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Emily McCrea, Founder/Director of the Downtown Community School, demonstrates for me the concept of ‘loose parts.’

I had the good fortune recently to spend a morning in one of my favorite places in the world – a preschool. While I had never been to this school in particular, I knew right away that it ranked right up there with the effective, creative and nurturing early childhood environments I know and love.

As I moved through the space and watched children, I got the sense that the school’s approach was playful and intentional, caring and firm – complementary components of the holistic experience. There was a nuanced balance of structure and chaos. Children had room to take risks and explore, and seemed to understand that they had adult support in that process.

The director Emily McCrea led my tour. She took time and care in each location of the school – indoor and outdoor – to share with me the purpose behind the design and materials, and the exploring and learning that might go on there, depending on the children’s ages and developmental stages. As we moved through a ‘play kitchen’ type of area, she picked up plastic flower pedals and blossoms – items I normally would have overlooked as significant and might have even mistaken as trash – and explained that these were examples of using ‘loose parts’ to stage learning experiences.

Loose parts. This was a brand-new phrase to me. The more Emily explained, the more intrigued I became. With nearly three decades in this profession, I was surprised and delighted to learn about a pedagogical concept so aligned with my practices over the years, that I had never heard of.

Loose parts. What a concrete and clear expression of constructivist teaching and learning! What an important reminder that our ‘classroom supplies’ can be anything in our environment – and are better off when kept basic:

  • natural objects, such as branches, rocks and sand
  • reclaimed materials, such as buttons, bottle caps, jars (and even plastic flower parts)
  • art and craft supplies, like thread, corks, paper, paint and cloth
  • building materials, like nails, wood, and pipes

Where does the mind go when the parts are loose and the end is not prescribed?

Outdoor classroom at DCS.

Those 2-, 3-, and 4-year olds and their educators are hands-on busy in the deep work of teaching and learning. Their little fingers and minds are working with the parts to create, imagine, and construct ‘the whole’ as they build new knowledge and skills each day. Those little learners are keeping it real. Educators of big kids owe it to ourselves to return once in a while to this youngest level of schooling that we all have so much to learn from.


I am grateful to the children and educators of the Downtown Community School for the warm welcome and the big lessons.
Further reading on ‘loose parts’: