How to Make Open-Ended Play Not Be Overwhelming

open-ended playOccasionally I find myself talking with teachers who are frustrated because their children don’t use our materials as they are “intended”. They tell me stories of children using ramps for making flat roads in the block area or using them upside down with trains instead of right side up with balls. I’ve heard of the child who moved the Balance into the dramatic play space and used it as a prop on which to hang doll clothes…..and so on. This might sound odd, but my response is that, Hooray! At Kodo, we don’t expect children to play and use our products in any particular way. Certainly we hope that our products do suggest ways of using them to children, but we are always pleased when they inspire children to think outside the box. That is, after all, what open-ended play and loose parts materials are intended to do – to help children think for themselves.

The open-ended nature of Kodo products can be overwhelming to both teachers and children alike. For adults who are not used to the focused play which occurs with loose parts, the children’s experience can appear chaotic. They often gather pieces from all over the classroom to incorporate into their play scripts and representational work. Sometimes this can be a bit stressful for the adults who discover that children do not always use materials in the way they were intended, but rather apply ingenuity and imagination as they learn and create. Luckily this stress can be mitigated with a little teacher play time.

One suggestion we always make to teachers, is that they use part of their planning time to sit down with other adults and play with the materials in the classroom, especially open-ended ones. This type of professional learning is practical. These experiences will help your team discuss in what way(s) these loose parts might be introduced. Decide how many new parts you’ll add, in what order, and in what setting or context. Teachers can use this time to predict what may happen when the parts are presented to the children and may want to set parameters for their safe and respectful use. Then put them out and see what happens. It is helpful to record or note all the ways children use the new item, including those that you did not anticipate. These observations will help you during your next planning time as you consider what parts come next and how those may become relevant within the context of the children’s play.

The results of the teachers’ play time will directly affect the childrens initial reaction to the new materials. The better you understand the materials and their possible uses, the more you can initiate quality interactions. But remember to pace yourself! Keep in mind that your children have less prior knowledge than you when it comes to materials and their possible uses. It can take days of interactive exploration for a child to understand the possibilities and limitations of a new material. Give children plenty of time to explore each before offering another. When children are introduced to too much too fast, overwhelming frustration can set in! And besides, they will combine loose parts as they see fit.

This brings up the comment I heard from a web designer the other day. “A little complexity is good but too much complexity is stifling”. Many Kodo product have a significant number of parts and pieces. This is wonderful for the depth it brings for learning possibilities and System Thinking, but when presented to children these pieces can offer complexity too quickly.. As teachers we must keep this in mind as we introduce materials and scale back the complexity to match the comfort and developmental levels of our children. This can be determined by their reaction and interaction with the materials. Use modeling and scaffolding.

Often we find that if children have a good understanding of each component they can accept more parts at one time. The same is true with adults. Think back to when you upgraded from a flip phone to a smartphone. All of those new functions combined at one time was overwhelming! As we learned each function individually we became more comfortable with the system as a whole. Children and adults alike must have time to understand and experience a limited number of new items or concepts to keep from getting overwhelmed. They can then combine their understanding of individual parts to create the more complex system.

We hope this helps you reflect on the loose parts play in your classroom!

Sincerely,

Chris

Tip:The NAEYC book Ramps and Pathways outlines how to introduce ramps to children in this way. A great read for those looking to deepen their practice.

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