Outdoor Play: The Magic of Loose Parts

The co-opers and children begin construction on a new den at the top of the berm. The first den was not enough. We had to build a second smaller one connected to it. First in a series of guest posts from current and former parents of the Cooperative School. These were written as part of a fundraising campaign by our Development Committee. The posts are treasures, each one. This one was written by Shannon Earle. Shannon is currently serving on the Board of Directors as co-Vice President and Admissions co-chair. In this post, she builds a den!

One of the best parts of parenting for me is being given an excuse to play. On my co-op shift a few weeks ago, Lesley decided to release the huge pile of branches that had been resting in a kind of purgatory all winter (one child just HAD to keep them in that pile). I was in heaven. In 30 minutes, we had built a surprisingly sturdy den out of interwoven branches. Over the next few weeks, I watched as the children from all three classes moved in bricks, pots, ducks and then thatched and carpeted the whole thing with some pampas grass clippings I rescued from my neighbor’s yard waste pile. A patch of dirt on top of the berm was transformed like magic into multiple universes. My two-year-old could climb it (yes, to the top) and free the ducks who had been guarding the roof (apologies to the duck-roof child!). My five-year-old tells me that it is a cabin in the jungle, where cats and birds live when they are not out exploring the jungle, playing or foraging for food, toys and stream water.

There was an article in The Atlantic a few weeks ago called The Overprotected Kid that generated a huge amount of discussion on list-serves and on playgrounds. The article highlighted an adventure playground in Wales called The Land, that looks like a junkyard to adults and heaven to children. It is full of loose parts and it is a place where children of all ages can live for a while in a world of their own imagining.

On a smaller scale, this is what The Cooperative School artfully offers to our children. Outside is not just a place to run and climb and be loud - though it is that too - it is another place where children’s dramatic play is carefully cultivated. At the Big Clean this past August, parents painstakingly picked hickory nuts out of the old mulch, filling several large bins to be used later as food, money, and magic ingredients. This winter, my daughter and I used old bark to make a skirt for our snow fairy with icicle wings. It is a place where one child’s idea catches fire and draws others into the creation of a story that is all their own.

At home, we are urban farmers, growing a lot of our own food. We have been slowly converting our lawn to an edible landscape. It’s pretty much always under construction. This means that instead of meticulous landscaping, we have a giant pile of compost, bricks and stones that used to border flower beds, buckets of gravel, buckets of mulch, bamboo stakes, and other “loose parts.” My neighbors might cringe every time they walk past, but their kids know where to come play. They crave it. Compost & water = black paint. Add weeds to the hole where a tree was just dug up, add water & stir = stew. Stack up bricks and cover with old tire = spy house.

As we pursue the search for a new home for our school, I dream of having an outdoor play space that we could potentially open to the public after hours, for all those kids who don’t have mud pits and bricks in their yards, or yards at all. It would be full of boulders and bamboo, loose parts, kids of all ages, and stories, stories, stories. It would be a gift to our community for many years to come. For now I’m grateful that my own children and so many others have a play paradigm that follows them home and out into the world, leaving a trail of fairy houses and creativity behind.