Buttons as Loose Parts: The Intersection of Play and History

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. As I child I remember playing with my mother’s button collection, dipping my hand in, smooshing them about, dumping them on the floor of my bedroom and then playing for hours. Sometimes, I counted them, or sorted them, but I also remember creating elaborate stories with the buttons representing different characters. Thirty years ago, I brought that box of buttons with me to share with the children that I worked with and there they stayed because when I left I didn’t have the heart to take my buttons with me. Those buttons were a part of my history. In my room filled with dolls, dishes, and stuffed animals, the buttons became, in my imagination, food or money and the basis for elaborate play episodes that lasted for hours. What is it about buttons that fascinates?

Button Collection

Buttons are for the young and the old, bearing in mind that they are a choking hazard so not for the very young. Buttons are open-ended and fit into the definition of loose parts, materials that can be combined, transported or transformed. Button experiences span all domains – they can be used across the curriculum; for math, for language and literacy, for dramatic play, for art, for construction and block play, and for science as children relate to the properties of the buttons and the materials they are made from. I like buttons because how they connect to history – history in general and my own stories of the past. History has always been my favourite subject. I majored in history when I attended York University, minutes away from my favourite childhood place to visit, Black Creek Pioneer Village. I was so excited to return to the Village a few days ago, to tour it as a venue for the York Region Nature Collaborative’s next conference, the Play and Nature Summit.

When I was attending university, it was with the intention of being a high school history teacher. Life got in the way, and after having children myself, I decided to become an early childhood educator. I have never regretted that decision and I am proud to be an early childhood educator. Yet, in all the years, that I taught children and then taught adults about teaching children, I lost the connection to history. Why is history the forgotten subject in early childhood education? Once again, I am inspired by Pioneer Village to reflect on this question but it is buttons that have helped me make the connection to where play and history intersect. I am very excited to be presenting a workshop at the Play and Nature Summit with my friend and colleague, Rosalba Bortolotti on buttons – The Historical and Play Significance of Buttons. Now I am in the pursuit of all things buttons.

The Book of Buttons
Bone Button Borscht

Grandmas Button Box

The Button Box

In all my searching and thinking about buttons, history, and play, I have come to realize that history is not the forgotten subject in early childhood education. When I broaden my search to social studies I found articles and support for the inclusion of the idea of learning from the past into early childhood education curriculum as social studies integrates history, geography and political science.

Social Studies

Social studies uses an inquiry and project approach to learning. It gives early childhood educators an opportunity to consider the past and what children can learn from history. Buttons can serve as the provocation to begin the investigation of the big ideas of social studies. I have been so inspired by what I have found in my searches that I created a Pinterest board – The Button Box. I am especially excited by this amazing, comprehensive guide for grade one, Buttons through the Ages that includes lesson plans. Here are some of the other links I have found:

As I think about history and early childhood education, I think about what history has to offer both to children and to educators. I am beyond thrilled to be able to hear the amazing Dr. David Elkind speak at the Play and Nature Summit, as he knows the history of our sector. In any profession, an understanding of history helps current practitioners build their work on the ideas of those who have preceded them. He knows how important it for us to stand on the shoulders of our giants as he tells the stories of Giants in the Nursery; John Amos Comenius, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lev Vygotsky. There are many more giants that we can look up to as early childhood educators – we can find giants in our communities, in our own lives. To stand on the shoulders of giants is to respect history and to learn from those who came before us.

Standing upon the Shoulders of Giants



12 thoughts on “Buttons as Loose Parts: The Intersection of Play and History

  1. I thought your blog was really interesting and resonated with my PhD research. I am currently researching how early years teachers form their pedagogical beliefs, and asked the participants of the study to bring objects to discuss which represented their pedagogy. One participant chose their grandmothers sewing box. What was really interesting was that many of the objects chosen had a biographical connections or a historical connection, in that it linked to childhood memory. I think what is so important is understanding your own past and experiences and how this contributes to our pedagogy.
    In your list of Giants in the Nursery, so important that Froebel is remembered, particularly his focus on resources, unity and connection.


  2. Wonderful post. I have used my collection of old buttons as a writing prompt for middle school aged students, imagining & drawing the outfits that the button might have been used with, then creating characters. You’re so right, there are a myriad of uses. Thanks for all you shared!


  3. When my mother died two years ago, it almost undid me. I had to clean out her house and I did it alone I didn’t want help, as I wanted/needed to touch, smell, and create a memory of each “thing” of hers. She had an incredibly large walk in closet (to my eyes anyway) and I went through each and every garment; reaching into the pockets and making a pile of the Kleenex that I found. I also found extra buttons on her clothing and in drawers and found an old container to begin placing them in. Funny how the sentimental things meant so much more than the jewels and crystal and silver she coveted. The button “box” has been in my bureau since I returned home with it. Perhaps now it’s time to share it with the curious and insightful children in my care. Those of them still at my school were too young to understand why Pam was gone for such a long time in 2013. But to see them run their hands through my precious Button Collection would keep my momma’s memory alive, don’t you think?
    Thanks for all you do, Diane.


    • What an amazing comment Pam … you have brought tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart – I would love to hear about how the children react to your precious button collection and I do think it will keep your mother’s memory alive in a way I bet should would have wanted. Thank you, Pam!


  4. Wonderful post-I often used buttons for a variety of reasons when working with young children and loved how they marveled at and discussed the variety of the buttons as they worked.
    As another resource for your work- have you read the book The Memory String by Eve Bunting?
    A summary of the book:
    Every button on Laura’s memory string represents a part of her family’s history. The buttons most important to Laura are the ones that belonged to her mother: a button from her mother’s prom dress, a white button from her mother’s wedding dress, and a single small button from the nightgown her mom was wearing on the day she died. When the string breaks, Laura’s stepmother, Jane, tries to comfort Laura and helps her search for a missing button. Laura realizes that a memory string is not just for remembering the past, but it’s also for adding new memories.

    We’ve had several Prekindergarten teachers read this story as part of a family day and then had families create their own memory strings recalling important events from their family history.
    Teachers have found this a great way to begin connecting with families and building positive relationships.


  5. Pingback: Playing and Learning: Our Second Nature | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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  7. Pingback: Buttons Connect in Reggio-Inspired Practice | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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