Loose Parts Play; What Is It and What Are The Benefits?

Loose parts play is a wonderful way for children to explore and discover the world around them, so what is it exactly, and what are the benefits?

Introduction

A concept that has gained a lot of popularity in Early Childhood Education is loose parts play. Unlike traditional or plastic toys, loose parts are a mixture or selection of open-ended materials that allow children to make meaning in their own way and promote self-directed learning. Let’s get straight into what loose parts are and the benefits of loose parts play.

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What are Loose Parts?

Loose parts are ordinary, everyday objects that can be manipulated in different ways. They are open-ended in nature meaning they provide endless opportunities for children because there is no ‘one way’ to use them. There are many examples of loose parts in our everyday life that can easily be incorporated into children’s play and exploration. This includes leaves, nuts/bolts, containers, rocks, shells, paddle pop sticks, pegs and much more!

What is loose parts play?

Gowrie NSW sums up how to understand loose parts play. Loose Parts play presents children with a collection of ordinary, everyday and open-ended materials which they can rearrange, redesign, move, carry and tinker with at their own pace. These materials can be manipulated in countless ways allowing children to experiment and discover through a hands-on and practical method.

loose parts
Loose parts can be manipulated in countless ways allowing children to experiment and discover through a hands-on and practical way.
Photo Credit: blog.fabricuk.com

Where did the idea of Loose Parts Play originate?

In 1972, a British architect known as Simon Nicholson developed “The Theory of Loose Parts”. The focus of the theory was to create awareness that the richness of an environment is directly linked to the opportunity it allows for children to interact and make connections. Loose Parts can be moved and manipulated in many ways allowing children to invent, build, and explore their ideas to create new possibilities.

What are the benefits of Loose Parts Play in Early Childhood?

There are countless benefits of loose parts play for young children but here are some great reasons outlined by Care For Kids as to why we should incorporate this approach in children’s learning:

  • Fosters Imagination and Creativity: Manipulating loose parts encourages children to use their imagination as well as fosters creativity. Children engage in imaginative play as they can repurpose materials, use them in countless ways and also engage in storytelling.
  • Builds Problem Solving and Critical Thinking Skills: Children will encounter difficulties and obstacles as they try to fit pieces together. They learn to find solutions, experiment through trial and error as well as adapt to different situations which are important life skills for the future
  • Promotes Social and Emotional Development: Engaging in loose parts is a great way for children to interact with each other. They can collaborate to build, create and play with materials together.
  • Enriches Language Development and Communication Skills: Children have the opportunity to share their ideas and thoughts. Additionally, they negotiate, share and cooperate with each other as they engage with the different parts of a shared learning environment, and explore new vocabulary while manipulating parts.
  • Strengthens Fine Motor Skills: Loose parts give children an opportunity to build muscle dexterity and use the small muscles in their hand to pick up, glue, arrange, manipulate and sort small and large items within their play.
  • Learn about Environmental Awareness: By incorporating natural materials such as leaves, pebbles, sticks etc into children’s play, they develop a greater appreciation for the environment. Furthermore, recyclable materials help teach children about sustainable practices, so they understand the responsibility of caring for our planet from an early age.

How can you encourage/ facilitate Loose Parts Play?

The most important part of facilitating loose part play is setting up the materials appealingly and invitingly so children are drawn to discover the possibilities! You can use baskets, trays, cups, recycled materials such as empty cardboard boxes or some nice bowls.

Remember, loose parts don’t need to be fancy and elaborate, they are just everyday materials that children can repurpose.

 Adults can model play initially so children get ideas on how to combine the materials and build structures but it is also important to allow the children to engage in uninterrupted play so they can explore and experiment for themselves. You can also ask open-ended questions to understand what they are doing or making.

Is Loose Parts Play considered sensory play?

Yes, loose parts is often considered a form of sensory play because it involves activities that engage one or more of the five senses. For example, loose parts have different textures for children to feel, many also involve sounds like rustling leaves or stacking wooden blocks. Visual stimulation is also an important one because loose parts come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes.

Loose Parts Resources

There are a wide range of different materials that can be used for loose parts play!

The Pennsylvania State University provides some great examples of loose parts in different environments which are summarised below.

* It’s important to note that when incorporating loose parts in play, be sure not to harm living things.

Examples in natural play areas:

Sand, grass, flowers, petals, pinecones, sticks, feathers, rocks, pebbles, stones, shells, seed pods etc.

Examples in a playground:

Balls, hula hoops, stones, containers, digging tools, chalk, skipping ropes, sand, mud, nature items etc.

Examples in an indoor environment:

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Wooden blocks, cups, spoons, pop sticks, buttons, counters, lids, cardboard pieces, pom poms, ribbons, popsicle sticks, straws, cut up pieces of wool, cardboard tubes etc. (try to avoid using toilet paper tubes for hygiene reasons)

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loose parts
Remember, loose parts don’t need to be fancy and elaborate, they are just everyday materials that children can repurpose. Photo Credit: workspaceforchildren.com

Are there any early childhood theorists that support Loose Parts Play?

Without a doubt, loose parts play theory aligns with many other theories in Early Childhood Education.

  • Reggio Emilia- The Reggio approach is underpinned by the belief of child-directed learning and that the environment is the child’s teacher. Loose parts are ingrained in this philosophy to promote exploration, creativity, imagination and collaboration
  • Steiner Waldorf- Outdoor play is integral to this philosophy. There is a strong belief that children should have access to real experiences (loose parts instead of plastic toys) so children can develop life skills.
  • Vygotsky- This theory focuses on the importance of social interaction in learning. Hence, loose parts can be a great medium for children to collaborate and communicate with each other to enhance their social and cognitive learning. 
  • Montessori- This approach is a bit more structured but the learning environment for children should be prepared to stimulate curiosity, creativity and self-directed learning.

 EYLF Links to Loose Parts Play:

Loose parts are highly beneficial resources that can easily be integrated with the Early Childhood Curriculum. It also links directly with the Early Years Learning Framework. Here is a quick overview of how loose parts play meets each learning outcome as presented by the Aussie Childcare Network. 

●     Outcome 1: Children have a strong sense of identity

Because loose parts are open-ended in nature, they allow little ones to explore their individuality and uniqueness. Children make their own choices of how they use the materials and can express their own individual ideas.

●     Outcome 2: Children are connected with and contribute to their world.

Loose parts incorporate both natural and man-made items. By exploring and manipulating these materials children develop an awareness and appreciation for the environment as well as gain insights into the world around them.

●     Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of well-being.

Loose-part play develops children’s small muscle and fine motor skills. : Loose parts play provides a space for children to explore their emotions and express themselves

creatively.

●     Outcome 4: Children are confident learners.

Playing with loose parts involves a lot of decision-making allowing children choices. There is also a lot of problem-solving and risk-taking involved which helps develop confidence.

●     Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators.

Playing with loose parts provides a rich learning environment for children to develop effective communication skills. For example, children negotiate ideas, share resources, explore appropriate vocabulary and might even work together to build something.

Now that looks inviting! Even I want to play in there! Photo Credit: cosydirect.com

 Where can you source loose parts for Loose Parts Play?

Loose parts are all around us! They are inexpensive and easy to source. Natural materials in parks can work great e.g. leaves, sticks, rocks, pebbles. You can also collect recyclables such as cardboard tubes, bottle caps and cardboard boxes.

Other great places to source materials include: online retail shops, hardware stores, art and craft stores as well as small local businesses who may have something to offer.

Displaying/ organising loose parts for Loose Parts Play

Organizing and displaying loose parts in a thoughtful and inviting manner is more likely to spark children’s curiosity so they can explore their creativity! Here are a few tips to keep in mind when setting up a loose parts space:

1)    Accessibility

The loose parts must be accessible for children so they can make meaning. Wooden baskets work great!

2)    Categorizing

To make it easier for children, it’s important to sort the materials and group them by type. For example, natural materials such as sticks, leaves and shells together whilst coloured buttons in another tray.

3)    Rotating Materials

Young children will often feel bored if they are offered the same materials over and over again! Make sure to add variation to create new possibilities for them.

4)    Adapting

Observe what works and what doesn’t work when children interact with the loose parts. Make changes and adjustments based on the children’s interest and engagement.

loose parts play
Loose parts can be a wide range of different materials, as seen above.
Photo Credit: fairydustteaching.com

Safety considerations for Loose Parts Play

Children’s safety should be of utmost importance as they engage in loose parts play.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose age-appropriate materials e.g. small items such as beads and stones can be a serious choking hazard for young children under 3.
  • When playing with loose parts children must be supervised at ALL times
  • Be aware that children may be allergic to certain plants or fabrics
  • Be mindful of items with sharp edges e.g. spiky pine cones or plants
  • Try to avoid small loose parts becoming scattered on the floor as they pose a serious tripping or slipping hazard.

Conclusion

Overall, it is evident that loose parts play provides countless benefits to children’s learning. By providing these diverse materials to children we empower children to become more confident and independent. Loose parts also promote cognitive development, higher-order thinking, emotional development, social communication skills, problem solving, creative thinking and sensory development as discussed above.

The versatility of loose parts play makes it inclusive for all children with various learning abilities, as long as it is offered in a safe and nurturing environment.

Do you have loose parts play ideas? Most of the early childhood educators I know get very excited about loose parts play and are constantly thinking of new and different resources they can include for the children and varied, engaging ways of setting it all up too!

What loose parts play materials have you used? Let us know in the comments below!

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