The Role of the Adult in Loose Parts Play

Editor’s note: This list of advice was written by our PLEY team member and early childhood educator extraordinaire, Jane Cawley. Thanks for your hard work, Jane!

One of the topics that the team discussed before, during, and after the pop-up event is the role of the adult in loose parts outdoor play. I will present some ideas for your consideration.

  1. Make sure there is an abundance of loose parts available. According to Simon Nicholson, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it”. We had a basement full of loose parts.
  2. Prepare the environment and materials. This role is directly linked to the mitigation of injury. It is the adult’s responsibility to assess the physical space for hazards (not the same as risk). Also, all loose parts must be checked for safety and appropriateness (e.g. we sanded all of the wooden pallets to remove sharp edges).
  3. Provide support materials to enhance the loose parts (creative supplies, etc.). The children made signs, flags, and decorations for their creations.
  4. During the time the children are exploring loose parts, the adult’s role is to serve as observer; to assess what children are playing with, how they are playing, and who they are playing with. 
  5. The age of the child will dictate how close or how far you can place yourself.  It is thrilling for children to be trusted to play a distance away from adults.  One of the things I observed with children of all ages at the pop-up event was an intermittent need to make a connection with their “adult person”. A little head would pop up from a cardboard structure, they would catch the eye of their parent/caregiver/educator, often with no words being spoken. Then back they would go to their play.
  6. Follow children’s lead without taking over.
  7. Wait before jumping in too soon to help solve a problem. I was chatting with a Mom at the event and Tanner age 2 was rolling tires.  He pushed one towards us and it fell over at our feet.  Tanner then went to the tire and tried to pull it up, making a grunting sound. Without thinking I bent over to lift it up for him. Luckily, I caught myself and pulled my hand away. Without hesitation Tanner tried again but could only get it an inch off the ground. Then he moved his legs further apart, bent his knees and tried a third time. SUCCESS!
  8. Trust children to make decisions.
  9. The adult can provide language by asking open-ended questions that further inquiry but only if you think it is needed.  Most children are motivated by the experience itself and do not need us to spark their interest. I believe sometimes we talk too much!
  10. Ensure long blocks of time for deep exploration. The children were very vocal about not wanting to leave until they were “done”. Remember, Play takes Time.

One Comment on “The Role of the Adult in Loose Parts Play

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