My interest in loose parts play evolved out of the discoveries I was making through my own action research in the years prior to the release of my first little book, Make Writing. You can read more about that work by visiting any of these posts if you’re interested. These are a few that I find particularly revealing, as a reflective practitioner:

Since those early years, it’s been my privilege to learn more about the power of loose parts from my friend Lorella Lamonaca and the pedagogistas she invited me to learn from in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Loose parts are essential to their practice. I’ve shared what I learned from these experiences in this series of posts–Creating Intelligent Contexts for Learning: Six Lessons I Brought Home from Reggio Emilia.

Most of you who are regulars here know that I am not a disciplined blogger. My time and energy waxes and wanes, and so its important for me to be clear: The whole of my learning has not been documented in this space. If you explore any small piece of it though, you’ll probably find yourself with the same question that many others tend to have when the topic of loose parts play comes up:

Why is there so much focus on primary learners and so little on those we serve in our middle and high schools?

 

On my last visit to Reggio Emilia, I asked this question of the pedagosistas there, and most of them offered some version of this response: Middle and high school systems make less room for loose parts play because testing has far more value. Teachers worry about test performance.

Ah.

No surprise, there.

Here’s one that some of you might find pleasant, though: There are many middle and high school teachers inviting loose parts play in the context of sophisticated learning experiences, and what they’re discovering is important. Some of them are sharing their work and what they’re learning online, too. Here are just a few: Christine Vanderwal, Angela Faulhaber, Dr. Marygrace Tyrrell, Dan Ryder, Trevor Aleo, Melissa Surber, Lisa Noble, Donna Gimbel, and Beth Lyons.

If you’d like to be added to this list too, just drop a comment below or let me know wherever you might find me online. I’ll edit this post accordingly.

And hey–I encourage you to not just follow those people, but talk with them! Their approaches and discoveries are different from my own. They have much to teach you that I can’t. Don’t be afraid. Tell them I sent you, too.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far, in my small corner of this vibrant, playful world.

Fifteen reasons to use loose parts for learning in middle and high school classrooms:

 

1. Loose parts are culturally equitable.

 

Those of us who have learned more about the differences between collectivists and individualists and our cultural and racial history are increasingly conscious of the influence of white supremacy on print privilege in our schools. Writing is not the use of alphabetic text and print alone. It’s multimodal. 

Try this: Rather than requiring the use of written words, invite learners to use loose parts to share their thinking when the standards you’re teaching and assessing aren’t targeting the use of written words. I say more about this in Seeing Ourselves, Seeing Others: Creating a More Inclusive Writing Workshop Environment.

 

2. Loose parts protect complexity.

 

When learners are required to use written or spoken words to demonstrate their thinking, some will simplify their ideas if they don’t yet have the words to effectively express them. Loose parts offer a mode of expression that protects this complexity and creates a container that learners might return to as they translate what they’ve built into other modes.

Try this: Rather than requiring learners to use written or spoken words to share their thinking, invite them to use loose parts to build it. Then, demonstrate how they might use the build to inform what they create next. I’ve written more about how you might do this in Make Writing: What? Why? How?

 

3. Loose parts inspire quick, quality iteration and revision.

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that once learners put anything down in print or say it aloud, they’re unlikely to revise it at all, and any revisions they might make are often shallow at best. I share more about what I’ve learned here in Coaching Revision: My Five Biggest Mistakes. Loose parts require a low commitment. Learners don’t become as invested in the ideas they initially share with them and they can tinker and play and mix and remix their ideas rapidly. This often leads to dramatic shifts in their thinking, learning, and work. Materials matter, too. Introducing new and different materials inspires new and different ideas. This also complicates our theories, and that’s a good thing. More on that in a second.

Try this: Offer writers a variety of loose parts to build their ideas, responses, and drafts with. Then, introduce a new collection of parts as you invite revision. Or, invite writers to build their ideas, and then, challenge them to quietly share their builds with a partner or two so that they might guess what their intentions were. Or, invite writers to revise a certain number of times (tinker with your story hook four times), until a certain condition is met (I’m going to demonstrate six different ways to create a character, and I’d like you to try all six approaches), or through a controlled list of elements or an array (build your claim, build the evidence that supports it, build your counterclaim, build your refutation, seek feedback, tinker with the pieces that need revision). 

 

4. Loose parts are dynamic.

 

Written words can be primitive. Truly. Loose parts are multi-dimensional, multimodal, and often, easier to move, mix, bend, attach, detach, and play with. Play is the mother of innovation, and the easier we can make this process, the better the work will be that emerges from it. Dynamic materials matter. Avoiding pre-cut materials does as well. More on that right here.

Try this: Offer materials with intention and for what they might afford learners in a specific moment. Are you building story settings? Natural elements might surface the best ideas. Creating claims? Sticky notes invite learners to capture small bits of compelling evidence. They can sketch, too. Inviting learners to articulate steps in a process or a solution? Challenging them to express their findings from data, categorize, or compare? Blocks, beads, and buttons are useful here. 

 

5. Loose parts are representative of the cultures they are used within.

 

Especially when we invite learners to bring the loose parts of their own lives into the spaces they are creating in. Rather than giving them LEGO or PlayDoh or Magnatiles, why not invite them to think about the loose parts that sustain the people they love and the loose parts that the people they love produce? I’m thinking of the flower petals and eggshells and coffee grounds that fed my great grandmother’s garden. I’ve watched writers bring beans and rice and yarn and shells and wooden beads and screws from his grandfather’s shop to our loose parts tables. When we let learners create the collection, what they create often reveals quite a bit about who they are and where they come from, and what they value.

Try this: Rather than spending money on the purchase of new loose parts, invite learners to create their own tinker trays and totes.

 

6. Loose parts may reflect the cultures we hope to create as well.

 

I often ask teachers to reflect on this image–which is my own. When we offer learners materials like these to create with, what does it reveal about our values and our privilege? And when we offer learners materials like these, how does the implicit message shift?

Try this: Upcycle as much as possible, and use natural elements, too. This small shift in your practice promotes environmental consciousness. It challenges consumerism, too. 

7. Loose parts are compelling.

 

They aren’t merely fun to work with, they’re interesting. The more curious a material, the more creative learners will often be in putting it to work.

Try this: Go on a scavenger for strange parts, and invite your students to do the same. Does your community have a recycling center? That’s a good place to start. I gathered these compelling loose parts from the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (thanks again for taking me there, Melanie). 

8. Loose parts inspire uncommon ideas.

 

The thing about loose parts is that they come out of nowhere, we have limited schema for how they work even if we know what they are, and we need to repurpose them in order to use them for expression. This is highly creative work that demands critical thinking and often, results in ideas we didn’t intend to produce or even–think we were capable of. They aren’t simply tools that help us express our thoughts–they help us generate thoughts worth expressing.

Try this: Challenge learners to approach a new collection of loose parts with no ideas or intentions in mind. Invite them to build something–anything they like. Then, pose a challenge and require them to use that build to pitch a solution. 

 

9. Loose parts complicate our thinking.

 

Sometimes, I forget that as a learning facilitator, my job is to complicate thinking as much as I try to clarify it. Loose parts enable this well.

Try this: After learners have built a clear expression of their thoughts, require them to thoughtfully add one or two or three more loose parts to their compositions and then, explain and justify their decisions. Or, consider how you might use loose parts to “hang questions in the air”…implicitly. 

 

10. Loose parts protect the learner.

 

It can be hard, sometimes, to share our thoughts and feelings, especially when doing so leaves us feeling vulnerable. Loose parts enables the expression of both without revealing too much about the learner or requiring written or spoken elaboration until the learner makes that choice. Why would we invite this kind of building and tinkering and play? Because loose parts play helps us understand ourselves better. Discretely. No one knows what a build represents until we choose to reveal our intentions. The process of loose parts play, when it is done to nurture social and emotional growth and healing, is profound.

Try this: Invite learners to play with loose parts for more than academic purposes. Refrain from requiring them to share the meaning and the intention behind their builds at times, too. 

 

11. Loose parts demand metaphorical thinking.

 

When we’re building what we think out of materials rather than relying on written words, we must rely on symbol and metaphor to communicate our messages well. We have to recognize both at work in others’ work as well. Metaphorical thinking–and particularly the use of extended metaphor–amplifies the richness of any learning experience and helps us produce nuanced and delightful work. Light, projection, reflection, and magnification do the same. Here’s how.

Try this: Invite writers to create and refine extended metaphors as they engage in loose parts play. 

 

12. Loose parts better enable us to teach for transfer.

 

When loose parts represent concepts, we can carry them into different contexts and use dynamic materials to communicate how they change shape as a result. I’ve written more about loose parts and relying less on the hand and more on conceptual understanding here. 

Try this: Invite writers to build a concept within a certain context. Then, change the context and invite them to iterate on the build in ways that represent what might change and what might remain the same.

 

13. Loose parts level the creative playing field.

 

They’re ugly, and this is a very good thing. Loose parts play isn’t about pretty–it’s about practice. It isn’t about perfect–it’s about possibility. When it’s impossible for anyone to produce something aesthetically pleasing it becomes possible for everyone to produce something meaningful. I’ve shared a story about that from my own experience with one writer here. 

Try this: Speak with your students about the “why” behind loose parts play. Share this specific sentiment with them, too. Ugly matters here. Messy mistake making matters, too. That *is* how to do this “right.”

 

14. Loose parts better enable the exploration of controversy.

 

Loose parts enable rapid prototyping and the remaking of ideas and the things that represent them. They also enable slow dialogue, discourse, and debate. When our ideas are represented by silent structures rather than blasted from our mighty mouths, they invite closer and more careful inspection. They don’t require a quick defense. And we can change our minds–our builds–quietly and without shame.

Try this: Use loose parts to invite a silent debate. Each learner might build a claim relevant to a controversial topic using All Sides to locate quality evidence and loose parts that represent the bits of it that support their claims. Partners might be challenged to find–and “unmake” the logical fallacies built into these compositions. Learners might remake their builds with better evidence or even, construct entirely new claims. This process is faster and far more effective when we leave written words out of the experience for just a bit.  

 

15. Loose parts enable equitable assessment.

 

If I want to know if a learner has mastered a certain content or set of skills, written words often create a screen that convolutes my assessment. Sometimes, proficient learners aren’t recognized as such because we demand the use of written words in our assessment of content and skills that have nothing to do with them.

Try this: Invite–but don’t require–learners to demonstrate what they know and are able to do multimodally, rather than requiring written words (unless, of course, you are specifically assessing the writing standards). Another thought: Assess learners on the same content or skills requiring written words. Compare the results. 

I know what you’re thinking: How do we do this remotely though?

Here’s what I’ve tried–with pretty solid success–this year:

  • Invite writers to create their own tinker trays, totes, and collections at home by going on a scavenger hunt for recyclables, natural elements, or strange items (that are parent-approved)! They may use these parts to build each time you invite them to.
  • Use tight constraints. What will they create? With how many materials? In how much time? Where and how will they share?
  • Learners may share their builds live, on Zoom or Meet. They may also take a video or photograph and upload to a shared Drive folder, album, or slide deck.
  • I prefer the interactive slide deck option, myself. Each learner is assigned a slide, and they drop their photo or video onto it, along with an explanation, if I am requiring it. Explanations can be shared orally and audio recorded using a tool like Vocaroo if students prefer not to use written words.
  • I know that Flipgrid is likely a good option here as well. It just hasn’t been something I’ve used.
  • A thought: One of the advantages of engaging in remote loose parts play is that the onus is on learners to clean up! If they want to keep their builds whole from day to day, that’s fine. If not, I recommend they photograph or sketch them for future reference, if that’s necessary. This is what we do when I am playing with kids in schools where spaces are tight and class sizes are large.

If you’re interested in learning more about what other practitioners have to say and how they’re used beyond my very small circle of colleagues in the field, I’ve crafted quite the newsletter for you! You can subscribe here if this interests you. Deliveries arrive to inboxes every Sunday.

And, if you want more explicit guidance, my new book up there is filled with everything you will need to better understand and apply this learning, including curriculum design tools.

 

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4 Comments

    • Hi Maria–If you’d like to be added to the list of school teachers who use loose parts with middle and high school learners, please share a link to your work with this population so I can connect readers. Thanks!

  1. Satomi Mueller Reply

    SO AMAZING! I am so happy to find your article, Angela. Thank you for sharing what you have been doing. I am working at a Nursery -12 International School overseas. I am a Pre-K teacher, however, was sent to a secondary school (from 6th to 10th grade) learning support team due to Covid (not enough students in preschool) beginning of this school year. It has been a great learning journey for me since the scenery of middle & high school is completely different from the Early Years department. And I want to change that to a brighter one.

    Learning through play is natural for little learners and there are so many curious minds among them. Some bring these minds through adulthood but some leave them behind or bury them somewhere.

    Seemed to me a lot of the people (both teacher and students ) in my middle/high school forgot about FUN and JOY of learning. And I thought I would be able to help by bringing Reggio Emilia approach to the secondary school environment.

    Since then, I started to put out many manipulative toys (including loose parts) in my hallway. I clearly see little changes in students’ eyes and teachers’. But I need to work hard more. It seems like I will be going back to Pre-K next school year but I want to create the culture before I leave in June.

    I just bought your new book and I started reading it. And I love it so far….

  2. Satomi Mueller Reply

    SO AMAZING! I am so happy to find your article, Angela. Thank you for sharing what you have been doing. I wanted to leave a long comment but the website didn’t let me, so I set you an email!

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