Destruction or creation?

Loose parts are an essential part of any play environment for young children. The materials are open-ended so children can play with them in infinite ways. Nature provides plenty of loose parts outdoors: sticks, pinecones, leaves, rocks, etc. We also provide a few other loose parts on our playground such as planks, crates, and tree cookies.

picking apart a rotted log

Many of these materials can be used in the winter until they are covered in snow. Then snow becomes the main open-ended material on our playground. Children can scoop, sculpt, throw and eat the snow. We have a four-foot high berm that the children sled down.

This winter we haven’t had very much snow. The last two weeks have been very cold and the snow is packed hard on the ground or has turned to ice. We can still sled, but it has been hard to play with other materials. It’s hard to run or roughhouse when the ground is hard and slippery. It’s hard to use materials when your hands are encased in mittens.

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Last week we got hit with cold. We had several days where it never got above 0 Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius). I knew it was coming so I had used buckets and other containers to freeze water. I used different colors in the water. I even used some smaller ice chunks to add to larger molds to make a few multi-colored chunks. The process took a few days. I couldn’t wait to see what the children did with them.

 

 

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On Monday I had the ice chunks spread throughout the playground. A few children called them “magic crystals,” which they quickly collected in a crate. Lance found a large ice chunk about 6 inches across. I was curious what he would do with it. I followed him across the playground. Lance lifted the ice over his head, and threw it on a tree stump.

 

 

He spent the rest of our outside time trying to break the ice chunks. He tried throwing them against stumps, tree trunks and the ground. He tried hitting them with sticks and shovels. I hate to admit that my first reaction was to tell him not to break them. But I held my tongue and watched.

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I was curious why he was so determined to smash the ice. I wondered if it was some sort of destructive impulse. Then I realized that Lance never smashed toys. He understood that the ice could be broken. I think he was testing his strength. Could he break the ice?

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He ended up breaking several of the ice chunks into smaller pieces. The children have pretended the ice pieces were food, power crystals, and other items. They have been collected in various containers, arranged in several ways. It has now been two weeks since I introduced the ice chunks and the children are still finding new uses. Lance helped turn a handful of larger ice chunks into loose parts that all the children could use.  He wasn’t being destructive, he was creating.

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Who needs Playgrounds?

I am a little behind on posting because I was at the High Scope International Conference last week. I had a great time and met many wonderful educators there. One of the workshops I took was about playgrounds presented by Betsy Evans. I am a big fan of her work on conflict resolution and children and she is one of the biggest influences on my own teaching practices. I was pleased to find that she started with a quote about the need for children to take risks. I have written about it in the post Real Confidence, and I am sure I will write about it more. Betsy talked about how playgrounds have eliminated risk and along with it, physical challenges for children. In other words, they are boring.

 

This made me think about the park I grew up near, Basset Park in Williamsville, NY. It was a public park with trees, rollingJudy's party 3 hills, a pond and dirt. It also had no playground, which meant you could have hours of fun. I can still picture the long sloping grass that led to the pond; the gully with exposed tree roots, bushes, and year-round mud; and the dirt path that led through the middle to allow emergency vehicles through. This dirt path had an area in the middle of the park with a few trees and several boulders.

 

 

 

 

August 12 114This area with the boulders was a favorite place to hang out. When I was younger, we usually pretended each boulder was an X-Wing fighter as we entered the world of Star Wars. The trees were escape routes as we tried to evade the Storm Troopers with our stick light sabers in hand, just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

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illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

 

As I got older, we still hung out in the same area, but we mostly sat and talked. I remember we would each find a seat at adifferent level, some on the ground, others on the boulders and others in the trees. I know that boys tend to talk without looking at the eyes of others so it may have been different for my sisters. This setting of trees and rocks was able to meet the needs of quite a few ages.

 

 

 

I recently saw this same effect when I was walking by a small playground. There were two teenage girls sitting in swings, a J Club October 5boy leaning against one of the poles of the swing set and another boy perched up on the top bar of the swing set.

I also noticed that they didn’t sit on the climbing structure which was full of what looked like cages, fences to prevent children from going off the edge. The structure had very distinct functions, you could slide over here, you could go up the steps there, or you could climb the ladder over there. Of course, children will try to find a challenge even when the apparatus fails to give them one. The structure was inhospitable to quite a bit of play and even relaxed conversation. The teenagers were doing fine although I couldn’t help think that some well-meaning adult would tell the boy to get down.

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illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

 

This playground had no good climbing trees, no rocks, no dirt. Surrounding the rubberized surface was a flat expanse of grass. There were soccer goals and in the evening coaches work with kids to teach them various soccer skills. I have nothing against organized sports, but I think people of all ages need time to just hang out without an agenda. Not only have organized sports cut into our unstructured time (kids and parents alike), but they have also cut into the availability of natural areas where people can sit at many levels, in sun or shade.

 

 

I don’t want to get all nostalgic about “the good old days” when kids could climb in trees and play in the mud. There were plenty of kids who didn’t have the luxury because they worked as domestic workers or in factories, or just taking care of the younger kids while their parents worked. I also know there were too many people that were physically or sexually abused (by adults and/or children). I am not longing for some far-off time, but I do hope we can learn from the past, the good and the bad.

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And trees have not gone away, of course. But I think many of us have forgotten the simple pleasures of trees, grass, dirt and rocks. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on commercial playground equipment when maybe we should be spending the money on landscaping. If we had more trees who needs playgrounds?