As an early-childhood-educator-turned-play-at-home-mom, I often muse about how the most interesting toys in my classrooms and home are not actually toys at all. The best part of a present arriving in the mail is often the box full of packing peanuts it came in, and boy have you hit the jackpot when there’s bubble wrap in there, too! You’ve likely heard the catchphrase “loose parts” being tossed around parenting and preschool scenes. When I first heard the term, it sounded like I might be stepping on a lot of Legos and broken game pieces or hoarding enough toilet paper tubes and bottle caps to appear on the next reality television show. Today I’m excited to share the first post in a series all about Loose Parts Play that will guide you through implementing a gift to your children’s play that truly will keep on giving as they grow! Throughout the series we’ll explore using loose parts play for the outdoors, math, literacy, sensory play, and even art. But first let’s take a look at the why and how of getting started with loose parts play.
Loose Parts Play: Getting Started!
What Are Loose Parts and Why Are They Beneficial?
Loose parts is the label given to any collection of natural or man-made materials that can be used to expand upon children’s play. Loose parts have no specific function or goal. They can be moved, arranged, designed, taken apart and more! The concept was originally created in 1972 by architect Simon Nicholson who describe the use of open-ended materials in a child’s environment, which he believed was strongly linked to creativity and critical thinking later in life. In practicality, loose parts play has been around as long as there have been children to tinker with just about anything they can get their little hands on! Now the concept is widely applied in children’s educational settings around the world.
Introducing loose parts play to children provides them with infinite opportunities to think and create. Loose parts can be used in so many ways and the possibilities are as endless as a child’s imagination. And although the word “play” may indicate otherwise, a great deal of learning happens when children engage with loose parts! One of the greatest benefits of loose parts play is that you can use the same materials with a range of ages and because they are open-ended, there is no shelf life! The same materials can continue to be used in a variety of ways over an extended period of time.
I am so excited to share this series on implementing loose parts play into your own home or classroom. Getting started will not cost you a lot of money. You likely have some great materials already at home and accessible for little to no cost at all around your community. We will look at ways to use loose parts indoors and outside to target a range of developmental skills including early literacy, math, sensory play and art.
What Can I Use for Loose Parts Play?
Before you begin, it is important to consider the ages of children you will be working with. Some loose parts may be too small or otherwise dangerous for very young ones. It is better to have access to enough of a few different materials than not enough of too many.
There are many types of loose parts. Materials in a variety of colors, textures and sizes can be introduced throughout a learning space or home to inspire play and creativity. In considering what to include, it can be easiest to begin with what you already have on hand.
The recycling bin is a fabulous place to start:
- bottle caps
- cardboard tubes
- empty containers and bottles
- baby food jars
- marker caps
- packaging products like bubble wrap, foam peanuts, wrapping paper scraps, cardboard and Styrofoam inserts
- cardboard boxes and scraps in a variety of sizes
- recycled spools and wheels from thread and ribbon
- plastic cups and lids
- cans (make sure there are no sharp edges)
- egg cartons
- rubber bands
- paper scraps
- soda can tabs
Your kitchen cupboards, craft and toy boxes and household closets are also likely to be good places to search for items:
- fabric remnants
- silk scarves
- glass gems and mosaic tiles
- doilies and handkerchiefs
- yarn, embroidery thread, twine, rope
- curtain rings
- bowls, containers, and baking tins
- spoons, forks, potato mashers, hand mixers, scoops
- old picture frames (glass/backs removed)
- hair elastics and scrunchies
- paper clips
- bangles, costume jewelry
- beads, pompoms, pipe cleaners and craft gems
- napkin rings
- golf tees
- puzzle and game pieces
- clothes pins
Building and household project remnants can also be great loose parts to consider:
- wood scraps
- nuts and bolts
- wire (make sure there are no sharp ends)
- ceramic tiles
- PVC pipes
- wooden pegs
- paint sample cards
The outdoors is a great place to stock up on interesting loose parts, especially when incorporating natural objects:
- rocks in a variety of sizes and textures
- fresh and dried flowers
- pine cones
- seeds, dried beans
- pods, acorns, chestnuts
- sea glass
- sticks, logs, tree cookies
Where Can I Find Loose Parts?
As noted above, you probably have some loose parts already around the house and yard. You can also look outdoors, at recycling centers, thrift stores, garage sales and inquire within hardware shops, florists and other local businesses about materials they may be throwing away.
Let’s Get Started!
By now, you are either really excited, really overwhelmed, or perhaps a little bit of both! Let’s get started with some practical tips you can implement right now:
- Take inventory of what you already have on hand.
- Make a list of a few loose parts you would like to add to your collection.
- Choose one area in which you’d like to incorporate loose parts play today. Perhaps you’ll introduce some cardboard tubes alongside your building blocks and toy cars. Maybe you’ll take a walk outside together to collect some of nature’s loose parts. Perhaps you’ll set out a tray of interesting beads and wire or pipe cleaners in your art or playdough area.
Remember, you can’t go wrong here! Give your children time and repeated opportunities to explore the same materials. Resist the urge to instruct and direct their activities, but do encourage them through open-ended questions or observations. And join me next time when we will look at how to implement loose parts into your outdoor environment—one of my very favorite places to begin!