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Home Family Parenting Advice Fostering creative thinking with mismatched toys — Good Parenting

Fostering creative thinking with mismatched toys — Good Parenting

Kid playingDear Dr. Debbie,

Please settle a question. My husband is more inclined to let our children use random objects in random ways — stacking puzzles pieces to be knocked down and scattered by a tennis ball or using them in an empty oatmeal box to make a “rattle.” I would rather the puzzle pieces be used as they were designed — to fit into precise places in the puzzle frame. Which approach will help our children better?


Dear Puzzled,

Both approaches to puzzle pieces are valid, but more importantly, both should be applied. The purpose of a puzzle, as intended by the manufacturer, is to develop eye-hand coordination, visual-spatial thinking and further understanding of whatever the subject matter of the puzzle may be. On the other hand, the random use of random objects develops divergent thinking — that essential ability to solve unforeseen problems with innovative solutions.

This kind of thinking is all too often left out of a child’s typical educational experience. This kind of thinking is what’s needed for tackling day to day dilemmas such as substituting a missing ingredient in a recipe or magically appeasing a fussy baby with something you’ve dug out of your purse. It is also what’s needed to tackle global crises impacting international politics, worldwide economics, pandemic viruses or the health of the planet itself.

British architect Simon Nicholson coined the term “loose parts”  to describe that wonderful aspect of children’s play in which there are no directions, no predetermined outcomes and no limits to the variety of ways the parts can be used. The theory states: In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” In essence, loose parts are any materials that can be moved, removed, carried, combined, stacked, nested, lined up and reconfigured in multiple ways to support creative thinking.

Simon’s work has influenced early childhood education, adventure playgrounds, and the design of exhibits in children’s museums since the 1970’s. Proponents see the value in play spaces that allow children to be creative rather than those where all the play opportunities have been predetermined by adults.

“In early childhood there is no important difference between play and work, art and science, recreation and education — the classifications normally applied by adults to a child’s environment,” Nicholson says. Loose parts inspire all of these.

The Parts

To get you started, see what loose parts you already have that could stimulate hours on end of imaginative play: acorns, balls, baskets, boxes, buckets, buttons, cardboard sheets and tubes, coasters, crates, fabric, gravel, leaves, logs, milk jug caps, pallets, paper clips, rope, sand, shells, stones, stumps, tires, twigs and wood. Safety is always a concern with children, and secondly, there is mess and clean up to consider. So use your parental discretion in amassing (or just acknowledging) your family’s collections of play materials, along with your husband’s wider acceptance of what constitutes good play.

You both will enjoy Jonathon H. Liu’s list of the Five Best Toys of All Time which includes National Toy Hall of Fame honoree, the stick.

The Play

The role of the adult when children play should be that of safety monitor and idea stretcher. Ask questions such as: What would make your idea work? Encourage the children to investigate, organize, evaluate, marvel and talk about what they create and discover. Reach back to their past creations and discoveries so they can build upon their ideas. Add STEM vocabulary, such as balance, leverage, right angle etc.

Add materials that may not be visible – and therefore may not come to mind – so your children’s ideas can be explored further. Support cooperative play by suggesting ways to include each child in the play process as well as ideas for equitable sharing of the space and materials. And lastly, help the children with time: give plenty of it around their needs to eat and rest.

As you can see, there is no wrong way to play around with loose parts (beyond safety, mess and time) and the benefits are rich with possibility. Albert Einstein mused that “play is the highest form of research.” Through manipulating their environment to satisfy their boundless curiosity, children obtain mastery over it and confidence in themselves.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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