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Parts and Wholes

Age: 0 to 8+ Time: 1 hour+
Materials: Double-sided tape; flowers, sticks and other fallen items
Skills: Creativity, Curiosity, Fine Motor, Sensory, Science

We love the loose parts movement, especially for the unlimited ways kids can explore, manipulate and create with them. Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky’s book series, are among our favorites. At the same time, there is a whole world of good that happens when we not only provide parts for play, but we also offer kids the chance to pick, pluck and pull apart objects to make their own loose parts.

This activity is all about that chance—making special time to get nice and destructive. Kids from infancy up will savor the satisfying sensory experience of simply taking the objects apart. Just be sure that the objects you pick can be safe for infants and toddlers to taste, and that you are right there to monitor their mouthing. To some, the chance to be so free and to make a mess will feed an important need. Older children may also get consumed by curiosity and care as they dissect objects and uncover their marvelous inner workings. All can enjoy reconnecting objects to create something new. Fully explore the destruct-reconstruct cycle—so beneficial for kids and so often missed.

The Guide

  1. Get outdoors: Nature comes with endless objects to deconstruct and complete freedom for mess making—in short, it’s the perfect setting for this.
  2. Gather interesting objects: Use baskets, buckets or bags to collect objects that are interesting and could be broken into smaller parts, such as pine cones, flowers, veined leaves, sticks or sections of logs and even dead bugs. If you have infants, be extra mindful that the mouth is a very important instrument of exploration, so avoid objects that would not be safe in your baby's mouth. We love to sprinkle in herbs like basil or safe and edible flowers—sensory rich objects that baby could taste too. Be thoughtful as you gather, focusing on treasures “found on the ground.” And, only take what you need. This activity does alter the items in a natural area, but it is for a great cause.
    1. If your winter is cold, make and add frozen treasures into your play time. Kids of all ages are drawn to them and can discover endless ways to crack, melt, stomp and break them down.
  3. Deconstruct! Dump all of your gathered items in a pile. Wonder together, “I wonder what would happen if we took some of these treasures apart into their bits and pieces…” Grab one of the items and start to pull it apart. Share your delight as you play, modeling both the joy and the wonder you feel when you deconstruct. Consider even tossing some of the bits into the air and cheering. Most likely, kids will follow suit. Let this go on, gathering more items to fuel the fire as necessary, as long as kids are engaged. Keep a close eye on what babies are mouthing, allowing them to explore safely
  4. Create something new: After a while, you can try to make something using all of the loose parts you’ve created. It’s easy for young children to do this if you offer a binding material. For example, you can offer children mud, forest putty (aka playdough), contact paper or double-sided tape wrapped around a log or put on paper. Kids can use the binding material to connect various loose parts in any way they like to create something entirely new. Or, make nature crowns to add a royal twist to the play.
  5. Clean up: If you’ve used binding material that is not from the outdoor environment, be sure to remove it all before you leave. And, if you have gathered treasures, do your best to sprinkle them near wherever you found them as best you can. This work need not be perfect, but it will teach your children to make as little impact on nature as possible, and that lesson will stick with them.

Why is this activity great for kids?

One of our favorite thinkers and writers about play, Marc Armitage, summed up much of the value in this play when he said,

Being destructive for the child in a play context is just as much about tearing up old ideas and notions as it is about tearing up a leaf into tiny, tiny strips...and both should be encouraged.

You can read more on our blog about why we think destruction is so very valuable and how best to manage the messy sides of the practice. In short, breaking items apart is wonderful STEM work, building curiosity and greater understanding of how objects are constructed. Kids also flex fine motor skills when they pluck, pull and rip thing apart. Finally, kids who are free to pick objects apart and rearrange them in endless ways also build a foundation for flexible thinking and creativity.

Do This Activity In A Class

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!