Everyday Materials as Toys

This post originally appeared on the Play Lab blog.


What do remember about being a kid?  What do you remember playing with?  Where do you remember playing?


For kids, the whole world is a place for play. And, all those things, all that stuff that is around in our day to day lives - it all has a function in play.  Or, an unlimited number of functions in play, really.  When children have the opportunity to make decisions about their play - especially their pretend play - they dig deep to explore the ideas that are a bit of a mystery to them.  What does it feel like to talk on the phone?  To make dinner while the baby is crying?  To put everything inside of this bag?  To be “bad” or “mean”?  

As an adult, what do you remember about your play?

I have memories of sliding down a snowy hill, using cardboard as a sled; of playing hide-and-seek with my siblings in clothing stores, hiding in the middle of round clothing racks while my Mom shopped.  I remember gathering treasures while I played outside all day long - acorn caps and translucent rocks and leaf skeletons.  I remember being up so high in a tree that I thought I might never make it down to the ground again.

As a teacher, I have spent more than a decade watching children play.  Often, that play looks very different than I would have predicted.  When I first began teaching, I tried to make a lot of choices for children - meaning I, the adult, would decide what kids will do at a certain table, or with a certain toy.  Children have their own ideas, though - and it took me a long time to embrace the importance of those ideas.  Play Lab exists as a way to celebrate the competence, the creativity, and the voices of children, so we might understand children’s choices and ideas more deeply.

I envision some exciting things happening at Play Lab - and rather than keeping that learning and new understanding to myself, the plan is to share the messages about children’s voices, ideas, play, and learning.  The goal is letting kids just be kids in their play, in the way that I was given the space to just be a kid.  This doesn’t mean chaos and madness, although we might see some of that.  It means curating an irresistible and highly interactive space, and trusting children to make their own choices in that space.

Curating the materials in that space is the work that happens before children come in.  The big idea of materials, which we will explore through May, is really a focus on how children use everyday objects.  What do children pretend with everyday objects?  How do these everyday things help children learn more about how the world works?

When you were a kid, did you ever pretend that a fork was a hairbrush?  Did you ever try to stack the salt and pepper shakers while you waited for food at a restaurant, or build a fort out of couch cushions?  Can small stones, lined up along the floor, become a path or a road?  

It might seem silly to promote a focus on this kind of play - the kind of play that most adults now will say they engaged with as children.  My 1980's childhood was full of time and space to explore the world in this way.  My play was deeply engaging, and very independent.  The norm seems to have shifted to increased screen time, with less energy put towards hands-on, interactive, engaging, child-driven play.  I believe that all kids - not just little ones - are really engaged when they are in control of their play in an interesting, curated environment.  Play Lab aims to be that place for kids, and a place that helps adults learn more about making this kind of independent play available for kids in and around their homes, too.

All of this informs the action research question that will guide my teacher research through June:  How might everyday objects support children’s playful learning?  My work is to curate the environment - the space and the materials - and observe and document children interacting with the space and the materials.  These everyday objects range from doorknobs to tile spacers to cardboard - things that are around us in our everyday lives.  These objects get a new, playful life when children interact with them.  In Early Education, the buzzword for these everyday objects is “loose parts”.

I take photos and videos and notes while I observe at Play Lab so that I am able to show, not just tell, the importance of independent play in childhood.  I can’t predict what will happen on a given day because I want Play Lab to be a place where kids make that choice, not adults.  There is a certain pressure to understand our adult role more deeply, and that is another layer to the action research question.  The planning and curation doesn’t stop at the objects in the space - it also matters how we approach children’s ideas and initiatives as the adults.  I believe that we can’t just stand on the sidelines and chat with the other grown ups, but I also believe that we can’t be stuck to children like glue while they play.  Through the programs in the coming months, I’ll think about how our actions as adults influence children’s play decisions - it is something for adults to be conscious of.


Loose Parts Installation by Play Lab, 2016