Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nature Play, Loose Parts, and Museums

A recent blog post from The Phipps' very cool science education department has some interesting thinking about nature play, with "loose parts", how kids learn and develop imagination, how this helps them as adults, and how adults can encourage these experiences. Melissa Harding's post for Phipps, Creating Successful Adults: Nurturing Imagination with Nature has valuable links to recent and emerging literature on this topic.
Nature Playground, The Wild Center,
Tupper Lake, NY, photo by Sarah Sutton

How could your zoo, museum, garden or historic site do the same?  Here are two examples of museum work with these ideas: The Wild Center in Upstate New York and Montpelier Mansion in Prince George's County, MD, (not James Madison's Montpelier).

The Wild Center's natural playground, The Pines, encourages climbing and fort-building, creativity and free play.  The stumps and logs are arrayed in a cleared but natural space, with good sightlines for caregivers. The play area was dedicated by author Richard Louv who talked about natural play and "loose parts" (see next paragraph) in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

Blast in the Past History Playground
Town Square and Young Crier,
photo courtesy Montpelier
At the most recent of the very valuable
Small Museum Association conferences I learned about the Blast in the Past History Playground at Montpelier Mansion. (Note: this project was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.) The playground is not a permanent structure, but made available seasonally and monitored by a single staff member. Its sections include a tradesman station, a home, a colonial town square, a frontier area, plus the market and a well.  There are movable props such as gourds, animal skins, buckets, hammers, try-on clothes, and wooden animal cutouts. There is textual information made available, but it's the free play aspect that drives the project and makes it a success. Kids play with all the props in ways that make sense to them. They sometimes keep tools where they find them and often move the tools to another areas. Often kids naturally link one activity to multiple sections as they take their farm goods or hunting kills (a rabbit skin) to the market or to home. 

This have-props-will-travel is an important component of "loose parts" thinking. Many people have written about it but Simon Nicholson gets credit for it way back in the 1970's. Here is how it is often described:  Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials.

It's simple. It applies to learning spaces associated with zoos and history museums, nature centers and aquariums, gardens and art museums. We all know how to do this, but we're not all deliberate about making these spaces available.  Let's work a little harder at encouraging playing this way.

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