Sunday, 4 September 2016

Colourful Commercial (Plastic) Toys VS. Neutral Loose Parts in Kindergarten

Yesterday I posted a link to my post about constructing my new kindergarten classroom environment for September (read New Year, New Beginnings HERE). When I posted the link on one of the Kindergarten Facebook groups that I have joined, an interesting conversation was started in the comment section that has inspired this post today (thank you to the wonderful thinkers that participated in the conversation!)

The conversation started with a discussion about the use of colour in Kindergarten classrooms and morphed into a bigger discussion about commercial (plastic) toys VS. loose parts in Kindergarten. Here are some of my thoughts:

The Use of Colour in Kindergarten

With the roll out of the Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) Program in Ontario, Canada about 6 years ago, there was a massive shift in thinking about the way that Kindergarten should look and feel.

Previous to FDK, Kindergarten classrooms were an explosion of colour. The floors, the walls, the furniture, the toys... everything was bright and colourful. The toys were almost exclusively commercial (plastic) and the walls were covered with patterned borders and teacher made/purchased posters. These rooms would often be compared to toy stores in their colourful 'busy' appearance.

When FDK started, there was a large push from the Ontario Ministry of Education to do away with all of this. The colourful walls were painted a light neutral off-white, the floors covered over with neutral wood tones, the furniture switched over to wooden, posters and borders were torn down and the commercial (plastic) toys were thrown out.

The rationale for this shift in thinking was this: colourful everything is overstimulating to a child's brain and negatively impacts learning.

FDK classrooms have now swung to the opposite end of the spectrum: colour everywhere to no colour at all. The thinking is that the neutral tones are calming and provide a background that showcases rather than competes with, student work and thinking. Bright colours have become the enemy.

I can't help but wonder if we have gone too far in the other direction? As you can tell from the picture above, our classroom is very much neutral and wooden... except for the bright colourful floors and carpets. But are these floors really that terrible?

It depends on who you ask. If I were to answer this question I would say a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. I will admit... I hate the colourful carpet.

The reason I don't like this carpet is simple... it is impossible to see student thinking when it has all of the colours and pattern as a background. Documentation in FDK is a highly visual practice which becomes very difficult to do when the learning gets lost in the sea of pattern.

That being said, I think that intentional use of colour is not a bad thing. We strive to make our classrooms feel like a home away from home for our students.... the homes that our students are coming from are colourful. So why can't there be a little bit of intentional use of colour in Kindergarten?

Colourful Commercial (Plastic) Toys VS. Neutral Loose Parts

This leads me into the next debate, plastic VS. loose parts. These two debates go hand in hand because the plastic toys are colourful and for the most part, loose parts are not.

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." (The Reading Play, 2011-2016) Basically, loose parts are anything that you can think of: blocks, branches, buttons, rocks, pine cones, shells, corks, thread spools, glass beads, mosaic tiles, tooth picks etc.

Commercial (plastic) toys are simply anything that you can buy at a toy store that prescribes or "tells" children how to play with them. These include plastic play sets like doll houses, Lego, dinosaurs, train sets, Barbies etc. 

The danger with including the commerical toys in your classroom is that they limit children's play by stifling creativity and imagination. Doll houses, castles and tool benches can only be played with in one way and for one purpose... the purpose that was decided on by someone else. When children play with loose parts they have the freedom and creativivity to play with those parts in any way that they can think of. This now involves problem solving skills and the design process. Children are then challenged to build structures to be used as doll houses, rather than be given one.

That being said, Lego is technically a commercial (plastic) toy but it is used as a loose part. Dinosaurs and dolls are commercial (plastic) toys that encourage loose part play. So are they really that bad?

Everything in Moderation: Finding A Balance

I think that there isn't really a definitive answer to this debate. Colour VS. Neutral, Plastic VS. Loose Parts. I think that it is all about moderation and balance. 

There are definite benefits to having intentional use of colour to draw children in and create a comfortable environment. There are definite benefits to having neutral colours as a backdrop to highlight the work and thinking of the children. 

There are definite benefits to having plastic toys at the beginning of the year because they are familiar and some types of plastic toys can be used to encourage creative play. There are definite benefits to using loose parts to develop strong problem solving skills and to engage children in the design process.

We need to be mindful of what is best for our children in our own contexts. What is best for one room is not necessarily best for another room. Who are we to judge?

I challenge you to experiment with some changes in your room this year:

Take out some plastic and replace it with loose parts. Observe your students, how does their play change? What are the benefits, what are the challenges? 

Add in a little more colour... maybe a plastic toy or two. Observe your students, how does their play change? What are the benefits, what are the challenges?

If we are intentionally and thoughtfully making choices about materials and play with our children at the centre, can it really be that bad? If our children are intentionally and thoughtfully making choices about their own materials and play, can it really be that bad?

Let's talk,


  1. Agreed - balance is good - and some items come with a classroom that you have to work with - or at least I do at my school, and that includes furniture that has color, carpets that have color and some toys that are colorful and plastic. To get rid of perfectly good items like that is wasteful.

    1. I agree with you, sometimes you get perfectly good items that don't need to be thrown away (like the ugly carpet. It is clean and in good condition, does it really need to be thrown away?). Just being mindful of what you have and why you are putting it out is all that is important. Thank you for your comment!

  2. I also wonder how $$$ could be better used to support student learning..... Instead of replacing perfectly functional classroom tools and furniture. I'm thinking how desperately my school needs EA support for students with special needs. I would also like to remind people that just because someone writes a book or publishes a research paper does not make their findings true. Need I remind everyone of the vaccination/ autism link that was touted as gospel only to learn the findings were falsified? Even if researchers and authors have sound studies, as any first year university student can explain, statistics can be manipulated in a variety of ways to support one point of view or another.
    Loose parts vs. plastic toys - I think this whole debate is highly underestimating the creative mind of a child. I have seen many children use objects in ways they weren't traditionally intended for. For example, the cars have been used as sprinkles on an imaginary cake, the dinosaurs have been used as musical instruments. I worry about these children, life does not function in a bubble. The world is colourful, workplaces can be distracting, we need to be preparing them and giving them strategies to find success amidst all of that.
    Unfortunately, in education, people feel that if you are not hopping on a bandwagon then you must be 'old school' or close minded. I challenge the opposite to be true. I consider myself to be an extremely open minded professional. I do, however, think critically and refuse to blindly follow this trend or the next. I weigh my years of experience and what I know about kids in my decisions.
    I'm not trying to sound negative, I believe everyone has a right to try different techniques to access student achievement. What I encourage others to do, though, is to have thoughtful, professional conversations about education. The system is cyclical... What was once teaching with themes can now be loosely tied to play based learning. I say this fully understanding the differences between the two... But also knowing that it would be impossible to have 30 different inquiries going on simultaneously. What was once considered outdated, often comes back around as the latest and greatest (hopefully with some improvements).
    Finally, we have a clash of ideologies happening in education. Play based learning comes to clash with standardized testing, where students are expected to sit at desks for hours on end, only allowed to to show what they know through paper and pencil.
    Rant over, thanks for listening:)

    1. Yes! "What I encourage others to do, though, is to have thoughtful, professional conversations about education."

      You have hit the nail right on the head. We need to be mindful of what we are doing and WHY we are doing it. My board has a mantra for kindergarten: why this learning, at this time, for this child?

      Thank you for joining the professional conversation and adding your thoughts to challenge and extend the thinking of others :)