2.2 : The Big Ideas

The idea of open-ended materials seems to be everywhere right now, and for good reason: open-ended materials are an ideal addition to any early childhood setting, no matter what the philosophy or theory that drives the curriculum in that setting. There are five key reasons why I find them so powerful in the classroom:

1. They promote creativity.

2. They promote problem solving.

3. They are highly engaging.

4. They respect the child as a decision maker.

5. They save your budget!

In this part of the course, I'd like to walk you through a few of the big ideas that have supported the use of open-ended materials in early childhood settings and beyond.

The Theory of Loose Parts

In 1972, Simon Nicholson published a paper called The Theory of Loose Parts. Nicholson challenged the widely accepted idea that creativity is just for those doing the creative work: the artists, the designers, the architects. He suggested that the notion that some people are creative and others are not is a social construct, created by our culture, our education, and our environment. Nicholson shares a "simple fact":

"There is evidence that all children love to interact with variables, such as materias and shapes; smells and othe 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 these things all children love to play, experiment, discover and invent and have fun." (p. 5)

Whether you are a veteran teacher or a new teacher, you can picture children in this playful, exploratory state. Children want to move heavy things, see the tub overflow, see how high they can stack materials, and see how it feels to take on a new identity. Children use play to learn about the world in which they live, to make sense of the things that are happening around them. This is a creative way of figuring things out, especially in comparison to our current state: if you don't know something, you can look it up. Children are scientists, designers, sociologists, artists, and more. Simon Nicholson's theory of loose parts aims to celebrate that innate creative drive inside of all of us.

The theory itself states that "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it." (p. 6)

Nicholson suggested that children should have autonomy over their choices, and one way adults can support that is providing children with the materials and spaces to do this playful work.

"Loose Parts" has become the go-to term for what I refer to as tabletop dry collage: the arranging of various items on a tray or other defined surface. Nicholson did lean towards the aesthetic/design aspect of these interesting objects, but to constrain these items to tabletops is to challenge their open-ended nature. Nicholson referenced interactive museum exhibits, like the Play Orbit exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, 1970:


These items are meant to be touched, moved, and manipulated in whatever way the user desires. Just as you might see a preschooler pick up two blocks and try to make them stand tall, another may lay them on the ground and attempt to make a road-like structure. Neither of these children are incorrect, and they are working on many of the same things: spatial awareness and motor control being the two most obvious. Depending on what else is happening, there may be a social layer to this play, or one child may be talking to himself, articulating his work through verbal description. These structures may become an element in a story. The "kinds of variables" that Nicholson refers to in his paper cannot be found on a list: they are simple things that can serve more than one function. A closed-ended material is something that is meant to used in a certain way, and so many examples of children's toys on the market today are toys meant to be used in one specific way.

Children often find new ways to use materials, and I often observe adults correcting children, even when there is no danger or risk involved. Fo example, a child who fills a bag with legos and carries them around the house might be corrected to "play with the legos" - but isn't that exactly what they are doing?

Nicholson laid the groundwork for much of what today's Early Childhood Educators call "loose parts". Other factors, of course, have made their way into the conversation. Nicholson's theory is still just that: a theory. Teachers who see it in action praise it and have have positive results when an element of observation and reflection is also included.

Affordance Theory

Like the Theory of Loose Parts, Affordance Theory comes from the world of design - more specifically, interactive design. This field looks at how humans interact with objects. How can an object communicate its function without labels or directions? How might a user know what to do if they are not told? A classic example of affordance theory is the handle on a tea cup or a tea kettle: we do not need to be told that is what you use to pick up the object. Don Norman's 1994 video gives a fantastic explanation:


If we are to allow children the open-ended experiences with materials that allow them to be deeply engaged with their own ideas and priorities through play, we can take some cues from Affordance Theory. To me, this is our prompt.

When I began to use open-ended materials with children in the classroom, at least a handful of adults and children would see a prompt on a table and ask, "What do we do?" We live in a world that implies the affordance of different objects and situations. We know that when we walk into a library we should be quiet; if it is our first experience in a library, we would probably be quiet because we would learn that from the environment and atmosphere very quickly.

When I create a prompt of open-ended materials, I keep this in mind. For example, if there are baskets of square blocks, fabric pieces, mirrors, and tile spacers, that prompt does not necessarily tell us what those materials can afford, what those materials can DO. There is an enormous benefit to letting children find those affordances, like Don does in the video above with the plastic cylinder: figuring it out for oneself is a highly engaging experience. When we first introduce more open-ended materials to children, they may need a bit more support in organizing their ideas about materials, and that means finding the sweet spot between shrugging our shoulders and walking away, or implying that the object has one function, and one function only. We'll be looking at the role of language, conversation, and questioning in Part Three of the course.


Many people will reference the Municipal Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, when citing examples of open-ended materials in action. And lovely examples they are! Unfortunately, we have become a bit caught up in what "Reggio is" and "Reggio isn't" - from people wondering if it is okay to use plastic in Reggio-Inspired environments to debating what is, or is not, a "Reggio bulletin board". The nit-picking of details to be just like Reggio has clouded what the idea looks like, stripped down to the underlying theory: constructivism.

 Photo Copyright : Reggio Children

Photo Copyright : Reggio Children


Constructivism is "a theory about knowledge and learning...that describes both what "knowing" is and how one "comes to know" (Fosnot, 2005, ix). The definition continues:


This feels like a mouthful of a way to describe children's open-ended explorations of their world, but offering materials to children for their exploration implies that the adults who are giving those materials believe in the value of those explorations. Perhaps yours is a learning environment where there is a balance of teacher-led and child-led activities; perhaps your focus is closer towards one end of the spectrum or the other. Regardless, children's explorations of space, materials, and time - on their terms - are important and meaningful.

I also mention constructivism as a way to frame our instructional methods with open-ended materials and loose parts. Having loose parts available does not automatically create a high-quality educational experience. The materials we choose; the opportunities children have to use them; and what we do with the information we gather through observing children at work and play with materials: that is the heart of using materials and prompts in the curriculum. How we facilitate these experiences, through observation, conversation, or interaction, is yet another layer that determines children's experiences with open-ended materials.

Lev Vygotsky, the father of constructivism, suggested that "In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself." When deeply engaged with materials, exploring what is most salient to her, the child is trying things on for size that she cannot necessarily at other times: from dramatic play to construction, loose parts offer an opportunity to make sense of the world.

We'll close on our big ideas, for now, with some final thoughts from George Forman on constructivism, play, and Piaget:

"The essence of constructivism is the coherence of the relations among elements. In Piaget's research, it was the relation between water poured from a short container to a taller one, or the relation between the thickness of a rod and its flexibility. It is the relation between elements that children explore then they 'play' with the facts. It is the teacher's responsibility to facilitate this play by providing the appropriate spaces, materials, and group dynamics for putting things into relation." (Forman, in Fosnot, 2005, p. 217)