Many people who come into my classroom are pretty impressed with the wide array of natural materials that my students have to work with in their centres. It was not always that way. My classroom was filled with bright, shiny, plastic, manufactured manipulatives, loose parts and toys. Over the years, I really began to look at how the environment and materials of children’s spaces could completely alter the way they interacted with them. There is so much to read about natural materials and Reggio, Waldorf and Montessori inspired play spaces, but let me boil it down to this- a natural, calm environment filled with natural materials makes for a calmer environment. Some of our students come from trauma and chaos. Giving them a calm, safe place to explore and learn is one of the best things we can do. As you know, our classes are not always that well funded, and those gorgeous wood play pieces are expensive. Kindergarten teachers and art teachers are some of the most resourceful at finding little bits to transform their rooms. Let me give you my top resources for discounted or even free natural resources!
Natural Loose Parts Sources
- Garage sales. I have picked up amazing wooden trays, woven baskets, and block sets for a steal.
- Facebook groups. Buying gently used Reggio, Waldorf and Montessori classroom supplies has been a budget saver for me. Try Marketplace or reselling groups in your area.
- Thrift Stores. Goodwill, The Salvation Army, National Thrift, Value Village, these are the ultimate source of excellent stuff for a bargain! I have found beautiful and practical baskets and wooden trays and bins for only a few dollars. I love giving nearly discarded items a fresh new life in my classroom.
- Hikes. My children know that almost every hike, cottage, or day at the lake will eventually find me scavenging around for loose parts. My happiest find last year was smooth rocks from Lake Ontario that we used all year as voting chips, place savers, and for literacy games. I have also borrowed moss from the forest floor- it is quite happy to be indoors for a few weeks of exploration and misted frequently, but then it likes to be returned to its home. I also collect pinecones of every size, pebbles, beautiful leaves, branches, feathers and twigs.
- Parents. Just because you are the teacher doesn’t mean you need to provide everything. We have been working very hard to eliminate plastic and I am committed to not buying any more plastic bins, caddies, etc. At least once a year I request certain recycling items from our parents. Cardboard tubes, glass yogurt jars (These are seriously one of my FAVOURITE items to use!), empty soup tin cans, shoe boxes… I also send home pictures of things we would like to have. Sometimes parents are cleaning out their homes or elderly family members things and they have just what you are looking for!
- Landscapers and Arborists. If you let them know what you are looking for, they often will let you pick off the back of their trucks or even drop it off to your school or classroom. We have been replacing the plastic chairs in some of our centres with tree stumps, gloriously free thanks to the city’s tree care team! Do be sure you ask first as some trees are being removed due to infestation or disease and you might spread it- so check with the pros first!
- Your Fellow Teachers I send out the occasional email for things I need in my classroom that other teachers might be getting rid of. I recently asked for broken crayons and was absolutely delighted to get huge bags of them. We plan to melt them down to make candles- or bigger crayons! I also ask teachers to save their wine corks from over the holidays to replenish my cork bin.
- Dollar Stores. I will be honest. I struggled with putting this on the list. I have found some of my favourite loose parts at my local Dollarama, but so much of the store is filled with the type of items I don’t want to support buying. I really try to be mindful to search out items that are made with natural materials, that have minimal packaging, and I bring my own bags to carry my haul to school
- ArtsJunktion. If you are a teacher in the Toronto District School Board, we have the most amazing resource. ArtsJunction is sort of like a habitat for humanity restore- but free! Other school boards such as Durham District School Board have a Re:Source Depot and Peel District School Board has the Creative Zone. Check with your board to find out if you have one!
- ETSY. Hand made, artisan crafted, you can’t go wrong with buying from a small business owner.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful! It takes time to develop a full range of materials for your students to use. I still have a wish list of items I would like to add to my classroom- and I have been at this forever! It is so important for our little ones to have the hands-on experience of learning at open ended activity centres. I’d love to see or hear about your favourite natural based items to use in your classroom. Feel free to comment below or send me an email!