How waste can be a powerful learning resource in early education
For the first 10 years of my career I worked as an artist in schools. For the second 10, I worked as Co-Director of Sightlines Initiative - the UK Reggio reference agency. In this time I was lucky to visit Reggio many, many times, as well as Denmark and Sweden, to study their early years educational approach. For the last few years I have embarked on a new adventure - as manager of House of Objects Creative Recycling Centre. So,I have been immersed into a world of materials! This amazing project is an opportunity for me to bring together my learning in both a theoretical and practical sense.
To give you a bit of context House of Objects is a Reggio inspired creative recycling centre near Newcastle. We are based in a beautiful country park. One side of our business, project and building is a warehouse constantly restocked with waste materials and the other a creative workshop space where we play with materials. We offer children, light boxes, overhead projectors and shadow screens to play with and explore the materials.
Members can come and collect materials and anyone can book a workshop. We also run regular professional development workshops for educators. All workshops are designed to inspire participants to think differently about waste and to demonstrate how waste can be reused creatively and to great effect.
“It’s a question that will only become more relevant as resources become scarcer with time: How can we make better use of what we have? One way is to foster the idea that there is no such thing as waste – that all materials represent new opportunities, no matter where they come in our chains of use.” (The Art of Waste - James McNabb)
The effect of aesthetics on learning
Of course it is nothing new for early years educators to be resourceful. We have our beady eyes about us looking for stuff the children would like. But what I am talking about is taking this to a new level. It is about moving beyond junk modelling and seeing materials, even quite industrial materials in a new way. As much as it is about having materials available it is about how we offer them.
Very much inspired by Reggio we carefully consider the aesthetics and organisation of the space. This includes the lighting, colours, displays, equipment and how the materials are presented. All the materials we collect are separated and deconstructed and are organised into clear boxes on shelves. We consider which materials should be beside each other, materials are organised by colour, shape and texture.
Take computer keyboards for instance, we get a lot of them, they cannot be recycled, they are destined for landfill. We take the keys off and put them in one box, we remove the soft latex layer and put that in another and the acetate circuit boards in another. The children love to use computer keys with the clay, the latex layer is lovely to feel and cut and makes a strange effect of the OHP and the acetate layers are beautiful to colour in on the light table.
We have the desire to make the materials look beautiful and in this way we give value to them, and they change from being ‘scrap’ to valuable resources for re invention.
So what are intelligent materials?
I have so often used this term in selecting and arranging materials for projects with children, but what does it mean? To me?
- Intelligent materials are real stuff. Stuff of the everyday and real world, stuff children want to get their hands on. It is the business of children to want to master the real world, and they need real and everyday materials for this.
- Intelligent materials are open ended, component parts open to interpretation and transformation, materials that have to be interpreted and given meaning by the user. There is not one way of using them but endless possibilities.
- Intelligent materials are those which are thoughtfully considered and offered to children by intelligent educators with the expectation of intelligent responses.
One thing I learnt from Reggio was that children are more intelligent than we give them credit for. The amazing, thoughtful, complex, conceptual work of children in Reggio is testament to this.
One thing I have learnt at House of Objects is that a wide and varied selection of reclaimed materials presented beautifully is a wonderful provocation for intelligence
Adult initiated, child led
I use a simple framework to support the children’s creative investigations. Either I offer them a challenge (make a creature, a flower, a robot etc) and let them use any materials to realise it- or I offer them a particular material and ask them to transform it (a milk carton, a tin, a box) Then I let them look at the materials and once they have thought a little begin selecting and constructing. Some are attracted to work with small materials, others large materials, some want to work alone and some in a group, some want to work on the floor and some on a table.
For example, one group was following the theme of ‘portraits’. We offered a variety of frames for them to choose from and lots of small materials. The results and interpretations were remarkably different and very self-expressive.
“Each child has a spark. It is the responsibility of the people and the institutions around that child to find out what would ignite his/her spark” Howard Gardner- Making learning visible
I observe 100% levels of engagement with this approach and I have never had to deal with any bad behaviour, I have never seen a child bored - they just get so engrossed! The work of Vygotsky around the zone of proximal development often springs to mind!
It seems to me that the combination of a framework (space, support, materials and challenge) and a lot of freedom to choose, works as a strategy. Not only do the children find the materials suitable for the ideas they have but the materials themselves suggest new ideas. There is an amount of skills teaching necessary along the way and in every project I see the children mastering communication, extended language, creativity, numeracy, problem solving, construction, science and because we value their own unique self-expression through the materials we also naturally see children’s confidence grow. I constantly see the potential for the learning to be extended.
“In many situations, especially when one sets up challenges for them, children show us they know how to walk along the path of understanding. Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode.” Loris Malaguzzi
Waste is the future
As raw materials become scarcer, as the waste increases, as budgets get smaller and as we struggle with raising standards, reclaimed materials can present a way forward. Not only can we acquire these resources for free, by using them we can combat the throw away culture and nurture responsibility for the environment as well as inspire deep learning and self-expression.
If we agree with Bruner (which I often do!) that “we get good at what we are interested in” then our job as early years educators is to create interest around what we want children to be good at. We need to inspire learning! We need to give the children something interesting to do. If the children are interested they engage, if they are engaged they are learning. I can confidently inform you that creative use of waste materials is a powerful way we can inspire interest and learning. (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/2014/01/08/from-evaluation-to-inspiration/)
An important note about waste
It is not really an option not to raise the issue of waste with children. They have inherited a wasteful culture that is unsustainable. It is not their fault but they are going to have to find some solutions. Inventive use of waste materials, especially those destined for landfill has got to be worthwhile. If you are in any doubt about the potential of waste check this out …..
If any of you out there would like to visit us and see what we do, become members, organise a training event or set up your own great recycling project please get in touch.
Emma Pace is the Director of the House of Objects