The Halifax South Common is popping, erupting in play. A ‘loose parts’ emporium is scattered in pods across a grassy canvas on what has been public land since at least the 18th century. On this July day, kids arrive in family groups, with day camps and in gaggles of child care centre pre-schoolers. Before it’s over, 200 kids are dispersed throughout the pop-up zone intent on touching, testing, trying, telling – infusing this public play extravaganza with their joy, energy, words, motion and ideas.
Touching, testing, trying telling…
There is an abandon, some wildness if you wish. Standard conventions are no longer applicable. The assortment of recycled and donated items are the versatile props in an ever-changing drama featuring kids in starring roles as they reveal ingenuity, imagination and inventiveness. It’s play-a-palooza where deep curiosity extends time’s elastic stretch.
Waiting for the Wildness
Kids and loose parts together are like bits and pieces of exponential merriment. A charged expectancy permeates these encounters and, perhaps counter intuitively, a steady hum of lightness ensues. The air is electric with possibility yet there is no pressure to perform. As the kids play out, rich thematic patterns emerge.
- Wonder and discovery, play’s elemental touchstones, are rampant, discernible in facial expressions, in the inflection of voices, in smiles and laughter.
- Cooperative play is an unspoken default cutting across gender and age as kids build up, tear down, design, transport and otherwise demonstrate that when fun is paramount no crowd is too diverse, or too large.
- Movement and exploration, balancing, climbing, running, rolling – getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’ and so on with an accent on fun. With each step, skip, jump an incredible journey – fall here, hide there, disappear, dare.
- Creativity, design and build, a smorgasbord of DIY forts, towers, cubby holes, dens, catapults, swings, teepees cobbled together with only the materials on hand and each one displaying distinctive character.
The unbridled joy, the immediacy of creation and the early stirrings of kids exercising agency are such a privilege to experience. They keep me coming back for more of this hopeful simplicity. Now I have heard some people characterizing loose parts as a nostalgia trip, a reach back to a romanticized golden age of play in some idyllic, kidtopian past. This doesn’t reflect my experience.
For Each Kid a Story
In the here and now, loose parts are becoming increasingly popular as a comparatively low-cost means of engaging kids in creative, physically active play. They are being integrated with positive results in child care settings, schools and municipal recreation spaces. As for nostalgia, there were no large scale, open ended, public play events back in the 60s when I was a kid. They just didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the 70s that the first wave of academic interest in loose parts came on the scene. We had plenty of fun just the same and benefited from significantly more independence and greater mobility than today’s kids experience.
This particular July loose parts iteration is thanks to Dalhousie University’s Summer of PLEY, a giving back to the community following the Physical Literacy in the Early Years research study in child care centres. Event volunteers gathered recently on the Dal campus to share their reflections on the experience. It was affirming to hear how others had processed that day of play. There was much commonality. Listening to the project leads and other volunteers is what led to these musings.
And now for something completely different…
Each of the 200 or more kids who dropped in at the Halifax South Common that fine summer day lived their own story. The narratives varied giving more or less weight to different elements touching on creation, cooperation, adventure, fun, friendship and discovery. The kids were fully engaged, éveillés – awake.
With a growing body of literature that points to the efficacy and benefits of loose parts play, it’s time to press for it to become a more widespread part of the play canon in both institutional (municipal, school, etc.) and community settings.
Hard at Play
Bravo to the Dalhousie University team led by Michelle Stone. They brought together the largest selection and volume of loose parts ever collected in Nova Scotia, enabled a huge group of volunteers to participate in the planning and roll out of the event and exposed young graduate students to hands-on magic. Thanks for inviting me along.
All hail loose parts! Last word to the kids….