When I first started out as a childminder I was worried. What if I didn’t have enough toys? What if I didn’t have the right toys? What if the children didn’t like my toys? What if I didn’t provide the right environment for them to ‘learn through play’? But then I got started, I sat back, watched the children a lot and I realised that actually, toys are not that crucial to play. Shocking, I know!
What I discovered in watching the children at work was actually something that we probably all already know – kids will play with anything! In fact, what I saw was that they preferred the things that weren’t actually intended to be play things; pans from the kitchen, flowers from the garden, pegs off the washing line and stones from the driveway were all gathered and used for meaningful play. The thing all of these items have in common is that they don’t have any predefined purpose, they are ‘loose parts’ to be used as the children see fit. So, I set about making some changes, but they had to be affordable - like most childminders I have to keep costs down. Luckily loose parts can be very cheap!
I started with what already had such as lollypop sticks, pompoms made from wool scraps, conkers, stones and shells. When these proved popular (especially when offered with another media such as water or play dough) I took it a step further by reducing toys with a defined purpose, such as a car garage, and replacing them with more open ended resources. Charity shops and donations from friends and family proved a huge source of treasure! Current favourites with my group include wooden bowls and objects, golf balls or pompoms to balance on egg cups, metal teapots to pour with or to fill other loose parts, crocheted flowers to pick up and sort with giant tweezers and bracelets to hang on mug trees.
Outdoors the children enjoy loose parts on a larger scale. They have access to motorbike tyres (most tyre fitters will give these away for free), wooden planks, log slices and cable reels which they often turn into obstacle courses or dens. Sand, stones, pine cones, conkers and shells are used to make temporary art or pretend food while flower petals, herbs and foliage are used for potion making. Their imaginations bring our garden alive.
The result of these changes? Higher levels of engagement from all age groups, deeper concentration, increased curiosity and imagination, improved motor skills and, for me, the thrill of being able to watch the blossoming thinking and problem solving skills in all of the children.
Does this mean I’ve ditched all of the toys? Absolutely not! The Peppa Pig and Happyland figures are just as happy living in houses constructed from natural wooden building blocks (which were actually a giant Jenga set in a previous life), the dollies still enjoy tea parties with real cups and spoons and the dinosaurs have a wonderful life on ‘Dinosaur Island’ made up from stones, sticks and shells. We do not have to ditch one approach to be able to adopt elements of another, my setting is a beautiful mix of carefully selected toys, natural materials, ‘real’ everyday items and pre-loved treasures.
So, how do you get started if you want to embrace loose parts and authentic materials in your setting?
Firstly, keep it cheap. Very few of us are in a position to totally redesign our settings in one mad rush, it would just be too expensive so with this in mind, I try to stick to the following rules:
- Use what you have
Got loads of spare teaspoons? Pegs? Old costume jewellery? Great! Give it to the kids and watch the magic happen.
Bottle tops, wool to make pompoms, packaging materials, cardboard tubes. All fab. Take a close look at things you would usually throw away and ask yourself whether it could be used to inspire play or creativity.
- Don’t be shy
Ask friends, family and customers for donations. One of my customers keeps us supplied with golf balls that he can no longer use, a family member is able to get cable reels and the guys laying astroturf at a house over the road were happy to give me an offcut. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
- Embrace the preloved!
Most of our wooden bowls and ornaments are from charity shops, my sister trawls car boot sales for metal teapots and Facebook marketplace can be handy for bigger items such as furniture and storage.
Get down to child level and see your setting through fresh eyes. Are you bombarded with colourful plastic toys that tell you how to play with them? Does it always look the same? Do the children frequently get bored and behave poorly? Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a change…
About the author
I am a childminder based in the North East rated Outstanding by Ofsted. In my previous employment I managed the marketing and website of a local secondary school. My own children are 5, 8 and 15 and were the driving force behind my change in career, a change which has been overwhelmingly positive.