Excel Loose Parts Visits – Final Report

<Modified somewhat to protect confidentiality

Schools visited: 18

Students who participated (approx.): 900

Kilometres travelled: 1023

At the request of Head Office, I undertook a visiting program in the spring of 2016 to introduce the Loose Parts philosophy to a sub-set of Excel programs across HRM. The visits took six weeks, and included 18 schools that had self-identified as not having yet introduced Loose Parts to their program. A survey had been distributed by Excel Head Office to check on the status of “loose parts” implementation and barriers. Team Leaders in many of the programs I visited had indicated in a survey response that lack of storage space was their primary reason for not starting Loose Parts yet.

The loose parts that I took on my visits included:

  • Queen-sized sheets and brightly-coloured pieces of fabric
  • Rope in a variety of lengths (4’ – 100’) and widths (1/8” – 1/2”)
  • Bungee cords
  • 2-3 foot lengths of 2-2.5” PVC pipe
  • A variety of small things that fit through the pipes (balls, cars, etc…)
  • Two 15ft ratcheting truck die-downs (1000lb weight limit)
  • Six empty 10gallon ice cream containers
  • Half a dozen sand pails with shovels, wooden spoons, funnels, and measuring cups
  • A grocery bag of 2-3ft’ pieces of 1”-wide flexible pipe.
  • Some plastic connectors called ‘stick-lets’ for connecting the flexible pipes.

These items were transported in the back of my car, stored in two ‘Rubbermaid’  tubs (18”x18”x24”) and four milk crates (not including the pipes).

My visits started out well at Site 1, with a staff group that was very keen to see how the session would go. They set the pattern for the rest of the visits, whereby I spoke briefly with the staff on arrival, then did my setup in the outdoor play space while P-2 students had snack. Upon completing snack, the P-2 students joined me outside for a brief introduction to the session and the materials. Once the Gr 3-6 students had been dismissed and had snack, they joined us outside, receiving their own introduction to the session.

In the larger programs, sometimes there were two sessions of 30-40 minutes for younger students before the older students came out for their own session. In the smaller programs, the older students just joined right in with the younger ones. The largest group using the materials at one time was about 60, although this was only in one place where they had a particularly large, open outdoor space that accommodated the numbers. Usually the maximum was 30-35.

At most sites the staff had lots of questions, ranging from safety concerns to where various items had come from. The safety questions tended to answer themselves over the course of the sessions, as there were no accidents or behaviour-related incidents during any of the sessions. At least two Team Leaders remarked as I was leaving that the day had been the quietest one they’d had all year, with regard to behaviour issues and disruptions. Staff members at multiple sites confirmed one of our key observations at my own school: loose parts is an activity in which Gr 4-6 girls get particularly engaged; they do not spend the session moping around and not wanting to participate, as often happens with sports-related activities. This ‘sold’ many staff on getting loose parts started as soon as possible!

There were at least three sites where in fact they had already been doing loose parts, but just calling it something else and not connecting that to what they thought ‘loose parts’ meant. This was quite obvious once I setup the materials, as the kids took to it very readily and I didn’t get any ‘what is this for?’ questions. [To which the answer always was ‘What do you think it’s for?”]

It was interesting to watch how the uses of the materials varied across the programs. At some schools the fabric was entirely for building forts. At others, a group of students turned some of them into clothes for role-playing activities and protected them fiercely from the ‘building’ group. Similarly, the pipes were used at some places for building complex systems for transporting items from one place to another; at others, they became just another building material for the forts. For a third group they became musical instruments in combination with containers and spoons that at other programs were used for digging.

Much to my astonishment, I only got a rainy day for only one site! It was foggy and damp when I arrived at Site 17, but I set up outside anyway, and the kids had a great time for about 30 minutes before suddenly it was pouring rain. We moved everything inside to an empty classroom beside their regular Excel room, and the kids continued their fun with forts and pipes for the rest of the session. Their enthusiasm confirmed what I had been telling staff members at other sites – many of the materials work just as well inside as out. Tables on a side and some chairs work perfectly well for holding up forts! There were a few sites where I arrived the day or afternoon following a heavy rain, and the puddles in the play space provided an unexpected loose part that made for lots of extra fun.

Most of the Team Leaders were surprised at how small the storage requirements were for the materials I was transporting. Although there were a couple of sites where the staff were less enthused than most others, no one specifically said they were not planning to implement loose parts. Having seen the level of engagement and enjoyment by the kids, almost all of the staff members were enthused and energized at the prospect of starting a loose parts collection for their program. Some were already talking about items they had at home or in storage at the Excel site that could be used. Many commented wryly that loose parts is really just a return to what most of us over age thirty-five grew up with – a collection of junk in somebody’s yard or the empty lot down the road that engaged a large multi-age group of children quite safely for hours and days at a time.

In conclusion I want to thank Head Office for the opportunity to make these visits. I learned as much as the staff and kids at the sites I visited, modifying my materials a bit along the way based on their use. The feedback I received was very positive!

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