Saturday, 21 July 2018

Open-ended Materials... AKA The battle between colours, plastics and natural materials

I often see posts and discussion about open-ended toys and materials...
and sometimes wonder how "open-ended" is being interpreted... as for some it is about taking away materials like cars, play food etc... which is more extreme than how I interpret it... but how extreme can we go? What is open-ended toys... or open-ended play?

I thought I would take some time to explore these ideas...

I also see, repeatedly, rather intense discussion about plastic, colour and natural materials... and often natural materials are being framed as the "Reggio Emilia" way... and this post is here to say that it is not about it being plastic, or coloured, neutral or natural... what is important from a Reggio Emilia inspired perspective is the thinking behind the choice of materials...
Reflecting on the relationships between materials, the interactions between the children and the materials, the context of the materials, the sustainability of the materials... what are the materials saying to us... do the same materials impact adults and children in different ways... do materials have different statuses? Why? Is this the same status structure in all cultures, or does this differ? Do we allow ourselves to consider this when dialoging on an international level?



Maybe though I should explore what a closed-ended material is... if there are open ended, there must be closed-ended... and the word "ended" is important. The fact that the activity comes to an end... so a puzzle or a book has a  closed end in the sense that you can finish the puzzle and then move on, you can finish the book and then move on (of course both can be done multiple times - but there is a beginning and an end to the activity)
Open-ended means that there is no determined end - the children (or any person using the material) can use it indefinitely, so to speak without coming to an end... it has that potential... playing with cars, pretend food, blocks, play-figures can all create this open-ended play...

Sometimes I think that people are confusing loose-parts with open-ended materials - and therefore label pretend food as closed.
I have seen images of a tree cookie next to a slice of plastic cucumber with comments suggesting that the piece of wood is open and the cucumber is closed... as the cucumber can only be a cucumber...

I have seen plenty of children over the many many years I have worked in ECE using plastic cucumber slices (and similar items) in a great many possible ways... as money, treasure, things to float, as frisbees for the figures they were playing with etc etc...

For me, it is about our relationship with the materials and the freedom we give the children to experiment and play with them. If we say to children that they can only use the fake cucumber as fake cucumber... we have limited the use of the material... but we have not closed the play... the play the child can have with the cucumber can be limitless... it can be a home-scene, or a restaurant scene of which there are numerous possibilities...
if we allow the children to use the cucumber in any way they can imagine, then we open up even more possibilities...

I love loose-parts... I think they can offer children many possibilities... to construct and also in their role play - but I think that in the eyes of the child a pretend cucumber slice can be a loose part...

For children with delayed language, with autism etc then being specific can be of an advantage - a fake slice of cucumber can help them connect with the other children if they are labelling it cucumber - calling a slice of wood a cucumber might not be as helpful... it is always about context... about the needs of the children and providing materials that support their learning and not meeting the  play status other educators apply to materials.

Closed end materials also have their uses... they can support children with understanding start, middle and end... to be able to persist, concentration etc... and I would find it hard not to find someone that would say a book is a bad thing... it can be a catalyst to play... but the book in itself is closed end - in the fact that we start reading, there is a middle and there is an end... and when you get to the end... then it can be repeated, but it does not go on... open ended play can go on after it... but not the book.

Here are a few links to further reading about this topic

Professional Development of the third teacher - this post reflects on our choices of materials, how we interact with the learning spaces, the choices we make... and how the group of children and our context impact the choices we are forced to make... sometimes it is not always the exact way you want it - this is from my previous workplace and is a candid post about my struggle with the third teacher

The story of sustainability - this post is reflecting on our choice of materials from a sustainability point of view... what are we saying to the children if we are constantly using single use plastic to recreate activities seen online... what responsibility do we have as educators about how we use materials and our impact on the earth - this shared planet of ours.

The Story of Trends - this is a post to get people reflecting on ECE trends... many of them are amazing and are great and should be things we need to apply and reflect on... but that is the key word... we need to reflect... why is this trend useful and meaningful for us in our context? Do we need to adapt it to make it more relevant to our context? Does it aid or hinder the children in their learning? How?

The story of a holistic preschool/school - this is a post about a visit I made in central Sweden to a preschool and school with a holistic approach... where they are constantly thinking about the materials they are introducing into their learning environment... for the sake of the children, the sake of the local community and the sake of the planet.

Outside colour and shadow play - here you can see the use of colourful plastic loose parts... despite the fact that some of these items are intended as single use plastics, I have been using them multiple times... in fact the small cups are about 2 years old now... Some do crack and expire over time. I do try to limit how much plastic I use from an environmental point of view, I  choose plastics that are non-toxic and I am very aware of the problems plastics cause on nature and especially our oceans... from giant floating plastic islands to all the horrible micro-plastics formed over time.

Do templates kill creativity? - this post is about exploring the idea that it is not the template that kills the creativity but the attitude of the educator... if the educator is only allowing a single story of creativity for the children... only templates, and only specific ways of using them, then yes, I think templates are a bad thing... but if templates are a springboard to creativity, just one of the 100 languages of imagination and expression... then I do not see them as killing creativity...
Sometimes I am told that I should not encourage others to use templates, because I am giving fuel to those that abuse them... at the same time I also believe that we cannot treat all educators in the same way... because then the idea of the single story is being abused in how we communicate about templates... there is not just the one kind of teachers that over uses templates and prevents children from exploring many other avenues of creativity... there are many different kinds of teachers, with many different kinds of classrooms with many different kinds of needs and abilities. If our focus is always listening to the children and understanding their needs and enabling them to light their own learning fires... then templates will be used only when needed... and as part of a larger play and learning diet.



Play spaces and PLAY - this is another post on the theme of open play and closed play... many see that the forest/nature is a higher status play space than play-grounds that are adult made... mostly on the basis that adults have determined that they are used in one specific way... here I argue that it is not the equipment that limits children, but the adults in the space with the children that do that... I have seen children playing all sorts of different games and play on the exact same equipment... I have also seen children play the exact same play in a playground as well as in the forest... sometimes we adults need to take a step back and rethink our impact on children's play and how our own attitude enable or limit children in their daily play and interactions with materials around them.

Anyone that follows my instagram will know that I love being out in nature, in slowing down and looking closely. Those that have followed my blog for a long time will also know my love for loose-parts, natural elements and imagination (I mean the word is in my blog... also the word INTERACTION... as in interacting with materials, each other, the world around us)

what is important is that we reflect on what materials we are offering the  children... how accessible are they, why these ones, what can be viewed and not reaches, why? What aesthetics are you opting for, why? Do the colours of your place reflect the needs of the children? Do they stimulate children who need stimulating, do the soothe those who need calming? Is there space and materials for big play and small play... what sounds do the materials have, what smells do they have... how does this impact the children... and you as an educator?

Enjoy the process of thinking about the materials YOU make available to the children... and learning more about the relationships between the children and the materials and between the materials.

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