected the other children in the room. When I turned my attention to the other children, I began to focus more on what I wanted them to learn rather than what they wanted to learn. I began to use coercion and punishment in order to achieve circle times, bathroom times, and other activities. Discipline problems began to rise and nerves began to get frazzled – and not just mine, but the children’s as well. Making the children do what I wanted to do became the order of the day, and while we fought tooth and nail to get things done, it felt like we got nothing done. Activities lost their meaning because more time was spent on a battle of wills than on any meaningful classroom projects. And through it all, I lost the love of my job. I began to hate going to work. I haven’t picked up a book bout early childhood education in months. The workshops that I so lovingly and excitedly prepared are gathering dust because I have had no energy or desire to do anything with them.

A turn-around in my thought process began this week as I wondered where the researcher in me went. That was why I loved this job so much – the thrill of figuring out why children do the things they do, how they think about certain things and why, and how to work with them to change their thought processes. Why d they behave a certain way in certain situations? These are puzzles that my brain loves to figure out, and these puzzles are absent from a classroom where everything that is done is what the teacher wills. The children lose their individuality in that case and become part of a group, and the puzzles become meaningless. The researcher in me gets lost in the shuffle, being taken over by the dictator who plans every moment and decrees every movement.

Upon further examination of the situation, I realized that my focus had also shifted from the children to the subject matter. I longed to teach my class about houses in the same way that I had taught my previous class, but I had forgotten that the subject of houses had arisen from the interest that the children showed in them rather than a desire by me to teach them about houses. I forgot that every big project that we did stemmed from their interest first. I forgot that no activity was mandatory, but usually no decree was needed; the children usually magically gravitated toward the activities that I laid out. The classroom was wildly productive and there was mutual respect shown between the teacher and students. Classroom rules weren’t stated as arbitrary decrees, but were handed out with logical explanations that the children could understand.

I have begun interacting with the class differently, keeping in mind the amount of time I ask the children to sit; keeping in mind the use of arbitrary statements; keeping in mind that activities can flow from the children just as easily as they can flow through the lesson plan. The results have been amazing. I have seen a huge downshift in the amount of behavior problems that had flared up. The appearance of individual personalities in the classroom has led to an appearance of several social and physical behaviors that need to be worked on. A problem that seemingly had no cause is showing signs of a pattern.

The problem has been one of philosophy. I have tried to overlay my educational philosophy onto one that is counter to mine, and the results ended up being a surrender of my educational beliefs. Going forward, I will have to figure out how to reconcile this. For now, I am having fun finding my way back to a classroom that I can enjoy being in.

And I am also having fun remembering how to play.