Playing with Loose Parts in the Atelier

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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