Making Time and Space for Free Play in Early Childhood

Take a moment to reflect on what play means to you. What do you remember about playing as a child?  What are the spaces that are still vivid in your mind? What are the “things” – the toys, the objects, the materials – that are still present in your memories?

When I think about my childhood, I remember the objects that felt like treasures:  a cat puppet that looked just like my real cat; the seemingly bottomless trunk of Lincoln Logs at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house; the sugar packets that my siblings and I would take turns hiding and seeking while we waited for food at restaurants. None of these objects dictated how they should be used: I had the power to decide through my play. I know that we played board games and Atari, but my most vivid memories are of the times when I dictated my own play, making my own choices about what would happen with materials. The objects I treasured allowed me to control the “what” of my play – and the adults around me let me explore.

Your memories should be different than mine – each of us has a unique experience, and we place value on different things. One commonality is that we can access these memories of play from our own experience of being a child, exploring the world, and making sense of our culture.  As an Early Childhood Educator, I have observed children testing out their theories about the world through play. How can we, as adults, best support children’s self-motivated explorations of the world? I suggest that it begins with providing children with materials that let them take the lead as play explorers.

Focusing on Materials

There are so many toys on the market for children – and it is often the adult who chooses the toys that come into the house, or the classroom. The toys that children become attached to provide focused engagement: children can use these toys as objects that they can control. For example, blocks are a classic children’s toy that allow the child to make creative decisions: a single block pushed along the ground can be a train car, or blocks stacked high can be a tower: the outcome is decided by the child.  Because the child can make their own choices about the object, they are engaged in their own world of play.

Think about Legos, for example. They are a wonderful open-ended material, allowing children to build whatever they can imagine. However, in recent years, there has been a rise in lego “building kits”, where children follow step by step instructions to create a specific product.  Building a lego set can be a great accomplishment, but if we use legos exclusively to create predesigned models, the creative properties of Lego begin to diminish. Instead, if we allow children the flexibility to play on their own terms, they have the opportunity to experiment and mess about with the creative process. This is the small difference between offering a Lego kit with directions, or a bowl of Legos, ready for imagination.

When children think there is only one way to use a material, they are unlikely to think critically or creatively about the object. Our lives are filled with messages about right and wrong, when most of the time, we need to use our critical thinking and live in that grey area in the middle. When children have the opportunity to engage in open-ended play on their own terms, they find problems to solve and persevere through them. Play is our very best tool for making meaning of the world.

A curated collection of playful materials at the Opal School, Portland, Oregon, USA

When you offer children toys and objects for play, think about their flexibility: do they allow children to make meaning? Are you, the adult, willing to be flexible with children’s creative approach to objects? If we are willing to allow children to design their own Lego world, we are on track to let children take the lead with their play, supporting their creative development.

Curating Materials

The materials we offer children have been a focus of Early Childhood Curriculum since Friedrich Fröbel, the father of Kindergarten, created objects for play in 1837. The objects, which he called “gifts”, were mainly wooden shapes for building. Maria Montessori was inspired by Froebel’s gifts when she created her own materials for teaching in 1907. In the early 1900s, Caroline Pratt created the first unit blocks for her classroom in New York City. Materials have changed and evolved over the years, but simple objects are still engaging for children.

In 1972, the Architect Simon Nicholson articulated this idea with his “Theory of Loose Parts”, offering that exploring materials allows us to engage with creative thinking, and creativity should not be reserved just for people who do “creative” jobs.  Nicholson’s theory addressed child’s play and the importance of children engaging with creative and open-ended play. In recent years, the term “loose parts” has permeated Early Childhood Curriculum, being used to describe the objects that adults offer children for play.   

Ping pong balls in a tray, along with small containers, require the child to decide what will happen: sorting? A game? A story?

Nicholson’s theory helps us frame a relationship between children’s learning and materials. Children benefit from exploring materials on their own terms – and they do so quite naturally:

“There is evidence that all children love to interact with variables, such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, motion; chemical interactions, cooking and fire; and other humans, and animals, plants, words, concepts, and ideas.  With all of these things all children love to play, experiment, discover and invent and have fun.” (Simon Nicholson, The Theory of Loose Parts. 1972: p. 5.)

In my work with young children over the years, I have found that children are deeply engaged with the play of their own imaginations, using the objects and toys in their environment to create their own world.  

If we correct children, who are simply exploring, their engagement ends.  As adults, we need to think critically when we step in to comment, question, or correct.  A child stacking markers as tall or as long as they can is not incorrect in their play, though we may be tempted to say “That’s not how we use markers”.  These are learning moments that the children have chosen themselves, with materials that have begged them to dive in and play.

Open-ended materials are objects that afford a variety of uses.  The materials allow the user to manipulate it however they feel, to enhance the experience that he or she wants.  For example, hair curlers snap together as a construction material; they can roll down a ramp made of cardboard, or they can be stamps in clay: they can be used creatively, extending their use beyond the intended design purpose.

In many situations, children will find objects to play with: we do not always need to provide materials.  But when we are planning to prompt children’s play with materials, we can take the time to imagine what might happen with an object.  Can it be thrown, rolled, torn, or hidden? Can the object stand independently; can it be put on a surface in more than one way? Is it opaque or transparent? By becoming a curator of materials, adults can help frame an experience.

The Role of the Adult

To curate successfully, we, the adults must do two things: play with objects and materials ourselves, and to be prepared to be surprised by the ways children find to explore materials.  It is not always time to stack the markers, and sometimes it is time to draw: as adults, we need to understand where children’s priorities are (play!) and give them plenty of time to scratch that itch.  If you feel uncomfortable with children using markers to stack and play, there are other materials you can offer children.

As adults, we often choose schedules, materials, and design physical space for children.  There are many ways to create those structures, but we can fully support children’s deep engagement when we remember what it is like to be a child, deeply immersed in creative and imaginative play.  We can provide a safe environment for these explorations, with long periods of time for children to get deep into their play. We do not need to drop all plans and structure: we just need to step back and let children take the lead in their play as often as possible.

Hair curlers double as a construction and building set, offering endless possibilities

The Activity: Open-Ended Play Prompts

Whether you are home, in a school, or in any other learning space, you already have the resources that you need to create child-centered, open-ended play prompts.  In this activity, you’ll think like a museum curator and create a play prompt that draws the user in to interact and play on their own terms, without a predetermined outcome.  What materials can you present together to draw in children to play? Use the scavenger hunt list on the next page/below (wherever it will be printed) to help you find interesting materials around your home or classroom.

Think about who you will be playing: infants?  Toddlers? Primary school children? As you choose objects, test them out, and play yourself: what might happen?  Is there anything hazardous? If you feel like you will need to preface the play with “Do’s and Don’ts” or rules, ask yourself how you might shift the materials, or your thinking, to allow children to engage deeply with the materials, on their own terms.  

These prompts are not meant to be permanent creations.  Rather than worrying about the temporary nature of this concept, be ready to take photographs to remember both the process of the play, not just a creation that is “finished”.  Take photographs to tell the story of play. Play is never finished!

Playful Materials Scavenger Hunt

Grab a basket or a box and walk around your classroom or home and collect as many of the following items as you can.  Let the experience be a creative guide: what other interesting loose parts can you collect for play?

  • Something Shiny
  • Something Soft
  • Items that can be stacked
  • Something that rolls
  • Round / Circle Items
  • A character (an animal toy, a figurine…)
  • Natural items (pinecones, small rocks)
  • Brightly colored items
  • A playful kitchen item (a spoon, a chopstick, a cookie cutter)
  • A mat or tray to arrange items, or play on
  • Something reflective (mirror, aluminum foil)
  • Bottlecaps/Jar Lids
  • Sturdy Paper or Cardboard
  • Ribbons, Yarn, or Fabric Strips
  • Something transparent (plastic, glass)
  • Something hollow (cardboard tube, cylinder)
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