Playing with Loose Parts in the Atelier

Unstructured materials composition

How finding the right balance between rules and freedom, in order to support the creative process?
The image above is part of a 100 x 70 cm composition made by three five-year-old children with some loose parts. How do you think the creation process has developed? What was the proposal (if any) and the role of the adult?
First of all, consider it was the last of a series of atelier sessions dedicated to these materials. This is quite significant, since the first time need children meet a new material, they like to is freely explore it for a long enough time, knowing its potential and limits. So it’s better to postpone more specific proposals. But let’s start from the beginning.

I would have liked to offer an experience with loose parts – small pieces of plastic, metal, wood, cardboard, buttons, stoppers, scraps from industrial and artisan processing – all collected in various containers. But how presenting theml? As a completely free exploration? I could imagine that inebriating wealth and multiplicity became a confusing jumble in a few seconds… So how to “contain” children’s activity and stimulate a rich personal research at the same time?

My solution was a kind of game with a few, simple rules: a small group of children at a time, the materials neatly arranged on a table. Every child had a small container which he/she could use to “shop”, putting there the chosen materials. On other tables, there were white cardboard bases, where children “played” with their materials. Once the game (and the composition on the cardboard) was finished, the children could optionally take a picture of the final composition and gave it a title. Then they put all the used materials back into their personal container and divided them in the different respective containers. At this point, children could start the process again and again.

Another solution I tried is putting all the containers in the center of a large table, where the children could take the materials they needed from time to time. Maybe it was my need of order… Anyway, it worked. The rules were gladly accepted as part of a game and allowed children to manage themselves independently, respecting individual times. Even the final step of “destruction” of the work was “naturally” welcomed by children, that were immersed in a fast and intense research, without needing to “hold” a result. A demonstration of how the “attachment” to the product is more frequent in adults than children.

As children liked it very much, we repeated the same activity several times and I gradually introduced some variants: for example cardboard bases of different formats or a selecion of a certain range of materials (according to tactile, chromatic or other criteria). Some variations were stimulating for children, others were not. So I chose the next variant observing children’s responces. It was also interesting to observe how different materials influenced the composition and, at the same time, how the personal style of each child was recognizable through the diversity of materials: personal style and material characteristics are elements that are always intertwined in every work.

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As last step, I proposed a group work: three children at a time, on a large format of 100 X 70 cm. Of course I knew that the format was too big to be “controlled” and organized with a shared project a priori. So I invited the children to start individually, from the side they preferred. Then each group followed process that organicaly unfolded, bring the various contributions together. Inspired by the forms that were gradually created and by some questions of mine, children gradually connected the three parts, both aesthetically and narratively. In this case, I proposed to fix the final composition on the sheet with glue, as a tangible conclusion of a long process and enhancement of a collective work. Product and process are both important: it’s up to us to understand when it’s time to focus on one rather than the other.

Every game has got its own rules, which are willingly accepted by who freely choose to play. Sometimes the rules “allow”, sometimes they “limit”, as well as total freedom can be an obstacle or an impetus for the creative process. There are not solutions that are always good. Each time we have to look for the right balance, taking into account the context and the objectives. It is a flexible dance between two necessary opposites. The empathic listening of children can help us to be attuned to their rhythm.

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The Characters Box: a tool for inventing stories

the little hedgehog and the rainbow

Where can you begin to invent a story? There are endless possible starting points: one is this box. It contains “characters” catched from picture books for children. Here is how doing it. Look for a book with a character that appeared in different pictures, with various facial expressions and body positions. Then photocopy all these figure variations, cut them out (isolating them from the background) and put them in a small, nice box.

Characters from picture books

This special box could be placed next to the writing-drawing tools and freely used by children. However, it is better if you initially present it to children as a very special, intriguing thing. “What is going to be inside? Who will come out from it?” When the character comes out, children are usually surprised and curious. Then, you can wonder and investigate together: who is he? What is she doing? What’s his name? Where does she live?

Invite children to take cues from the various facial expressions and postures of the figures, trying to imagine what may have happened to the character: why has he become sad? Where is she running? Who’s chasing her? What is he looking for? Who is she angry with? After children defined some features and events, you can also propose to deepen these elements by seeking information through books or other sources. For example, if the character lives in the ocean, why don’t look for books or web images about marine environments?

The story will slowly begin to take shape, until it will be completely defined. At this point, you can invite children to draw it, sticking the photocopies of the character in the right places. In addition to pencils and markers, you can eventually provide some colored papers and recicled fabrics. If there is a group of children, suggest every child to draw a different sequence, in order to represent the whole story.

Finally, all the drawings can be joined into a small book, with the cover, the title and the name of the authors. Children will be very proud of it… After a first experience like this, the box could be left freely available in the classroom or at home, and periodically present a different character: every new character is a surprise!

One day, Crocolou decides to go for a swim at the lake. But as he dives, a crocodile comes out of the water and bites him on his forehead.

Lupodrillo fighting against the wolves

Crocolou calls his wolf friends to help him. The wolves arrive and fight against the crocodiles. At the end of the fight, all wolves and crocodiles are full of bites and fall to the ground from exhaustion, so no one wins.

Lupodrillo coming back home

While the wolves and the crocodiles are fighting, Crocolou managed to escape to his grandmother’s house. The grandmother has prepared an inflatable pool for him, but Crocolou is now a little afraid of diving because the crocodile comes to his mind. In the end he dives.

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Many thanks to Nadhir, Riccardo and Giuseppe, authors of Crocolou story and to the authors of the characters, Ophélie Texier for Crocolou and Vincent Bourgeau for the little imp in the book “La boite à Jules”.

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You are very welcome to share your stories!

Enjoy!

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