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Child’s play: UC students facilitate community loose parts pop-up playground for school holidays

To kick off the Easter school holidays, students from the University of Canberra’s Bachelor of Early Childhood and Primary Education hosted a pop-up playground for children aged birth to eight, based around the concept of loose parts play.

The exercise served as an authentic assessment task for the students; not only were they gaining practical experience in designing engaging playscapes, but they also received real-time feedback from the true play experts – children!

Katy Meeuwissen is a Lecturer with the Faculty of Education and convener of the Philosophies and Pedagogies in Early Childhood Education unit. She said that the exercise was based around the theory of “loose parts play” and playwork.

“Loose parts play has many benefits including social development, gross and fine motor development, creativity and problem-solving skills. Free play with these resources allows children to be themselves and use the resources for the affordances that they offer,” Mrs Meeuwissen said.

“Inspired by ‘junk’ adventure playgrounds that came about after World War 2, loose parts playgrounds incorporate nothing static or expensive, instead they are filled with what some perceive as ‘junk’, including items such as planks of wood, tyres, cardboard boxes, pipes and logs.”

After researching loose parts play and playwork, students selected their materials and resourced the space, the students then step back, and take on a role as play workers.

“The role of the students at the event was to act as a Playworker, rather than an educator. Students were tasked with facilitating and enriching children’s play, stepping back, and observing the play as it unfolds instead of putting an adult agenda on the play itself,” Mrs Meeuwissen said.

Meeka Piscone is in her second year of her bachelor's degree, and has always known that she wanted to work in the education field.

“I’ve got lots of cousins and I have been in childcare for all of my working career, so I’ve always been in a position where I’m looking after others. I love being an influential person in a child's life and thinking about the way we’re being perceived in their little world is really cool,” she said.

She worked with Alyssa Metherell to facilitate the loose parts playground.

“We've got lots of wood, beads and crates. Our playground is very open ended and can be used in so many different ways,” Ms Piscone said.

“Today we’ve seen all the benefits of play represented here; the children are using creativity, and imagination, there are kids who don’t know each other interacting, and the families have been here all morning and they’re still having fun and engaging – it’s great to see.”

Alyssa is a second-year student and a mum herself. She wants to help other parents learn how beneficial loose parts play is for children, and how easily it can be incorporated at home.

“There's so much potential in everybody's homes for loose parts play, any parent can do it. I think, as a parent myself, the major barrier we face is mess versus play. You don’t want to create any extra mess or work, but the benefits of it, as we’ve seen today, are just outstanding,” Ms Metherell said.

The beauty of loose parts play is that there’s no requirement for special equipment or a particular format – everyone has the right materials lying around the house. When replicating this at home, Alyssa has three helpful suggestions for parents.

“Firstly, allow for a large open space, move away household items to make space. Then grab spoons, chopsticks, pots and pans – we all have these pieces in our house without realising the potential they have. And thirdly, take a step back and let your children engage independently, so you're creating and allowing for the play but not directing or leading it,” Ms Metherell said.

The education course offerings at UC are designed with a focus on authentic assessment and work integrated learning, with a balance of both theory and practice in teaching. Activities such as these highlight the practicality of the degree, and the benefits for students, and the wider community, of practical learning.

Naomi White and her grandson came along to the event and enjoyed every minute.

“This is a wonderful outreach initiative, and just fantastic that it’s open to the public,” Ms White said.

"My grandson has been occupied since we arrived, and I've just been able to step right back and watch his creativity blossom.”

She was impressed with the passion of the students and how they brought the activities to life for the community.

“I hadn’t heard of ‘Loose Parts Play’ before this, but I've always been very conscious of the importance of play for kids and letting them roam. Kids don't actually need a huge number of toys, pre-made toys — I'm always looking for the perfect cardboard box for them!” Ms White said.

“The students are very clear about what's going on, which is lovely to hear. I can't wait for them to get into schools and apply what they're learning here.”