Rocks. Sticks. Leaves.
Who would have thought these items would one day acheive near-celebrity status in the toy world?
There is a growing appreciation among early childhood educators that so-called "open-ended" toys, or "loose parts" (that is, things with no designated role or purpose, objects that can easily be adapted to be any sort of plaything your child imagines) are good for the brain and good for children's play. They are said to help foster creativity, collaboration with others, and sensory awareness. They allow children opportunities to discover and master their environment (by naming things and then assigning them roles)
Child development geeks would call this "naming and mastering their environment;" L and J would call it "making a choo-choo train"
Any toy with no pre-assigned "job" is considered a "loose part"--blocks, stuff from nature, buttons, you get the idea. Things like rubber bugs, cars, and games would not be considered "open-ended" or "loose parts" because these toys were developed to have one specific role in child's play, therefore they tend to be used by children in only one way. (i.e as a bug, a car, or a game) Make sense?
I completely agree: my own children tend to assign a huge variety of roles to their rocks, pinecones, or blocks. The cars tend to always have the role of cars. The trains have never been anything but trains.
I have yet to see a bag of pinecones for sale at the huge toy store (though they are available online) but many child care settings and preschools are beginning to embrace this notion about loose parts. Teachers are replacing the molded plastic toys in their sensory tables with items from nature. Open-ended toys are brought out during free play time instead of toys with pre-determined roles.
Parents can encourage play with open-ended toys by simply making them more accessible in the home. Put the blocks and the nature objects in a prominent place, and make the "programmed" toys a bit harder to get at. When you're outside, think about what's available to you now. Snow is the ultimate "loose part" --what about icicles, snowballs, or branches?
What are your child's favorite open-ended toys? Tell me about a special way they have been used...