We know this to be true. It is better for children to have "open-ended" materials to play with, for instance a wooden block is a phone, a car, a generator, a remote control, an i-pod. Since our cooperative school has been around for almost 70 years, I imagine that the blocks have been all kinds of things. We can go from an i-pod, which of course is a small block and quite a modern use of a wooden unit block, but I have pulled two long unit blocks from our collection to remind me that many, many children have used these blocks as something other than just building materials. Each of these blocks carry an inscription drawn in a child's hand. One says, "A-Team" and the other says "M-16." The first inscription probably dates from the 80's when that TV show was on air and the other from the 60's during the Vietnam war era. And now we have i-pods.
That is just the blocks. At some point in the developmental arc, our children no longer use the play ground just for climbing, sliding, scrambling, and digging. They use it as a backdrop for rich, imaginary play scenarios. We have three, very expensive play structures, i.e. climber/slide unit, as set of rockin' tubes, and a seesaw. When the children are 4 and 5 these can be leapt over and eaten for breakfast. This is when the loose parts we have collected and made in the playground become so important.
We have bottle "babies" (2 liter bottles filled with water, and yes, they stay filled) sourced from Carol Kranowitz, rock "babies" (small 5 lbs-ish carefully selected mini-boulders, and 8-inch by 8-foot wooden posts. These are all child-moveable and child-definable. From a child development standpoint these also have a wonderful subtext -- when carried they build coordination, agility, and trunk strength -- but who cares? Well, I do, but for the children -- the important part of this story -- when carried around and placed strategically, these materials give ownership to the mover, Pretend this is a... The most wonderful way to begin a sentence in early childhood. We are firing on all cylinders now.
We also have larger items including large and small boards collected over the years from various renovation projects, a boat, and sticks and logs, as well as little things like egg shells, fake flowers and vines, seed pods, acorns, and cut ornamental grasses. And these are just the outdoor materials (well, except that everyone needs even more sticks inside, of course). My favorite thing that happens inside is when we can designate the oriental rug in our imaginary play space as something and the wooden floor it rests on as something else altogether. I currently do not have any good ropes on hand and this causes me great distraction. Am I failing the children? We do have jump ropes and tae kwon do belts. These work in a pinch, but won't get you far.
Each year, this grand imaginary play takes on new structure defined by the group gestalt. One year, we had this ornate game called, "Chickenpult" and as with many of the children's games, I did not understand the full intricacies of the play. It had chickens (invisible ones), rattles, food, and depending on if it was taking place outside or in, sand seed corn or imaginary seed corn. I think there was a catapult involved, but I never saw one and I didn't ask. This year, the 4/5-year olds have a couple scenarios in play and there are a couple that bring special joy. The first is "conveyor belt". This involves the bottle babies, every board and post on the place, a large bucket, a tube, and several rubber balls and hoses. The bottle babies are moved along a conveyor by human-like machines, are "filled" by wildly out-of-control hoses, and then dumped into a chute in a very humane way (they fall into a bucket filled with the rubber balls and wads of ornamental grass). This was such an infectious idea that the other classes, which meet at different times, are now making their own conveyor belts.
Another cool thing that is happening on the playground is also cool to watch because the children have figured out how to share the space with the conveyor belt and use materials that are not on the supply list for that belt. There is such nest-building action going on, I am thinking of calling someone to arrange a house and garden tour of the nests! Children are using the acorns, flowers, grasses, sand, rock babies, etc. to create the most beautiful nests I have ever seen! This is nostalgic for me because it reminds me of the year of Brood X, the cicada hatch that brought on a glorious storm of nest-building and insect-catching that lasted for 2 whole years.
As adults, I believe, we should not, mandate how to use these materials. I mean, what adult imagines "Chickenpult"? I sometimes make suggestions and then quickly remove myself, knowing that one out of ten of my ideas might be workable for these young thinkers. Too much adult intervention would limit the creative flow children inherently possess. They should spend most of their time cultivating imagination and problem-solving in these early years. I am left to simply look out for developing splinters, tying better knots as needed, serving as a moving company for the larger boards, or helping with the negotiations for limited supply distribution. I also get to watch and enjoy, fortunate to follow the threads of their imaginary play each day!
Please visit our flickr collection, "Moveable Feast" for photographs of children's imaginary play using loose parts.