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,