As an early years educator, I know how passionate you are about creating engaging and stimulating learning environments for your children. And if you’re like many educators, you’re also eager to explore the benefits of Loose Parts Play.
Loose Parts play can foster creativity, problem-solving skills, and imagination in young children. However, getting started may seem daunting if you’re not familiar with the concept. I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone! Many educators have successfully incorporated loose parts into their classrooms and have seen amazing results.
With this in-depth guide on how to get started with Loose Parts play, you’ll learn all about what loose parts are, and why they are so crucial to learning and building a strong foundation for children, particularly in today’s world.
Let’s explore the possibilities of Loose Parts play together and get ready to see your children’s creativity and imagination soar!
In this guide we’ll cover:
- Loose Parts: Where did it all start?
- What Are Loose Parts and Why Are They Important for Play?
- The Benefits of Loose Parts Play for Children’s Development
- Loose Parts Play and Its Role in Play-Based Learning
- How to Choose the Best Loose Parts for Your Classroom
- Where to Find Loose Parts and How to Make Your Own
- Avoid Overwhelm When Introducing Loose Parts
- Loose Parts Safety Considerations
Loose Parts: Where did it all start?
Loose Parts is a concept that was first introduced in the 1970s by architect Simon Nicholson.
When Nicholson was researching how environments shape people’s creativity and imagination, he noticed something intriguing. Interactive art installations captivated museum visitors far more than static ones. From this observation, Nicholson drew a significant conclusion: the more variables or elements an environment contains, the more engaging, inventive, and creative it becomes. To refer to these variables, he coined the term “loose parts”. Essentially, the more loose parts you have to play with, the more you can unleash your creative potential.
Nicholson’s research led him to become involved in early childhood education as he saw loose parts, as a way to inspire future generations of builders, designers, and innovators. He believed that loose parts were crucial for fostering creativity, imagination, and problem-solving skills in children, as they provided an abundance of open-ended materials that could be moved, manipulated, and transformed in countless ways.
Today, loose parts play continues to be an important part of early childhood education, with many educators recognizing the value and benefits of loose parts in supporting children’s learning and development.
You can download his article in the Landscape Architecture magazine entitled “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts” here.
What Are Loose Parts and Why Are They Important for Play?
Loose parts are any collection of open-ended natural or manmade objects that children can move, combine, transform, take apart, redesign, and line up, in ways that support, extend, and further, their ideas while playing.
They can be anything from natural objects like stones and sticks to recycled materials like cardboard boxes and bottle caps, to household items like spoons and scarves. The key defining factor is that there is no predetermined use or function. Loose parts are open to a child’s interpretation and creative thinking. A loose part can become anything!
Recently, a friend of mine asked why there was so much fuss over loose parts. I love it when people ask me this because the answer is so easy to illustrate.
Imagine a child playing with either a train set or a collection of loose parts placed in a provocation.
The train set, while wonderful, has a predetermined use. How many different ways can a child manipulate these materials? There isn’t much creative flexibility here. It has one purpose: to be a train set.
Now consider how many different ways the materials in the second photo can be manipulated. The possibilities are endless. Any of the parts can be anything the child imagines and provide the opportunity for the child to invent, inquire and test new ideas and theories.
The train set offers a noun: Train set.
The open materials offer verbs: Racing. Rolling. Speeding.
What is Loose Parts Play and Why Does it Matter for Children
Since loose parts can be used and combined in multiple ways, children can manipulate and adapt them to their curiosities and abilities. This allows us to tailor the play experiences to meet the needs and interests of each individual child.
If you want to know how loose parts help us educators discover what is really capturing children’s engagement and what is the true play urge/schema that is driving the children’s activity read this other article.
The beauty of loose parts? No matter the age, children can explore the same materials and use them in different ways suitable for their age development.
“The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.”Loris Malaguzzi
Loose parts also promote a wide variety of play behaviors, including social play, dramatic play, constructive play, symbolic play, and even games with rules, when children make up their own games with the materials.
In addition, math and science are learned as children experiment with sand, water, buckets, and stacking materials along with any other open-ended material. You can read this blog post with 23 Ways to use loose parts play for academic learning.
Perhaps most importantly – loose parts allow children to do the thinking instead of being passive users of manufactured toys that have set directions. This is beneficial because it reaches such a deep cognitive level of thinking, problem-solving, and persisting.
In short, loose parts invite enormous possibilities for children to truly become the critical thinkers they’re destined to be.
The Benefits of Loose Parts Play for Children’s Development
Loose parts play has been gaining popularity among early childhood educators and parents for its numerous benefits to children’s development. Here are some of the ways that loose parts play can positively impact children:
1. Encourages creativity and imagination
Loose parts play offers children an open-ended play experience that stimulates their imagination and creativity.
By manipulating the materials, children are allowed to develop their OWN ideas and, through self-expression, gain confidence and enjoy the learning process because they chose it.
Children can use loose parts in whatever way they choose, creating their own unique play experiences and allowing for endless possibilities.
Think about how electronics have taken away a child’s ability to use their imagination. The device does everything for them, and there is a “right” way to use it.
This makes open-ended play even more important. With loose parts, there are no set outcomes, there is no “right” or “wrong.” It gives children the opportunity to use their imagination.
2. Develops problem-solving and critical-thinking skills
Loose parts play requires children to problem-solve and use critical thinking skills to figure out how to manipulate the materials to create their desired outcome.
And you know children are using these skills when you observe them:
- Comparing and contrasting
- Explaining why things happen
- Understanding the perspectives of others
- Predicting what will happen
- Evaluating ideas
- Thinking of creative solutions
Critical thinking is the process of using focus and self-control to solve problems and to set and follow through on goals. And children need to learn through trial and error, in order to discover for themselves new ways to use materials and solve problems as they arise. Children will start to look critically at what they know about the material, what the end product should look like, which building technique worked, and which did not.
So, not only this type of play encourages children to think creatively, but it fosters curiosity, risk-taking, independence, concentration, experimentation, decision-making skills, confidence, and perseverance.
3. Supports social and emotional development
Loose parts play allows children to work collaboratively, negotiate, take turns, communicate with their peers, and work out different ideas and theories while they play.
Children are excited to exchange ideas, test theories, and discuss the magic unfolding with their peers.
They take an interest in each other’s work, practice listening skills, and explain their own processes and methods.
They can also express their emotions and feelings through their play, developing empathy and understanding for others, and building on their emotional intelligence.
4. Enhances fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination
Manipulating small loose parts, such as beads or buttons, requires children to use their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and grip strength, which are essential for everyday tasks such as writing, drawing, self-feed, and dressing.
Fine motor skills involve the small muscles in the fingers, hands, and wrists, while hand-eye coordination requires the ability to synchronize the movement of the hands with visual information from the eyes.
5. Fosters language and literacy development
Loose parts play provides endless opportunities for children to develop their language, vocabulary, and storytelling skills in a hands-on and engaging way.
Instead of filling out worksheets, children can use loose parts to create their own stories, characters, and settings. They can describe their creations using descriptive language, building their vocabulary and language skills as they play.
Loose parts are an amazing tool to promote literacy in a more playful and enjoyable way.
6. Encourages exploration and discovery
Loose parts play provides children with the opportunity to explore and discover the properties and characteristics of the materials they are using, promoting scientific thinking skills and experimentation. Children can observe cause-and-effect relationships as they manipulate materials, learning about concepts such as texture, smell, sound, gravity, balance, and motion.
This type of play also encourages children to ask questions and seek answers, which is an important aspect of scientific inquiry, while they build on their ideas and those of their friends and begin to ponder What if…
- What if I added a block?
- What if I used this as a car?
- What would happen if I…?
It’s important that we have the ability to explain to parents, colleagues and administrators the powerhouse capacity of loose parts.
Download this poster with a visual summary of the Benefits of Loose Parts. Have it on hand, or print it and attach it to a wall inside or outside your classroom.
Loose Parts Play and Its Role in Play-Based Learning
Loose parts are the raw materials that facilitate open-ended learning systems. This is essential to understand.
Open-ended play refers to a play that allows for multiple possibilities and outcomes and loose parts offer just that – endless possibilities for learning through play – versus a closed learning system, where the learning is very black and white with a specific end goal or predetermined outcome to the play.
In a play-based classroom that incorporates loose parts, the focus is on child-led exploration and creativity. With a variety of open-ended materials available, children are free to create, explore and discover at their own pace, making their own choices and decisions. The teacher’s role is to facilitate, observe, and support the children’s learning, rather than dictate it.
Open-ended materials by definition do not have a predetermined use. A simple block can become a car, a cell phone, a doll’s bed, a cookie, or any number of other things.
Let’s quickly identify the markers of open-ended versus closed learning systems.
We need both learning systems to be whole learners. Unfortunately, the current educational landscape offers almost exclusively closed systems that are based on the outdated Assembly Line Model of education.
It’s our imperative as play-based educators to offer more open-ended learning and bring that wholeness to children.
How to Choose the Best Loose Parts for Your Classroom
When it comes to selecting loose parts for open-ended play, it’s important to provide a diverse range of materials that can be used in a variety of ways.
Here are some tips to help you select loose parts that are safe, engaging, and appropriate for your child or classroom:
1. Consider the age of the children
Younger children may need larger, simpler loose parts, while older children may be able to handle smaller, more intricate items.
2. Think about the purpose of the play
Do you want to encourage construction and building, or would you prefer to focus on sensory exploration? Choose loose parts that align with your goals.
3. Look for variety
Offer loose parts in a range of sizes, shapes, colors, and textures to keep things interesting and stimulate creativity.
4. Consider the sensory experiences that different materials can provide
For example, some materials might be rough or smooth, heavy or light, or have a distinctive scent or sound. By offering a range of materials that stimulate different senses, children are more likely to engage in exploratory play and discover new possibilities for creative expression.
5. Consider the materials
Loose parts can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, metal, plastic, fabric, and natural materials like stones, shells, and pine cones. Make sure the materials you choose are safe and age-appropriate.
6. Consider durability
Choose items that can withstand rough play and won’t break easily.
7. Consider the storage
Make sure you have a system in place for storing loose parts when they’re not in use. Consider using clear containers or labeling items to make it easier for children to find what they need.
8. Get creative
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to loose parts. You can repurpose household items like cardboard tubes and plastic lids, or create your own loose parts from materials like felt and yarn.
By keeping these tips in mind, you can choose loose parts that will inspire creativity, encourage learning, and provide hours of fun for children of all ages.
Where to Find Loose Parts and How to Make Your Own
We’ve covered a lot of ground about loose parts here. After understanding what loose parts are, why they are so crucial to learning, and the enormous benefits loose parts play offer children of all ages – many people ask, “Where do I begin?”
Loose parts play is all about using everyday objects and materials, so you begin by looking around at your current collection of materials and sorting them by textures, size, color, or type. All these types of materials provide rich opportunities for children as all of them can be infused within every area of the classroom. So, it’s not about spending money on more things but having eyes for recyclable materials.
“Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.”Richard Louv
Below are my tips to help you gather, collect, and organize your Loose Parts collection. You will choose your materials based on what works best in your learning environment, based on play phases, and any other criteria that are important to you (such as space or budget considerations).
1. Nature-Based Loose Parts
Nature provides an abundance of loose parts, such as rocks, sticks, leaves, tree cookies, glass stones, wine corks, and animal vestiges like shells, snakeskin, or shark teeth.
I love sending children home with bags to collect nature’s loose parts in their own yards and neighborhoods. Every geographical area is going to have its own special treasures of nature’s loose parts! For more inspiration on Nature Loose Parts read this blog post.
2. Metal Loose Parts
There are so many different kinds of metal loose parts. Thrift stores and your household may have something to add to your collection like bowls, utensils, keys, and muffin tins. Thrift stores can be a treasure trove of loose parts. I love my local ReStore by Habitat for Humanity. Metals also are great to investigate reflection and sound, consider this when looking for them. For more inspiration on Metal Loose Parts read this blog post.
3. Plastic Loose Parts
Many households already have a variety of these types of loose parts: buttons, colored bowls, cups, lids, and ice cube trays. You can even skip the recycling bin and bring many of these items straight to the classroom! Scrap stores are also a great resource. These stores collect industrial and manufacturing waste that can be used for play. Look for plastics with different affordances like transparency, opacity, and translucency. Many colored translucent shampoo bottles will be amazing additions for light exploration. For more inspiration on Plastic Loose Parts read this blog post.
4. Glass & Ceramic Loose Parts
There are not as many choices out there in this category, but those that are – are amazing. Ceramic tiles are one of my favorites, along with glass pebbles and beach glass! Ask for discontinued samples of tiles and mosaics at your local hardware store. For more inspiration on Glass & Ceramic Loose Parts read this blog post.
5. Fabric, Fiber & Paper Loose Parts
A particular favorite of mine is dabbing old photo slides, magazines, photos, old fabric catalogs, and books for creative projects. You’ll also want to save up toilet paper or paper towel rolls as they will have a million uses. Go to the grocery store and ask if they can keep the cardboard tube (sometimes plastic) that holds the cash register paper roll. Board games like Scrabble and puzzles with missing pieces are always circulating through my classroom, one day they are soup, and on the other, they are part of a construction. For more inspiration on Fabric Loose Parts read this blog post.
6. Wood Reuse Loose Parts
A staple on any classroom – wood reuse loose parts like wood scraps (that you can sand down). Children value these types of loose parts because they are versatile and can be used in a variety of ways. Wood scraps can be different shapes, sizes, and textures, which makes them interesting to explore and manipulate. They can be stacked, balanced, and arranged to create structures, patterns, and designs. Children can use wood scraps to build structures, make ramps and bridges, create art, and engage in imaginary play. Just be sure to check wood reuse loose parts for splinters and other hazards. For more inspiration on Wood Reuse Loose Parts read this blog post.
7. Packaging Loose Parts
Finally, this one is in a class all of its own. Packaging materials! Collect boxes, envelopes, egg cartons, bubble wrap, packaging filler paper or cardboard, tissue paper, ribbons and bows, and mesh bags. What a wonderful way to reuse materials that are in such wide circulation in our “order it online” world. For more inspiration on Packaging Loose Parts read this blog post.
Making your own loose parts
If you can’t find the exact loose parts you’re looking for, consider making your own. Here are some ideas for making your own loose parts:
Fabric scraps: Cut up old clothes or fabric scraps into various shapes and sizes.
Tubes: Electricity companies, interior design, and hardware stores usually have long cardboard tubes that you can cut into varied sizes.
Plastic bottles: you can cut plastic bottles into rounded shapes, avoiding sharp edges, if you need inexpensive color pieces to create patterns, to use with your light table, as a construction detail, or for pretend play. Children for sure will give them a use!
Cardboard: Cut up cardboard boxes into various shapes and sizes. You can also turn cereal boxes inside out and use hot glue to put them back together. They make wonderful bricks!
Natural materials: Collect and dry out natural materials such as flowers, and leaves. You can laminate them so they last longer. Gather some twigs and cut them into different lengths.
Remember to always consider safety when selecting or making loose parts. Avoid using objects with sharp edges or small parts that could be a choking hazard. It’s also important to regularly inspect loose parts for wear and tear and to replace them when necessary.
Avoid overwhelm when starting with loose parts
This is often an underestimated tip, but when you are starting your loose parts collection you have to implement a strategy to avoid overwhelm and be confident with what you are bringing to your children.
- Start small: Begin with a few basic loose parts that can be used in a variety of ways. For example, start with a collection of natural materials such as stones, shells, and pinecones.
- Plan ahead: Consider what you have been observing about children’s wonderings and actions and decide what loose parts you can choose to support children’s play. This will help you avoid getting too many items that won’t be useful for now.
- Store and organize: Store the loose parts in a way that is easy to access and organize. As soon as you have more than one item per type of loose part it’s time to decide where and how to store it. This will help you avoid clutter and ensure that the loose parts are used regularly. Remember, as the collection evolves you probably will be getting more and more items so your storage system will be evolving too. Don’t aim for perfection, aim for convenience (and safety).
Loose Parts Safety Considerations
While loose parts play can offer numerous benefits, it’s important to ensure that children are safe at all times. Here are some safety considerations to keep in mind:
- Age-appropriate: Ensure that the loose parts have a size and shape suitable for the age and developmental stage of the children. Small objects are not safe for children under three as they can be a choking hazard or cause injury to the eyes or skin
- Condition: All loose parts must be intact and have no sharp edges that could cut. And they all should be clean after collection
- Cleaning: As with any other toy, you can have regular cleaning and sanitization of your loose parts. The ones that are hard to clean without breaking apart, as some natural elements, you can either spray with your cleaning product and let it dry, or replace them from time to time
Incorporating loose parts play into your classroom can be a game-changer for both you and your students. It allows for a child-led, creative, and exploratory learning experience that supports all areas of development. Remember to start small, source materials from a variety of places, and always prioritize safety. Most importantly, have fun with it and allow yourself to learn and grow alongside your children. With patience, perseverance, and a commitment to the benefits of loose parts play you can create a truly magical learning environment that will inspire and engage your children for years to come.
Have you started your loose parts collection yet?
What is holding you back?
Athey, Chris (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent-Teacher Partnership. PCP: London.
Beaty, Janice (2014) Preschool Appropriate Practices: Environment, Curriculum, and Development, Fifth Edition, Cengage.
Beloglovsky, Miriam (2022) Loose Parts for Children with Diverse Abilities, Redleaf Press.
Rubin, Dr. Kenneth, Fein, Greta and Vandenberg, Brian (2018) Play in Human Development. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Lifespan Human Development (pp.1671-1672)Chapter: PlayPublisher: Sage