What can materials do?

 “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”- Simon Nicholson, Architect


Over the past few weeks, we have been researching what materials can do.

We offered a proposal to G5s- Could materials help us connect to our passions, interests and unanswered questions? We wondered if this exploration might eventually lead to self-directed learning projects.

‘This is amazing stuff’

‘It’s all so beautiful”

“Isn’t learning fun?

Teacher- Do you think playing with the materials was valuable?

“yes- more valuable than money”

Oskar: #kidsneedplay

Issac: #playisvaluable


Teachers have also played with materials and discovered how they could be used as a metaphor to connect their values to their work and a catalyst for reflection and digging deeper into our practices in the classroom.


Open ended, loose parts have lived in educational research since 1972,  when architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts.  The idea that loose parts; materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.

‘Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.’  -Simon Nicholson (Read the entire study here)

Loose parts allow for open-ended exploration, creating innumerable possibilities for students to play and try out ideas. Loose parts don’t offer a fixed experience or answer, but by their very nature suggest that the “player” is the designer of the experience and the driver of the learning.

‘If you don’t play, the learning is too consequential- the great the danger- the narrower the learning will be. The object of school should be to make learning less dangerous.’ -Jerome Bruner

We wondered how offering materials to other students might provide them a language to tell us more about themselves and their lives within and outside of school. As G1 and G2 have been getting to know wire, feathers, collage and other materials, we have been getting to know the students.

 Oskari: I’m making 6 rings because there are 6 people in my family.

John: I would need to make 10 because there are 10 people in my family.

Student whose mom is sick: I’m making this necklace for my mom.

The conversation that followed detailed the different family relationships and their roles within the family.


Teacher: Do you want to play with the blocks?

Student: yes, but I don’t know how to ask them.

While we were learning about the students, the students have also made discoveries. They discovered that materials awaken their memories.

Jacob: Fire, I’m stating a fire (rubbing sticks together)

Johnson: Yea a fire

Jacob: Like when I went camping

Ashley: Don’t start a fire here

Jacob: No, I’m going to put it on the camping logs

Ashley: We don’t go to camp

Ava: No we’re too little

Jacob: I’ve been camping


Ava: I was a flower girl in Mr. L’s wedding. I think I was the youngest one there. Well maybe the 2nd youngest. It’s a little bit embarrassing being a flower girl.

Teacher: Why?

Ava: Everyone is looking at you.

They discovered that materials can help them make connections.

Lucas: I know where they found these feathers. They came from a Kukaburra.

Teacher: What’s that?

Lucas: He lives in the old gum tree

Jasmine: Kukaburras are in Australia. They laugh a lot. I come from Australia too!


After making rings together with wire:

Griffin: Ms. Katie you know when I go back to Canada in 2 years I don’t think this ring will still fit me, but I’m going to take it with me to remind me of this special moment.


The painting table was quite busy. From across the room, Yatong watched her classmates paint and play together- and then she joined them!


As I was wondering what other ways we might use materials, I remembered a blog post from a Grade 5 classroom at Opal School where materials were used to help students reset.

‘Often times at Opal School, we find that working with materials can not only help support these conditions of optimal learning but can also serve as a reset.  We all need a reset every now and then, whether a reset after an overload of information or a reset after an emotionally charged experience or a reset after being completely focused on a single idea or project for a period of time.  Resets offer a moment to breathe.  They serve to refresh, to rejuvenate, to offer different perspectives, to think and open new possibilities.  Resets might look like reflecting on an experience through the lens of a new material or simply losing oneself in the stroke of a paintbrush or the mark of a pen.’  (Read the entire post here)

And this post where Grade 3s were using materials as a tool for thinking and expression.

‘But like any material used as a tool for thinking, communicating and expressing, its greatest power is in reflecting us back to ourselves. What children show they can do in many ways determines who they believe themselves to be. The tools we give them matter. That we give them tools matters. The materials we use to make ideas make our ideas visible to others but also to ourselves. Beautiful questions explored through beautiful materials make beautiful ideas. What might happen if all children grew up in environments intentionally designed to invite them to see the beauty that is their birthright as human beings? What if adults planned, as a first priority, for that beauty to show up in school?’   (Read the entire post  here)

Materials are not usually the first “language” we offer children in our classrooms. I wonder what assumptions we might have about their purpose, value and the roles they play in our classrooms. Can we come play and see what we discover together?

This post was originally posted on blogs.wab.edu/learningtogether 

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