It’s a gloomy Tuesday morning and about a dozen students are eagerly lined up outside a wooden shed in the playground at John Stubbs Elementary school.
Principal Sandra Szalipszki fiddles with the lock on the shed as the crowd of students quickly begins to grow behind her. Finally Szalipszki manages to unlock it and the students let out a cry of excitement.
Delving into the shed, Szalipszki and the students begin pulling out dozens of pieces of junk – literally. There are tires of all shapes and sizes, milk cartons, pipes, a suitcase, flippers, hula hoops, an old yellow dump truck, tarps, and a blue plastic pool.
The items are part of the school’s loose parts playground or créactivité, which was established two years ago and is believed to be the first of its kind in the province. As part of the program, at recess and lunch, students play with the junk, morphing the pieces into anything they want.
“I call it the junk playground. There’s a lot of resources there that are encouraging kids to play creatively with them,” Szalipszki said. “It’s amazing how you can encourage critical thinking by playing.”
It’s a program Szalipszki came up with in 2015 after coming across similar play-based learning programs in the U.K., where she lived for a decade. With the help of her parents (who happened to be downsizing and getting rid of things), some students’ parents, as well as a parent’s friend nick-named Dan the Junk Man, they collected “junk,” brought them to the school, and over the months built two sheds, one for Grade 1 to Grade 8 students, and another for those in kindergarten.
During the breaks, students of all ages play together building forts, spaceships, and pulling each other around on the plastic pool.
A couple of Grade 8 kids recently stacked the pipes and rolled a ball through them, changing the angle of the pipes and timing it to see how quickly the ball was moving.
Not only is it teaching students critical and creative thinking, but it’s also teaching them social skills as well.
“Kids would come in and say ‘this person was mean to me.’ Kids need to learn the social skills related to conflict and life. We’re seeing a lot less of that type of conflict because they’re working together,” said Szalipszki, adding the program has also caught the attention of other principals in the Sooke School District.
“It took a shift in our mindset that learning is messy, it’s noisy, it’s kids at their best.”
Eleven-year-old Remi plays with the junk as often as she can, building forts, sculptures and turning an old seat into a trampoline.
“I think it’s really fun,” she said. “[I’ve learned] you can basically play with anything and turn anything into a toy as long as it’s safe.”
But some of the items are in need of replacement. Parents in the local community are encouraged to donate items to the program that are clean, safe and promote creative and imaginative play, such as items made of wood or metal, branches, shower curtains, drain pipes, tires, baskets, rope, computer keyboards, garbage cans or old radios or microphones.
The school is particularly interested in receiving a used plastic swimming pool as the current (and very popular) one is on its last legs.
Objects made of glass or pottery will not be accepted, as well as objects with sharp edges, weapon-like toys or ready-made toys bought in stores.