An 'invitation to play' is a concept derived from the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. The Reggio philosophy encourages children to learn through exploration, by providing materials that 'invite them to play' in a creative, non-directive way, with no criteria for success.
The materials on offer are open-ended, which means that they can be used in many different ways. For example, a pebble can be enjoyed by the very youngest child for it's tactile properties, but it can also be used for sorting, counting, creating and imagining during play. The same pebble can be a cake decoration, a stepping stone for a character, or a magic bean. Through this type of play a child can develop their imagination, free from the constraints of more structured activities, and they are likely to play for longer too.
These 'open-ended' materials are often referred to as 'loose parts', which can vary in size, shape and type. I like to offer a range of natural materials if possible, as I believe they provide the most interest and variety, and I passionately believe that exploring nature fosters an enjoyment and love for our precious natural world. I also use interesting and stimulating recycled materials to encourage a culture of sustainability.
Children especially enjoy 'discovering' these materials themselves as opposed to being directed towards them, and will often surprise you with how they engage with the materials, if you allow them to follow their own paths of inquiry and remain non-intrusive. When children are engaged in play, I take that as my opportunity to set up another 'invitation' for them to discover.
Here, my daughter (6.5 years) is playing with our 'blue play dough invitation'. She started her exploration by making biscuits and cupcakes (which was what I had imagined when designing the kit), but she soon moved onto making pizza, using the stainless steel Indian spice tin as an oven, and finished by making a bracelet, both her own ideas and not something that I had anticipated. She played in a sustained way with this invitation for 40 minutes, without the need for any adult support or intervention.
Many of my 'invitations' contain small parts, so please supervise young children closely, especially those that are still inclined to put things in their mouths. As with all activities for children, please judge suitability for YOUR child. You know your child best.
I will be writing another blog post soon about where to source loose parts. If you are interested, and don't want to miss it, please subscribe on my home page...