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Affordances: Mother Nature's Free Stuff

In a rather of random act of intentional discovery, I decided to see what Mother Nature might yield up to me on a simple stroll through my yard. My investigation was motivated by an article that I had recently read about "affordances." The psychologist James J. Gibson first introduced the term in 1977. An affordance is the possibility of an action on an object in the environment or an object's "action possibilities."

Australian Landscape Architect, Elizabeth Cummins, says "These affordances are the inherent textural, scale or ergonomic properties an object or element has which 'afford' its use in play. From a stick to a low concrete wall, children are able to assess the possibilities of these objects and apply them to play." Cummins goes on to explain that children will find play affordances in any environment and that organic materials are only nostalgically rated as superior by adults. What we should be striving to understand and provide for children is a diverse and engaging range of "affordances."

This idea has been similarly described as "currencies for play" and seemingly integrates with architect Simon Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts. Nicholson believed that loose parts in our environment empower our creativity. In a preschool, "loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways." It follows then, that an object's open-endedness is what allows the child to perceive a multiplicity of action possibilities. The more currencies discovered, the higher the play value. I would also expect that combining a variety of loose parts, each with a high occurrence of affordances, would yield the the best odds for engaged attention and research on the part of the child.

You can agree to disagree that trees, rocks, shells, dirt, and the like are not somehow intrinsically better than plastic objects or built elements. But what most of us could agree on is that free is better than costly! And that was the exciting discovery I made in my yard, a bounty far exceeding what is pictured here. There I found three types of pinecones, two kinds of acorns, a nest that had blown out of a tree, seed pods from a magnolia tree (some with their red berries still intact), nuts and nutshells, several kinds of leaves, moss and lichen, rocks and sticks - all of that in just a few minutes of collecting. A few affordances of these items we might list include sorting and classifying, color comparisons, aiming and throwing, pulverizing, rolling, representation, art media, and "a hundred languages more" (Loris Malaguzzi) - a veritable cash register full of currencies! What affordances are already at hand - free stuff from Mother Nature - in your play environment?