Beads as loose parts


Many educators and parents view using beads as a natural step towards crafting and jewelry making. While H does enjoy making bracelets and necklaces with beads, perhaps what she loves more is to play with beads as loose parts. Her collection of beads has easily grown into the hundreds.


Loose parts, at least as I refer to them in my blog posts, are essentially open-ended items, meaning they are objects (often a collection of objects) that can be used and played with, in a number of different ways.

Her love for beads started with sorting them. She would easily spend an hour sorting beads by different properties. For example, she might first sort them by colour, arranging them into distinct piles on the floor. Then, when I would come back to check on her, she would be arranging them by shape/form. Sometimes, she will arrange them using multiple properties or subjective categories like “beautiful,” often coming up with names for the categories based on  their attributes. Some examples of this include referring to parts of her collection as “butterfly beads,” “Christmas lights,” “keys,” “maracas,” “cactus,” and “raspberries.”

Often, she would try to house her organized beads in ice cube trays, but because she didn’t have enough compartments to reflect all the different categories, sometimes, she would combine categories (“this section is for red and green”).

One day as she was painting an empty styrofoam egg carton (it was for 18 eggs), I suggested she may be able to use that with her beads.


Sometimes, H uses the beads as characters, giving them voices as she treats them as characters. This was a very distinct theme for her in the fall when she would play with plastic pop arty beads (the different shaped plastic/rubber beads click together so that string isn’t required to make jewelry).


Building on the idea of using beads in dramatic play, she sometimes uses them as props for little figures in small world play, often acting as food, jewels etc.


More recently, H has started using beads in combination with sensory materials like playdough to create things (not just to process). Here she is making sprinkle ice cream and chocolate chip and sugar cookies.

Last week, in collaboration with me, H used beads as a medium to create pictures. We started by creating what looked like a minion, a bird (kind of looks like a pigeon) on a branch, and a birthday cake.

Then, H worked independently. From literal representations (here is “a garden with flowers and grass and butterflies like a real garden”)


…to more abstract complex ones (“I want to make a human with a silly face, a hijab, a bindi on its head over here [points to forehead], earrings and makeup on her lips.”)


Sidenote: when H was creating the work above, I was not with her. I was putting Y back to sleep so this piece was conceptualized and executed exclusively by her. She even documented it herself (took the photo to share her work with me). It was an empowering moment for her and a proud moment for me. One of her favourite parts about making pictures with beads is destroying it after. She takes much joy in mixing everything together.

This morning, I had an idea for another activity: using beads to “colour” in existing pictures, more specifically mandalas. This idea appealed to her. I will include a photo once we get around to it.

For more information on loose parts, you may wish to consult these books, full of inspiring ideas and beautiful photo examples. Note: they may be available through your local library as well as in e-format.

There are some cool “loose parts” groups on Facebook as well as profiles on other social media platforms. Most recently, I’ve been benefitting from this podcast series on loose parts. You can also search for other “loose part” entries on my blog as it’s a common theme for us.

I hope that this post has helped broaden your perspective on the role of beads in early childhood play.



Round and Roll


One of the earliest interests I noticed with my son when he became mobile, was his fascination for things that rolled and spun. He was constantly army crawling over to his stroller and spinning the wheels. He did the same with a trolley bag we had in our living room for a while. He loved balls and anything else that rolled including empty bottles and rolls of tape. I took this interest and thought about what else I could provide that would further allow him to experiment.

One afternoon, I gave him some plastic hair rollers. I had a new box of them that I bought forever ago and decided they would be much more useful as playthings for the children than they ever were for me. I liked that they could nest and gave him 3 sets to see what he would do. This was upstairs in my bedroom on a carpeted floor. Needless to say, they didn’t roll much, but that gave him the chance to explore other properties.

I laced them onto a scarf and swished them from side to side, as they disappeared, one inside the other.

Some point later, they ended up on our main level, which has laminate flooring. Here they could roll freely. I filled them in a clear container thinking Y might enjoy dumping them out, but he wasn’t yet there.


Instead, when he threw one on the floor and it rolled away, he chased it, often pushing it forward when he went to pick it up, and then chasing it more. I saw him doing the same thing with plastic balls. I think it may have started off accidentally because he was learning how to grasp these objects but now he does it intentionally.


A few days ago, I just added a muffin tray to the mix. Adding something with lots of compartments is a great way to enhance loose parts play. With my daughter, I often added ice cube trays and more
recently, the plastic inside part of chocolate boxes.


But this was the first time I used a muffin tray- it had good size pockets for an
infant. I added a few curlers into the spaces and went to the kitchen. I was surprised when I came back and found he had started populating the spaces himself.


My 4 year old daughter had done the same a few weeks ago (hair curlers with an empty egg carton) and I had actually introduced the muffin tray to Y with blocks the day before so it was interesting to see how their skills and approaches are evolving.


I have a lot more hair curlers and have been debating adding some adhesive velcro to some of them so that the children can choose to stick them together and build with them. It would be great to find a large base with some kid me of pegs sticking out to see if Y can fit the curlers on top of the pegs (this requires more precision than placing them in pockets).


Bye Bye Basket: deconstruction and loose parts


There is lots I’ve been wanting to blog about. My phone gallery is full of photos I’ve taken over the last 6 weeks but instead, I’m here to take you on a visual journey of what happened in our house today.

We have a basket on the shelf with Y’s playthings. As those things have increased, the contents have gotten heavier and one side of the handle started coming undone and finally broke.

Today, as Y pursued some playthings, he found himself trapped.


I decided to snap the handle off of the basket and gave it to H who I figured would find an imaginative use for it. She quickly got to work.

image.jpegIt wasn’t long before she had pulled apart the entire handle.


“Mama, can I have a bowl for my spaghetti?” Then she found a mixing spoon.


Perhaps some of the pieces didn’t fit in the bowl because soon she was creating a circle on the ground.


“Look mama, I made a face!”

I brought over some twigs and pine cones with the hope that she would enhance the faces, but she had other plans. She grabbed the container full of art utensils, eyeing the highlighter and got ready (to colour all over the floor). Unfortunately, it was time for lunch and nap so I promised her that when she woke up she could continue at the table after we covered it.

So after her nap (and costume change because what fabulous 4 year old doesn’t change their clothes at least 5 times a day?) we each started colouring a piece. Notice her grip, experimentation with holding multiple markers and her rearrangement of marker lids.

After surprising her Papa with her creation, she found me and started singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (we went to go see a production of The Wizard of Oz yesterday).

imageI remember reading somewhere about how taking things apart can also be considered an aspect of creativity. After 7 years of marriage to an engineer, I’ve come to appreciate this form of creative expression and was overjoyed to see H’s process unfold over the day- how she deconstructed part of the basket, played with it in different ways and then created something new and personally meaningful. Wow.


October Round Up


October has been a busy and interesting month! We spent the last few days of September outdoors visiting the farm and exploring the neighbourhood.


Good thing because the beginning of October brought snow! Fortunately, it was temporary so we could enjoy fall some more.


As we found ourselves settling into more of a routine, we started spending more time indoors.

H came across this tray and literally begged me to fill it with things for her (she remembered the last time we had used it), so in a five minute hussle, I filled it with things from my kitchen (isn’t it amazing how many different types of pasta there are?!)


H got to work, adding in her own loose parts like bracelets.


This month, she spent a lot of time dressing up. Sometimes she used ready made costumes and sometimes she used her imagination.


I love H’s knack for symbolic play. I think she would be great at improv. Here she is with her bicycle helmet, a bunk bed she made for her dolls and putting her babies to sleep in their bassinets.


We voted in the municipal elections and that raised a discussion about mayors. So far the only mayors she knew about were Mayor Goodway and Mayor Humdinger. She was very curious about Mayor Nenshi.


H played with old loose parts, building homes and having picnics.


And explored new ones too.

We read. We ran up hills. We went to go see a play.


We did experiments and yoga.

Our car broke down and we ended up stuck at her school for a few hours. It was nice for me to have a deeper look at her preschool environment. I know I’m the keener parent- the one who is always looking at the lesson plans, remembers spirit days and peeks to see what new centres have been added to the room.


As Y has been growing older, it’s fascinating to see what captures his attention. Not only does he love watching his sister at play, but he has started to express his own preferences. He was really drawn to this bicycle-printed hijab of mine so we used it over his play gym and suspended from the swing. He also tried catching his shadow.


I spent time learning this month. I found some inspiring Facebook groups and attending virtual workshops I had signed up for last winter. This exposure to seeing Reggio in practice got my gears turning and reignited my passion for self-growth and reflection.

When I look back at some of what we did this month, I feel exhausted! But I also can’t help but smile at all of the synapses (brain connections) that must have been made. Play, is after all, the work of the child.


Fall Faces and Feels


At our house, we’ve made playdough quite a few times but this was the first time we made scented playdough. And how wonderful it smells…I seriously want to eat it!

We made pumpkin spice playdough a few days ago and have been playing with it in old ways and new. Basically, just add a few tablespoons of pumpkin spice mix to your favourite playdough recipe.

We combined it with found items (bits of nature I had collected on a walk last week) and made faces.


We used an assortment of rocks, pinecones, twigs, bark, berries, seeds, and plants.


Perhaps more interesting was what happened when H started deconstructing the faces. She noticed the imprints the different textures were making in the playdough. Her favourites were pinecone impressions used on their heads (I had only thought to use it on its side).

Talks about the wonderful smell of the playdough led to reminiscing about the last time we used the pumpkin spice mix. It was in December to make gingerbread cookies. So we decided to make a playdough batch of cookies and decorate with natural “gummies and m&m’s”.

This led to making sprinkle cupcakes and chocolate chip muffins.


H has a a tote box full of plastic playdough tools and cutters that we’ve amassed over the past few years but it was great to be able to use these natural materials to process our playdough. We tried using them with clay last week but this seemed to be better received.


Mobile Adventure Playground


Since coming into the world of early childhood education and play, two of the concepts I’ve found most intriguing are loose parts and outdoor play. Calgary’s super cool Mobile Adventure Playground initiative marries these two ideas with some awesome implications.

As parents living in the modern world, when we think of parks and playgrounds, we (sadly) often think of permanent well-groomed areas covered in sprawling plastic structures meant to be played on (and not with!)

This mobile adventure playground challenges that concept. Instead of permanent fixed play structures, children (and adults) have access to a variety of parts (that would otherwise be lying in a landfill somewhere) and can use their imaginations, gross motor muscles, and cognitive skills (much of which can draw on science, engineering and math) to do with them whatever they’d like.

In my talk with one of the play facilatators, I discovered that thirty years ago, adventure parks and playgrounds could be found in Calgary and currently thrive in the UK, Denmark and other areas of Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Lawson Foundation, Calgary’s mobile adventure playground is one of three in Canada and grew out of a 2015 study on outdoor and play engagement and 2016 pilot period, when 2000+ people came out to play.

The mobile adventure playground is relatively easy to set up. Some of the items featured in this one were: tires, plastic crates, pieces of wood and cardboard, pipes, pieces of old play structures, kitchen items like bowls and colanders, scraps of fabric, logs, buckets, paper tubes, cable spindles and a wheelbarrow.

Like many great things, it’s not so much about product as it is about process. Initially, the children stood around not really knowing what to do but once they started exploring and imagining, their play really got going.

In my time there, I observed children create slides and fishing boats, obstacle courses and clubhouses, bunkers and moving vehicles.

There are so many great aspects of this playground:

  • it is mobile and will be set up in different locations throughout the summer (for a schedule, click here)
  • it is free to access
  • it reuses everyday materials in novel ways
  • there’s no one way or right way to set up the materials
  • the same materials result in different types of play depending on who is using them
  • the (big) size of many of the objects required children to work together to move them, fostering cooperative play
  • children that don’t know each other will probably interact, either by playing together or asking permission to use/share materials, helping to develop negotiating skills
  • socioemotional development: not only will children take pride in their play and creations, but they will also learn how to navigate more challenging emotions like loss (when someone might repurpose items they are no longer actively playing with as experienced by H and her friends); struggle and frustration (physically, cognitively and even emotionally) as children try to bring their visions to life;  and conflict when children may want to use the same materials or have different visions for what/how things should be done
  • the playground is set up outdoors allowing families to benefit from exposure to nature
  • the playground utilizes green spaces, temporarily transforming existing (neighbourhood) sites

This park is a break from the norm and would be a welcome change to summer play, especially in the case of children who:

  1. are very active and appreciate gross motor play
  2. love imaginative play
  3. enjoy using stem (science, technology, engineering, math) principles to bring their play into reality
  4. are bored of traditional park experiences

For more information on Calgary’s mobile adventure playground or to view the schedule/locations for the rest of the season, click here. If you’ve ever been exposed to an adventure park/playground, please comment with your experiences and location.

Happy Playing!





Hands on Patterning and Loose Parts Play


For the past few months, I’ve noticed H has been showing an increased interest in patterns (which she so endearingly pronounces “pattrins”). She points them out in clothing, when we walk outside, in food and in her play.

While she still has a simple understanding of patterns, not having quite realized the full definition or complexity of what constitutes a pattern, she shows pride in being able to recognize them.

To deepen her knowledge and understanding, we’ve read these books which are part of my personal collection.


I’ve been wanting to give her a hands-on way to create her own patterns and further investigate the concept. This morning, I finally set out a very simple activity for her on the still-crumb-covered kitchen table. By sharing how our experience unfolded, I hope to show you all the potential of loose parts (basically collections of items that can be used in many different ways).

I provided a tray that had two elements: dried kidney beans and yellow crystals. Originally I was not planning on prompting her and just wanted to see what she would do, but I thought some guidance might help, so all I did was ask her, “Can you make a pattern?”


I was pleasantly surprised by her attention to detail as she carefully ensured the kidney beans and the gems all faced the same direction (she turned the kidney beans so that they would all be vertical and placed the gems on the widest side).


When I saw that she was able to successfully create a pattern with two elements, I introduced a third: pink milk jug lids. She adjusted her pattern to incorporate these.


When she could no longer reach one end of her pattern, she started working at the starting end. It was interesting because she did not know how to reverse the pattern since she was working in the opposite direction. I had to prompt her with saying the pattern out loud in the opposite direction – by drawing her attention to this fact, she was able to extend her pattern in the opposite direction correctly.

I was further impressed when she created a little game. She removed the milk jug lids and asked me, “What’s missing?” I said, “the lids!” and she said, “You’re correct!” She proceeded to removed the beans and then repeated her question.


She then undid her pattern and started arranging the parts in shapes saying things like “I made a square! I made a circle!”


After making shapes she decided to sort the pieces on the table and said “My bean collection is all done!” Even though I haven’t used the term “collection” in my dialogue with her, I marveled with what an intuitive term it was for a three year old to be able to refer to her loose parts as “collections”. After separating the three elements, she proudly exclaimed that she had three collections.


H really enjoyed playing with the loose parts. She looked at the tray and noticed there were empty spaces so asked me for more. I went on a hunt around the house trying to find a jar of pennies I knew we had somewhere but was unsuccessful. I returned after ten minutes half-hoping she had lost interest, but she hadn’t. She was still sitting there. I checked the pantry and gave her some raw pasta and a pouch of blue beads. She happily announced that she had five collections and then said, “I’m mixing them up. They are having a big party. Tada!”


After this, she loaded the tray back up, sorting the loose parts and said something about the parts going for a train ride. She noticed that one space was still empty so again asked for something to fill the space with.


At this point it became clear that her play was transforming from being a mathematically inclined activity to open-ended dramatic play. She said the parts were soup for her friends that were sick. I offered her a pot and wooden spoon which she gladly accepted. She added blue beads to the pot commenting that they looked like rice.


She asked me for some bowls for her soup and went on to pour some “soup” and feed her stuffed toys. She declared that they felt better after eating the soup but still needed to rest.


When she was done playing, she resorted the pieces and left the tray on the floor. Seven hours later when she woke up from her afternoon nap, she approached the tray again and this time, mixed various elements in the pot. She poured the soup into the bowls and let her friend Lammie have a taste. She also fed me with the wooden spoon and then pointed it at my stomach so that Baby could get a taste too.

Loose part play is promoted by play advocates all around the world. It’s something my daughter really enjoyed in her toddler years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to provide as many opportunities for it as I would have liked this past year (however it’s always in the back of my mind). By looking at how her play evolved over the day, I hope that you too, can see the value, depth and potential of this type of experience. She started with something more structured (but it was still based on her interests and initiative) and explored patterning, sequencing, geometry, counting, sorting, fine motor development, language and dramatic play. I’m curious to see what she will do next and how a broadening understanding of various patterning sequences will translate into her play.