Open-Ended Materials : Tuning Into Affordances

What are affordances?  How can they help us frame children's play experiences?


One of the biggest hurdles for people beginning to use open-ended materials in the classroom is choosing and curating the materials.  What can a material do?  How can it be used?  What are the possibilities for play and work?  Those are questions that we should ponder as educators, and curators of materials and environment.  Those are questions that we can see children answer through their hands-on play with open-ended materials.  We don't need to orchestrate how play will unfold, but supporting children's play doesn't end with choosing materials

Open-ended materials offer the opportunity for juicy, creative, and independent work for children of all ages.  Choosing and curating materials is not just creating a setup that draws users in : it keeps the user engaged.  Choosing a material that has multiple uses means that one thing is endlessly engaging:  it can be used one way by one child, and another way by the next.  It can be combined with other materials, or perhaps used on its own.  



Affordances, or clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action, are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing. Examples include: buttons for pushing, knobs for turning, handles for pulling, levers for sliding, etc.  (Source)


Those "clues in the environment" can both suggest possibilities, and communicate restrictions.  Blocks, for example, are used for building, usually in a block center.  What might happen if some blocks were put in the sensory table - in particular, blocks that span the width of the sensory table so they might function as platforms or bridges?  A threaded bolt might live at a woodworking station, but it can also make an interesting mark in a soft material, like clay.

This idea is eye opening when we think about it in conjunction with open-ended materials (loose parts), and presenting them to children.  How much does the presentation matter?  How much thinking should we do before we offer children materials?  If we offer children clipboards, we may hope that they write or draw; but paper also affords ripping and cutting, creating confetti, or snow.  At Play Lab, materials move around the space freely. That was a conscious decision - it is part of learning more about my comfort level, and the secret affordances children can see that I cannot.

I thought about this in terms of art materials, too : is there only one way to use paint?  An environmental feature like a chalk wall can start to fall flat when it feels like it is just there to make marks on with chalk.  So, what else does chalk have to offer?  What do we know about chalk that can suggest a new idea?


In the video below, M uses markers and a shower curtain ring as a "spinning machine" - a machine that she tried and failed to make for 5 minutes.  She began with a colored pencil and the ring in one hand, and the ring flew off.  She swapped the pencil for a crayon, and the same thing happened.  She swapped the crayon for the marker, and made it a two-handed motion, protecting the ring from flying off.  She had a number of variables, and tested the limits and affordances of the materials.


You need to decide how you feel about these kinds of explorations.  There is something tight and nervous inside most of us when it comes to the unknown! Here are a few ways we can tune into the affordances of objects to deepen our understanding, and support children's play with that knowledge.

#1 : Play

A logical first step is for adults to play with materials!  Adults aren't too accustomed to truly open play - most of the messages in our lives tell us that we are either right or wrong.  It is challenging to get into the mental state that children can with their play.  We talk about the importance of play for children, so experiencing it in our own lives can't be a negative thing.

Gather some materials, and see how flexible you can be with them.  How many options does one item afford?  How might you combine different objects and materials to increase the affordances?  

#2 : Be Observant

We need to be prepared to observe children at play.  If children need our support and troubleshooting around the room, we don't get to see and understand children's thinking and meaning in their play.  If children are working with small items and clay, then we should be prepared for children to surprise us.  Clay on the floor, as a bracelet, in their hair, inside small spaces - these are just a few possibilities.  And if we believe that children should have open-ended materials and engage in open-ended play, that takes stepping back, and perhaps some deep breaths, on the part of the educator.

Many of the choices that children make cause adults to cringe.  I was at Play Lab recently, playing with M, a 2.5 year old girl, as her mom watched.  M dumped the markers; she dumped out the crayons; she dumped out the chalk.  She used the now-empty containers to make beds for foxes, and for clay "worms".  There were drawing instruments on the floor and modeling clay on the "drawing" table.  It is absolutely necessary to ask yourself:  does it matter?

It doesn't matter to me; I understand that she is in a place in her understanding of the world where dumping and filling just makes sense.  Observe children before jumping to conclusions about what is inappropriate.  There are different circumstances every minute of the day with young children, and part of our job is to adapt.

#3 : Plan for Playfulness.

The affordances of objects - their secret, hidden uses - are meant to come out loud and clear in children's open-ended play.   If something is happening with a material that is crossing a line, I see that as my planning oversight, not a challenge from children.  I planned for the play, so I should keep the possibilities for what may happen in mind.  Right now, I work in a glass room, so we don't use the golf balls - I haven't quite figured out how to frame that in a way that makes me comfortable.  We may never play with the golf balls here, and that's okay.  I want children to be free and playful; that means that I choose materials that I don't think will need a laundry list of rules attached to them.  

If we are not supporting children's explorations in our planning, then we are putting restrictions on how much children can explore.  Children are natural players - play is an impulse, a spontaneous decision.  And, not everything they do will surprise us:  capes will be worn, blocks will be part of a building.  

#4 : Suggest or Create a New Affordance.

Children want to figure out how things work, and we can give them a few suggestions - that's quite harmless.  I think it may actually be helpful to draw attention to some of the more alternative uses for items.  If we offer pipe cleaners or wire, maybe we wrap one around a pencil, to suggest that the material affords bending and changing form.  This isn't how it must be used, but it suggests how it might be used.

The simple suggestion of that hole in the stump - perhaps a stump that did not have a hole in it the day before - piques children's curiosities.  As an educator, you can draw attention to some of the affordances that you notice, or perhaps the children feel comfortable to begin their experiments unprompted.  This stump is asking to be played with, and a conversation about it in a small or large group would, no doubt, be a rich dialogue - especially if the children know they have an opportunity to interact with this interesting new object.

The goal is not for children to discover every possible affordance of an object, but to follow their curiosity to focus.  As a curator, you play a role in the momentum of that curiosity.  The stump alone is one thing; the stump alongside a basket with ropes and string and sticks of varying lengths is another.  The stump on a tarp with buckets of paint, water, and brushes is yet another.  I want to be surprised by children, but I also want to delight them with new possibilities.  

#5 : Reflect

Keep the teacher-self in mind when you work with open-ended materials.  What is making you cringe?  Why?  What is making your co-teacher cringe that isn't bothering you?  What kind of language are you using when you approach children with materials?   From how we were allowed to play as kids to how we are used to running a classroom, we have some deep-seeded ideas about what works and what does not.  

Affordances are not just about making a list of potential uses and hidden possibilities:  it is a way of approaching and working with open-ended materials.  There is a unspoken language of materials in our world, designed by experience and culture.  Can you expand your thinking about everyday materials?

Learn more about materials and affordances in the Materials and Prompts Online Workshop.