3.2 : Interview with Michelle Thornhill

Michelle Thornhill is an advocate for open-ended materials and play. I asked her a few questions about open-ended play, sourcing materials, and her clean-up philosophy.


Tell us a bit about your journey as an educator.

Before I was an educator I earned a degree in fine arts and then I worked for a newspaper doing various creative jobs. When the print media industry tanked I went to work in a public daycare center and fell in love with the field. I presently have a private home learning program with children ranging from 2-6. I have been working as an ECE full time for 8 years, but it's also a hobby and perhaps a lifestyle for me to learn and write everything I can about early childhood development, any chance I get.

Why do you use open-ended materials with children?

I have been blessed with a very vivid long-term memory, and I have never forgotten what it feels like, as a child, to be able to liberate objects above the context of their original function. There's something very empowering about being able to invent a name for an item and declare its purpose, at a time in one's development that is usually not dominated by declarations but by questions.

What are some of your favorite materials?

I love being in nature and I enjoy the thrill of discovery so I especially love unique looking natural materials: rocks, pods, sticks, shells, driftwood, and branches. But that's just me. My children enjoy different materials. The group I have right now are enjoying gems, ribbons, strings, baskets, cups, and cardboard boxes. They also love some commercial products designed for open ended use, like Keva planks, Magnatiles, and animal figurines. They will use those in conjunction with their loose parts.

How do you feel the setup, or preparation, of materials affects children's engagement?

This is one of those cases where you truly have to know your children. Some children will get into everything and will happily rummage through drawers and come up with creative plans for what they discover in them. Those children don't need much setup because they prefer to do things their own way. Other children seem to require that I actually put the items out in a basket on a table so they have what I call "visual permission" to explore. And then there are children who need an even more explicit provocation, for example, I had a basket of sharpened stems (we called them spikes), pods, shells, and lake clay, which was fine for most but some children needed more inspiration. These children waited to see what the others were doing, begged for instructions, or built ten identical hedgehogs for lack of any other real life experience with spiky things. So I began to create a small "catalog" of inspiration, which was just photos of spiky plants and animals that I printed from the internet. It comes down to knowing whether your children lean toward heuristic (exploratory) or algorithmic (instructional) learning, and being willing to adapt.

What do you see as the adult/teacher role during a materials session?

This varies based on the group, but it's a matter of constantly searching for that line between getting involved and stepping back. That line is different for every child. If I'm working with a group I don't know, I like to watch first and see if they are drawing a blank. If so, I'll participate in the session myself while explaining, "Some people like to build like this with these. You can try what I'm doing or you can do something different. There's wrong way here." I don't discourage direct copying, at least not anymore, because I now realize that some children will replicate in order to learn a skill before going on to innovate. I also like to tell children that it's really important to make a lot of mistakes when trying something new, and I applaud their errors because it shows that they have taken risks. Using language that encourages a growth mindset is important for all children, because it helps them know that they aren't being judged or evaluated.

Where do you source your materials?

The whole world is my toy store. Value Village, garage sales, other people's curbside trash or recyclables, natural things from parks and forests, the bottom of my lake, the beach, constructions dumps, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, home improvement stores' discard piles, educational materials suppliers, fabric stores, dollar stores, maker spaces, maker fairs, science shops, and just asking friends and family for specific things.

What is something you wish you could tell everyone about using open-ended materials with children?

Open ended materials are not just the newest fad to come along, or just something fun to try off Pinterest. They are crucial and endangered learning resources. There was a time before the technology boom where every child had free access to open ended materials by necessity: rocks, sticks, hoops, haystacks, rags made into dolls and so on. And those things are being replaced with gadgets that often put creativity into the hands of the manufacturers and passivity into the minds of the users. But the paradox is that the tech era which is giving rise to this shift is the same one that will demand creativity as an essential skill for employment in its growing field. Jobs that demand conformity and convergent thinking are being outsourced and what will remain and thrive in our culture is the divergent stuff. So it's time for schools to think about how they will adapt to this. Loose parts are an easy and often inexpensive way to go about this.

Please share some of your thinking around "clean up".

Picking things up off the floor is my favorite pastime. Or it seems like it, because I spend so much time doing it. I recognize the importance of "Flow" as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it as the secret to happiness. As an artist myself I understand that constantly being reminded to keep things tidy can inhibit this state of mind, this flow, so I try to just accept messes as they come until the work or play is complete, then we get down to business. I have uncovered some unconventional ways to make clean up more fun for children. I try to schedule loose part activities at a time right before the kids will want to be active, which is usually first thing in the morning. Then instead of telling them it's time to clean, I'll say something like "help me clear the floor and table so we can make room to dance or do an exercise video." Or "I'd love to spread out a picnic blanket right here but there's lots of things in the way." (Also popular are the tent, giant floor piano, trampoline, or giant floor puzzle.) If they don't clean up I just don't introduce the next activity, and they learn that the logical consequence of making a mess is forfeiting space for other fun things. We also have "grabbing" tools, the sort with a claw at one end of a stick and a handle that is squeezed at the other. This provides both a fine motor muscle workout and it makes cleanup extra fun. When I'm feeling extra silly I bring out Mr.Sweep. Mr.Sweep is a broom that I glued teeth and angry eyebrows onto, and he is our nemesis. He gathers up all the materials into one big pile right next to Mr.Box. The kids put on capes and become superheros and they save all the materials from being put into Mr.Box, so that Mr.Box doesn't take them away to Mr.Basement.

Please share a story of a time that a child (or children) using loose parts surprised you, excited you, or made you question something.

My children were very interested in snow and snowmen one winter, despite it being rainy outside. I had found some miniature carrots in a craft store and it gave me the idea to set up a snowman provocation. I found a recipe for play dough that was true white and soft, and I put balls of it out next to jars of sticks and tiny pebbles. I didn't give any instructions because I wanted the children to feel like they had thought of it on their own. I left them to it and when I came back, all of the children had made porcupines nibbling carrots. Now, I had been warned by other teachers against steering children into making a specific product (by means of limiting materials, in this case), but this experience showed me that truly creative children are willing to deviate if you give them something to deviate from. There's joy in thinking outside the box but sometimes you need to provide that box to think outside of. The important thing is just to remain flexible and open without laying out too many expectations.

Anything else you would like to share to an eager audience?

Schema Theory has played a vital role in my understanding of what materials to put out and why children are playing the way they do. In a nutshell, a schema is a repeated pattern of behavior and interest that exposes the primary objective by which children experiment their environments. Some common schemas include enveloping, transporting, transforming, connecting, going through a boundary, ordering, orienting, or rotating. Many children will exhibit a very dominant schema, for example, wrapping or covering up toys or trying to flip or spin objects they come into contact with. A child's brain will often develop a subconscious yet persistent question, such as: will it stick, will it spin, can I tear it apart, can I put something in it, can I get something through it, can I move this, can I put this in a line, and so on. Once an educator is able to identify this question, it becomes much easier to find materials that will garner a deeper engagement. And in many cases, providing the right materials will channel what might otherwise become destructive behaviors toward less suitable materials, so the child is also nurtured socially and emotionally.


Michelle is the brain and brawn behind the Loose Parts and Intelligent Playthings Facebook page.

Download Michelle's resource, Loose Parts by Schema.