Just wood and bones and string
Loose Parts Part 2
By Lara Purvis, Ottawa Forest and Nature School Educator
“Where’s the toys?”
They’re the words of a 3-year-old. He’s bundled up in a thick blue snowsuit and looking up at me under his hood. Today is his first day at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School. He said his goodbye to his parent and after holding the hand of another educator for a bit, he ventured off to watch the children play. But he’s returned now and his brow is furrowed when he insistently repeats his question, “The toys. Where’s the toys?”
He listens when I kneel down and I explain that he can play with anything around him. If he wants to play in the leaves he can. Or if he wants to move the wood planks to build, he is welcome to. I show him the pile of mulch and the shovel, the pots and pans nearby and tell him “some friends like to dig over here.” We walk him over to the chalkboard and show him the dry clay balls he can draw with. He eyes each option with skepticism. He returns to stand beside me and watches the other children play.
A little while later a few older children run out of the bushes to the stumps that circle the fire-pit. Together they push over a stump and squat down to study the ground. Soon they’re untangling worms from cold mud and picking up bugs. They carefully put the stump back and push over another one. “Salamander! I think I saw a salamander!”
The little friend beside me has moved away. He steps closer. It’s one step at a time till he’s standing close to the salamander hunters. Then he moves in, squats down and looks alongside the other children. When they run to the next stump and collectively topple it, he’s there too.
It’s one of the joys of spare parts – open-ended and multipurpose, the options are endless.
It’s just a stump. Except when it’s the foundation for a bridge. Or the holder and hider of cool weird bugs. Sometimes it’s for rolling and sometimes it’s part of a teeter totter. Sometimes it’s a seat at the fire circle.
In the playwork profession, play is described as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. In the case of our little friend, his choice to join new friends in their hunt for bugs was exactly that.
He didn’t ask again where the toys were. There were stumps to topple and he was busy. There were bugs to find and creatures to investigate. Interestingly, I hadn’t thought to show him the stumps and what lay underneath. In that moment they had been seats in my adult mind.
At the Ottawa Forest and Nature School, we often give tours to visiting forest school educators. They’re almost always interested in taking a peek in our shed and wandering around the forest outside the cabin. New ideas for loose parts are always appreciated.
The landscape surrounding the Ottawa Forest and Nature School cabin and yurt is rolling mounds of dirt and rock with a canopy of tall trees, bushes and deadwood. The forest provides sticks, logs, leaf piles, pine cones, trees and rocks, among many other treasures.
Our loose parts are scattered throughout. Many have become part of the landscape. They include
- Planks 8’ x 2” x 8″
- 20 + stumps
- Mulch piles
- Treasure tray
- Bones – found and cleaned
- Wooden benches
- Cedar poles
Certain loose parts are stored in the shed and pulled out depending on the interests of our children. They include
- String and twine
- Magnifying glasses
- Pots and pans
- A basket of wooden blocks
- Paint brushes
- Dried clay
Our shed also includes tools that we don’t consider to be loose parts because they have clear uses. They include compasses, field guides, watercolour paint, shovels, hammers, hand-drills and bow saws among others. It does happen that children imagine up new uses for the tools but generally we guide them to use tools as intended. That’s a whole other blog!
While we could share how we see the various loose parts being used there is a reason why we’re not going to. Rather, if you are a forest school educator, a new practitioner or a classroom teacher looking to include more outdoor play in your day, we urge you to lay a few loose parts out. Then take a breath, trust and wait. The children will show you how they respond to their environment and each other in play. And your loose parts will find their place.
They might be ignored at first. Resist the urge to move them closer. There are times your loose parts will become part of the landscape. There are times they will contribute richness to play. You’ll see them spark an idea or you’ll see them used as tools to create a magical place. There are times they will feel so critical that all of a sudden there aren’t enough to go around.
But in that openendedness each loose part hold worlds of possibility in play. The children will demonstrate that as they respond to their environment. That play will be freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and child-centred.