In this in-depth guide to getting started with loose parts, you’ll learn what loose parts are, and why they are so crucial to learning (particularly in today’s world) and building a strong foundation for children throughout their lives. We’ll cover:
- How loose parts play unlocks the cognitive and creative mindsets that children need as a foundation for learning throughout their lives
- The Wunderled Learning Cycle – a powerful model to help you understand the benefits of loose parts play and communicate them confidently to teachers, colleagues, and administrators
- The 5 Stages of Play Actions that children move through, to help you better understand which loose parts are most beneficial for your particular learning environment
- The 7 types of loose parts – along with detailed guides to help you collect the loose parts that will best suit your needs
“The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.”Loris Malaguzzi
You may already know about the immense benefits of offering loose parts exploration. Loose parts offer children infinite play opportunities, influencing them in ever-changing ways. These opportunities are critical to the development of the next generation.
The beauty of loose parts? No matter the age, children can explore with the same materials and use them in different ways suitable for their age development.
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.
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.
What are loose parts?
The term “loose parts” was coined by architect Simon Nicholson, who looked at environments and how they formed connections with the people in them. He noticed that, for example, an interactive art installation was much more engaging for museum visitors than a static piece of art.
He believed that loose parts were an important component of creativity and higher order thinking, and that the number of variables in any environment were directly proportional to the degree of inventiveness and creativity offered by that environment.
Those “variables” are loose parts. They include any collection of natural or manmade objects that can be used to extend and further ideas in children’s play. They are open-ended materials that children can move, combine, take apart, redesign, line up, and more.
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!
Why loose parts?
Loose parts can be thought of as the way for children of all ages to unlock the cognitive and creative mindset that allows them to build, deconstruct, persist, create, and work together to unleash the power of creativity that lies within us all.
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.
Loose parts paired with a dynamic provocation, then, provides 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.
So, one of the first benefits of loose parts and provocations is to witness what is really capturing children’s engagement. To listen deeply and discover the true play urge/schema that is driving the children’s activity.
What are loose parts for learning?
Loose parts are the raw materials that facilitate open-ended learning systems. This is essential to understand.
Loose parts are a part of an open-ended learning system, which offers endless possibilities for learning through play – versus a closed learning system, where the learning is very black and white with a specific end goal to the play.
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.
The Wunderled Learning Cycle
It’s important that we have the ability to explain to parents, colleagues and administrators the powerhouse capacity of loose parts.
To help explain and visually demonstrate the benefits of open-ended learning, I developed the Wunderled Learning Cycle.
You can use the Wunderled Learning Cycle as a model both to guide your own teaching practice, and to powerfully demonstrate the benefits of open-ended learning – and, for our purposes here, of learning with loose parts.
So, let’s touch briefly on the five operative principles of open-ended learning. As we’ve discussed, loose parts form the raw materials for open-ended learning, and that is because they work beautifully within these operative principles.
Operative Principles of Open-Ended Play
- No rules to follow.
- No expectations to fulfill.
- No specific problems to solve.
- No finished product to produce.
- There is no right or wrong way to play or engage.
The Wunderled Learning Cycle follows open-ended learning from the child’s interest through each of the stages that develop from that interest – from Interest, to Exploration, to Experimentation, to Creativity. And the cycle continues.
Now, let’s talk about the benefits that come from using the Wunderled Learning Cycle as a model for learning with loose parts.
Benefit 1: Develops inquiry skills
In learning with loose parts, the child does the thinking – NOT the toy!
Loose parts engage a child’s innate sense of wonder. That wonder leads to testing, trying out ideas, and inspecting resources.
A child’s natural curiosity lays the foundation for critical thinking skills, such as:
- Comparing and contrasting
- Explaining why things happen
- Understanding the perspectives of others
- Predicting what will happen
- Evaluating ideas
- Thinking of creative solutions
We use critical thinking skills like these every day. They drive our decision-making and problem-solving, helping us understand and process different variables and consequences, so we can make choices that are beneficial for ourselves and others.
Critical thinking is the process of using focus and self-control to solve problems, and to set and follow through on goals. It utilizes other important life skills like making connections, taking different perspectives, and communicating effectively.
No doubt there is always trial and error involved in our decision-making, but through the process of thinking critically, learning takes place.
Children develop the skill of looking critically at what they know about the material, what the end product should look like, which building technique worked, and which did not. These skills will take them far in many aspects of life.
Benefit 2: Teaches children to ask questions
Children ask questions, and then expand deeper on those ideas.
They listen to each other’s ideas.
They research on purpose, gather data, and test their theories.
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…?
Benefit 3: Develops a wide range of developmental areas
Loose parts play promote a full range of developmental areas of learning:
Loose parts play also leads to development and mastery of problem-solving and risk-taking in all of these areas of learning.
Benefit 4: Develops imagination and creativity
Loose parts play fosters imagination, design, creativity, and art. Children are allowed to develop their OWN ideas and, through self-expression, gain confidence and enjoy the learning process because they chose it.
When you put limitations on play, children don’t have a chance to be creative – to develop their own ideas.
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.
Benefit 5: Develops social play and interaction.
With loose parts play, children are excited to exchange ideas, test theories, and discuss the magic unfolding with their peers.
They take interest in each other’s work, practice listening skills, and explain their own processes and methods.
Children learn how to negotiate other’s ideas, and how to collaborate and work out differing ideas and theories while they play.
The Five Phases of Play Actions
The following phases are inspired by the work of Janice Beaty, Dr. Kenneth Rubin, and Chris Athey. There are five phases of play actions that children move and spiral back around through, from infancy to early childhood.
For each phase, we want to look at the actual use of the objects – i.e., the loose parts..
It is through handling and exploring objects that children begin to make their own choices and decisions and start to gain an understanding of the world around them. It is coming to know something by its sensory attributes.
Play actions examples:
Inner Drive: “What is it?”
After handling and exploring objects children begin to test the use of those objects. This is where motor-based manipulation arises. It is coming to know something by its physical use attributes.
Play Actions examples:
- Banging two objects (noise)
- Stacking (knocking down)
- Pouring from one container to another
Inner Drive: “What will it do?”
After testing the use of objects, there is a stage of practicing play, or what is commonly called imitation. It is experimenting with real objects in the ways they see them used.
Here the child is testing – can I do it myself? A very exciting and challenging stage!
Play Actions examples:
- Brushing own hair with brush or comb
- Feeding self with cup, spoon
- Washing self with rag or cloth
- Sleeping on pillow
Inner Drive: “Can I do it?”
The next stage is the beginning of symbolic play, and begins with what is called Constructional Play. This is where one object becomes something else. It is representing ideas with objects.
Here the child is experimenting with transforming objects. This is now that!
Play Actions examples:
- Block becomes car
- Spoon becomes key
- Large wood cookies become beds for dolls
- Box becomes vet’s hospital bed
- Stick becomes airplane
Inner Drive: “This is that!”
Finally, children reach the second phase of symbolic play – called Dramatic Play. The child transforms an object and, with that, themselves!
Here the child is transforming not only objects – but the self as well. ”I” am now that!
Play Actions examples:
- Cape – I become superhero
- Bowl and spoon – I become mommy
- Ball becomes food – I am a tiger
- Stick becomes sword – I am a bad guy
- Tubes become raceways – I am a race car driver
Inner Drive: “I am that!”
Below is a chart detailing The 5 Phases of Play Actions. Again, we are looking at the actual use of objects at each stage of development in order to understand which loose parts will be most ideal at which stage.
It is important to always keep in mind children can be anywhere in the progression, at any age. Loose parts play is beneficial at all age levels!
“We should have busy children, not busy toys!”Magna Gerber, RIE Approach
The 7 Types of Loose Parts
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 of loose parts play for children at all ages – many people ask, “Where do I begin?”
You begin by looking around at your current collection of materials and sorting them by textures. All these types of textures provide rich opportunities for children as all of them can be infused within every area of the classroom.
These types of loose parts are all recyclable and easy-to-obtain materials, which make them even more beneficial for teachers, parents, and children alike (and for our planet!).
Below are listings of the 7 types of loose parts, to help you gather, collect, and organize what works best in your learning environment, based on play stages and any other criteria that are important to you (such as space or budget considerations).
Nature Based Loose Parts
I love sending children home with bags to collect nature’s loose parts in their own yards. Every geographical area is going to have its own special treasures of nature’s loose parts!
Metal Loose Parts
There are so many different kinds of reuse metal loose parts. I love my local ReStore by Habitat for Humanity.
Plastic Loose Parts
Many households already have a variety of these types of loose parts. You can even skip the recycling bin and bring many of these items straight to the classroom!
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!
Fabric, Fiber & Paper Loose Parts
A particular favorite of mine is dabbing old photo slides, photos, and books for creative projects.
Wood Reuse Loose Parts
A staple – wood reuse loose parts! You’ll want to check wood reuse loose parts for splinters and other hazards.
Packaging Loose Parts
Finally, this one is in a class all of its own. Packaging materials! What a wonderful way to reuse materials that are in such wide circulation in our “order it online” world.
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