When children play in a space or with Loose Parts, they experience it uniquely. Rather than focusing on the area or an object's adult-intended purpose, children may view the experience in terms of affordances or the properties of objects that define their possible use.
American psychologist James J. Gibson, one of the most important contributors to visual perception, suggested items have values and meanings unique to the person perceiving them. For example, an adult might understand a brick wall as a delineation or a clear boundary between two areas. However, to a child, a brick wall can offer a place to walk, pile rocks, sit, balance, and jump (Gibson, 1979). Loose Parts support children's perceptions and affordances. They give children complete control over the object, thus expanding children's ways of knowing. Affordance Theory helps us plan how to design ecosystems where items and materials are given value by the children who play with them, rather than using adult-manufactured toys or equipment. Loose Parts have inherent variables that change as each unique child designs and creates with them. Loose Parts invite children to discover on their own and encourage them to make decisions and problem-solve. When children play with Loose Parts, they are entirely in charge of their own learning. They decide how they will use the materials to express their ideas and thinking. Children give life to the materials, and the way they perceive a Loose Part influences if and how they use it in their play.
When observing Roman as he plays, we notice that he enjoys building complicated structures using mini tree stumps and mini tree cookies. In his play, he uses Loose Parts and explores the varied affordances they provide. He often represents his home environment in his constructions. He is the only boy in a household of women, and he spends time exploring both gender roles. He is often seen using scarves to recreate a dress or long hair. He also uses a tool belt that he places on top of his makeshift dress. He identifies with both gender roles; he knows that he has to fulfill certain expectations as a boy, but he also knows that the women in his life play a decisive role in his development. Roman has learned to respect women, and he tests what it is like to be female through play. His mother, grandmother, and aunt encourage his play. They want him to develop the skills of nurturing and creativity. His family realizes the importance of understanding the multiple possibilities Loose Parts play gives Roman.
The multiple affordances of Loose Parts make them a perfect vehicle to support the development of knowingness, or understanding who we are and how we interact with others. The open-ended qualities of Loose Parts offer children every opportunity to explore aesthetics, artistry, science, sociocultural discovery, and experimentation. Loose Parts transform learning from a merely utilitarian process into an active and engaging intellectual pursuit.
How to Select Loose Parts for Their Affordances?
When you find an item that engages your curiosity, ask what affordances the Loose Parts give children. For instance, children can perceive a stick as a sword they can use for fencing, a digging tool, a fishing pole, or a baton to lead a musical parade.
What is important is that as educators, we suspend our own perceptions and make room for our childlike capacities to guide us in finding Loose Parts. Educators must be open-minded about the Loose Parts and refrain from defining a particular purpose or meaning. Even our adult concern for safety may limit us from allowing children to explore the Loose Part or offering children its full affordances. The book, Not a Stick, by Antoinette Portis, illustrates the difference in affordances adults and children give to an object.
Play with the Loose Part you selected, and write down what you notice and how they can be used differently by children. Take the time to see when your adult ideas emerge and reflect on them.
How will the specific Loose Part be used by children? When you focus on the learning rather than the possibilities, you are exploring the Loose Part from an adult perspective. For instance, when we think that buttons will be used for counting and math, we have added our own perception to the Loose Parts. When that happens, stop and reflect on how children will perceive the Loose Parts. You can then observe the spontaneous and emergent mathematical concepts that occur naturally when children play with Loose Parts.
What emotions emerge as I play with the Loose Parts? You may feel hesitant, and concerns or fear may arise. When they do, stop and find ways to take care of the hazard so that you can allow for the perception of risk to emerge. For instance, when you think children will hit each other with a stick, find sticks that do not have sharp edges. Stay close and observe without interfering. You may be surprised how children give affordances to the stick beyond your fear for safety. Trust that children will manage their own risk-taking. They often stop and observe and measure what they can and cannot do. They often break what they consider to be a risk into smaller steps that they can achieve rather than jumping without considering the consequences. Loose Parts' affordances provide children with a sense of adventure and an illusion of danger that allows them to process their own fears and hesitation. Therefore they gain confidence in their own capacities and problem-solving skills.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA, US: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
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