The joy of junk

At a time of increasing debate over the extent of children’s use of screen-based technology, for many child professionals, the three-dimensional, messy enjoyment of children making things with their hands from pieces of scrap is more important then ever. Here, Ben Tawil, a senior lecturer in play and playwork, talks about the timeless pleasures and many benefits of junk modelling and non-directive play.

I feel like I grew up on junk modelling; it was the go-to activity for just about every club I ever attended in my early years and primary school days.

From Sunday school to summer club, everywhere I went had a huge box full of junk and every parent that dropped their kids off would be weighed down with even more donations. Cardboard tubes, old bobbins, lengths of material, cardboard boxes, bags of dried leaves and a vast array of what looked like scraps of waste.

Junk modelling was ace; everyone seemed to enjoy it. We used copious amounts of glue and tape to fashion monsters big and ugly. We made vehicles, rockets and space stations. We had adventures in outer space, were cops and robbers, or mechanics carefully repairing cars. We made houses with rooms and furniture, crafting domestic ideals, often to be played with in some form of pretend play, but equally often forgotten the moment we felt they were complete. We made swords and guns and fought valiantly to the death in service of our king and country, or our damsels in distress.

Child development

Junk is cheap. The stuff to fix it together is inexpensive, and we know even more now than what my childcarers knew then. Non-directive toys, materials, props, equipment and so on leave space for the child to exercise their creativity and inventiveness.

Combining disparate materials, for example toilet rolls and a shoe box to make a robot is problem solving. More to the point, it is divergent problem solving, which is a higher-level thinking skill.

We also understand now that play is about process much more than it is about product. The adaptability of junk, and the fact it can be used for different purposes and in different ways, helps support infinite process opportunities. The non-directive nature of junk means what is needed to make a robot one day, may be the exact same thing used to make a space station the next.

 Non-directive play

Settings that provide junk provide variability, flexibility and adaptability. When children can engage with environments and resources like this in their play they can express their creativity, innovation and cognitive ability.

Children can create and solve problems, and as a result generate feelings of motivation and reward. This in turn supports them to develop self-confidence, self-concept and identity. With these materials they practice complex skills from fine and gross locomotor skills to higher executive functioning; skills such as sequencing, hypothesis testing, analysis and evaluation.

The immersion and ownership of their play is increased and therefore children are more likely to try to resolve problems for themselves. This will help develop intra-psychic capability (self-reliance) and support the development of a growth mind set (a belief in one’s self as a learner and thinker).

Flexible behaviour

Junk modelling, loose parts play or heuristic play all work on the principle that non-directive materials support a greater degree of flexible behaviour and as such support innovation and creativity.

Parents want the best for their kids but sometimes they haven’t been privileged enough to know this sort of information. So, let them know and they are sure to be very happy about this sort of play next time their Easter craft comes home with a monster head, a sword and is driving an all-terrain vehicle!

Ben Tawil

Ben Tawil is a Senior Lecturer in Play and Playwork at Leeds Becket University. Ben’s company, providing professional advice and training in children’s play is Ludicology.

Main photo: Keywon Chung
Inset photos: Pacey

This blog first appeared on

Author: Ben Tawil

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