Loose Parts in Nature and Reggio Inspired Learning

Since returning from five days in the forest, which was my introduction to forest and nature school learning, I have been thinking deeply about loose parts, a topic I have written extensively about. The forest is resplendent with natural loose parts. When I was in the forest, my first inclination, as I sat on the forest floor sifting through and playing with these materials was to take a bag, pack them up and bring them to a classroom as way of bringing the outdoors in – an idea so often associated with Reggio inspired practice. After considering this impulse on my return to civilization, I reflected on the abundance of pins on Pinterest, postings on Facebook and tweets on Twitter, depicting natural materials used as decoration and display and labeled “Reggio”. This is such a surface understanding that does a disservice to the theory and philosophy underpinning the Reggio Emilia approach to early learning and I invite you to consider loose parts more deeply.

When loose parts are offered to children they provide many opportunities, provocations and invitations to use, transport, combine, and transform them. The more a material can do, the more intelligent it can become with children because what a material can do determines the potential for learning. In order for materials to be intelligent they need to have potential to communicate: to be expressive. When children encounter materials and begin to explore them, they build awareness of what can happen. It is through interactions between a child and a material that a language is developed. “As children use their minds and hands to act on a material using gestures and tools and begin to acquire skills, experience, strategies, and rules, structures are developed within the child that can be considered a sort of alphabet or grammar” (Gandini, 2005, p. 13). The child discovers the language of the material through experimentation and by observing and interacting with others (Gandini, 2005).

In 2015, Pearson Canada will be publishing my second textbook, Empowering Pedagogy for Early Childhood Education, co-authored with Beverlie Dietze. In our first text book, we explored how loose parts can be used as provocations for play. Now we wanted to take it one step further and think about materials and language. I created the following graphic for the text, which depicts the types of knowledge that can be acquired by acting on a ball of elastic.

Acting on a ball of elastic

When we think about a material’s language as the combination of the features of a particular material with the relationship that emerges in the interaction that the child has with the material. It is during this process that the possibilities for modification, transformation and structuring of the material become apparent. It then becomes a “conduit for expression that communicates the child’s thoughts and feelings” (Gandini, 2005, p. 13). Throughout the experience the child is “acquiring knowledge about the material itself” (Gandini, 2005, p. 14).

I am still fascinated with loose parts and believe that the play, learning and inquiry potential of the indoor environment is enhanced with their inclusion but lately I have been wondering if our inclinations to “bring the outdoors in” has diminished the experiences we offer children in the outdoors. How about leaving the outdoors where it is and bringing the children outside? One of my favourite blogs is Anarchy and the ELYF Pirates as it continually challenges my thinking and helps me to see early learning from multiple perspectives. As someone who loves rocks and their potential in the classroom, reading this post, really got me thinking about leaving natural materials where they belong – outdoors.

I have been supporting the work and mission of the York Region Nature Collaborative and offering experiences for children and educators in outdoor, natural environments. Instead of collecting and bringing materials inside we brought natural materials (specifically clay) outdoors. There is so much potential of nature art especially when created outdoors. Natural materials can be used to create “ephemeral” works of art.

“We have an experience when the material itself runs its course to fulfillment” (Dewey, 1934, p. 205).

One of the many joys of ephemeral works of art is the knowledge that the piece is transient and that upon your return it will have gone back to nature. The lack of permanency of this type of artwork, I believe, frees the artist from doubt, fear and a highly critical eye. The urgency of nature’s consequences, rain, snow, wind, tides, forest creatures, waiting to assume their presence on the materials used in “land art” installations, ensures that the artist works with speed and thoughtfulness, but without a constant pressure to “redo”, erase and start over.

Watching children as they create nature art in the forest, I am always struck by the way that they almost intuitively discover aesthetically pleasing nooks and crannies to place their materials. During the recent York Region Nature Collaborative Family Adventure Walk in the Forest, children were invited to “spread a bit of fairy dust” in the forest to call out the fairies and then to quickly build a home for these forest nymphs before their arrival. None of the children questioned the task as each held out their hand for a bottle of fairy dust, scattered the invisible substance and with great care built a structure.

Some of the children returned to check on their fairy homes, others skipped off into the forest to search for more fairies, and some just trusted that their job was complete and their small lovingly created forest nymph residences would be well used but the new inhabitants. How refreshing that there was no product to send home, nothing to put on a wall, only a memory captured in a photo, but more importantly lasting in the world of fantasy and joy. The materials we used were not consumed, they were loved, displayed, rearranged and “lifted out of ordinariness.”

When I visited Reggio Emilia together in 2011, there was a strong message from educators about consumerism that had a powerful impact on me at the time and that I have thought about often since then. How often, as educators, do we consume? We consume knowledge, materials, time, thoughts, ideas, moments, images and the list goes on. At some point, we need to think about what we give back. The last time I had the pleasure of spending some time with Lella Gandini, she spoke as always with such wisdom, but one thing she said has stayed with me, “for all this research and documentation we do on children, we must ask ourselves, what do we give back to the children?”

The more time I spend in the forest and in nature with children, the more I am convinced that the two belong together. A very wise Aboriginal researcher shared a saying with us during our forest school training, “if you take everything from the forest, it dies. If you take nothing from the forest, it dies.” I often think and challenge others to think in terms of metaphors.

What happens if we think of the forest as a child? How often do we invite children to explore, inquire, investigate, create, build, or just be in and with nature? What are we taking from children? What are we giving back to children?

8 thoughts on “Loose Parts in Nature and Reggio Inspired Learning

  1. Pingback: Loose parts in nature inform Reggio inspired le...

  2. I love the final quote by the Aborigional teacher. It leaves such a strong and lasting impression. I love the way your articles make me think further on my beliefs.


  3. Thank you Diane and Louise, as always, thought provoking. I love to idea of the connection that children make with the materials (loose parts) being a language they develop. I have noticed this deep connection particularly throughout this year as I have documented loose parts in play through a photo a day at my work place. Can I ask when you quoted Gandini 2005 which book that was from? I would love to read it!


  4. Hello Diane and Louise. I too love how you challenge my thinking. I am wondering about early learning programs that have such a disconnect with nature just by the actuality of their locale. Thinking of my neighbourhood in particular finding a park closeby let alone a forest is miles away for many. I am thinking deeply about this “rather than bringing nature in let’s bring the children out to explore nature in its true essence” (not sure if this was the actual wording you scripted)…. YES, YES, YES … I’m on board. However, thinking of the many early learning spaces that I have visited in my years and the need to decommercialize, declutter and calm, loose parts from nature begin the aquisition of such “language”. Can’t we have both???? Indoors and outdoors??? This is powerful …. I am going to return my natural loose parts to nature when teachers and I have finished with our engagement and inquiries. Thank you,


  5. Pingback: Breaking New Ground in Reggio Inspired Practice: The Atelier of Nature | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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