Introducing loose parts play can seem overwhelming at first. There are so many materials that can be used for loose parts play, but which ones should you choose? For some children (and adults), beginning to explore with the open endedness of loose parts can feel unnatural. Then there is the issue of setup and storage to consider. All of these concerns came to mind when I began to tinker with the idea of using loose parts with my own children at home. I decided to begin in a location that naturally inspires creativity while simultaneously providing a plethora of free materials: the great outdoors! In this second post of our loose parts play series, we’ll explore how you can enhance outdoor play with loose parts.
Loose Parts: Go Outside and Play!
Inside classrooms and homes, there are often many toys to choose from. Most have a specific function. Outside, there may be more space but fewer toys. Children are naturally resourceful in their play outdoors. One stick can draw in the dirt or become a magic wand or stir a mug of freshly brewed mud coffee. Many sticks can be used for building a road or a log cabin. Children naturally gravitate toward nature’s loose parts to build, gather, connect, take apart, design, create and play. Loose parts play outdoors can infuse a child’s experience of nature. You can read more about some of the many benefits in this article.
If you are new to loose parts play, starting outside is one of the most simple and cost effective ways to go. Your children can help you search for and collect materials! I especially love to use wicker baskets for gathering and storing loose parts. Thrift stores are an affordable resource for these. I keep a small basket in my car just for the interesting rock, stick, leaf or collection of seed pods and acorns my three year old finds at the park.
There is no “perfect” outdoor space and even small spaces are just right for small children at play. Setting up your outdoor area to include loose parts can be broken down into three simple steps:
- Gathering the Goods: Nature’s loose parts are all around us. If not in your own yard, chances are you’ll find them at a park or playground nearby. Water, dirt, sand, gravel and mud are also substances that can greatly enhance loose parts play outdoors.If access to water outside is a challenge, a plastic jug with a spigot is the perfect solution. Gathering loose parts from nature will become part of the experience itself. If you wish to add manufactured natural items, craft stores often carry a selection of tree circles, drift wood and tree blocks for purchase. You can even make these items yourself or enlist the work of someone in your family or community.
- Add-ons from Indoors: Recyclables and common household items can become great loose parts. A variety of containers are useful for filling, pouring, storing and transporting. It is also helpful to note materials that can withstand the elements to be left outside or how you might store ones that are more sensitive to the climate. Consider items that will infuse your space with texture, color and even sound!
- Play! You’ve gathered the troops. You’ve gathered the goods. Now you’re ready to play!
My baby loves stacking hand kites made from ribbon and shower curtain rings on an old paper towel holder. He stops briefly to rattle a tin salt shaker his older brother filled with gravel. He is exploring texture, color, sound and motor skills.
As your children begin to use loose parts outside, you’ll gain ideas of what might be added. Sometimes it can take time and tweaking to best set up your space. Don’t be afraid to get down and dirty with them–a curious adult encourages curious children!
Need a bit more inspiration?
Building and Constructing: Consider setting up a woodworking station. Scrap wood, small hammers and larger nails are great loose parts for inspiring budding builders. Adding in colorful yarn, rubber bands or zip ties offers opportunities to design and connect materials.
Texture and Color: Scraps of fabric, yarn and ribbon can inspire a variety of ways to explore with nature’s loose parts. A dab of tacky glue can secure the ends of a yarn wrapped nature wand. Strands of ribbon and strips of fabric can be woven into a unique fallen branch or even a living tree or bush. Your scissor lover can cut yarn and ribbon to set out for birds who might be looking to build a nest nearby.
Light and Shadow: The outdoors is a great space to observe natural light and shadows. Old CDs make unique suncatchers, reflecting color and light in fascinating ways! They can be colored with permanent markers and hung or used to stack on a recycled CD storage case.
A Mud Kitchen: What child doesn’t love to make mud pies and fairy salads? A collection of bowls, spoons, cups and tins are all the loose parts you will need. You’ve got dirt, just add water and rest assured that children are washable!
Sound: Every child is a musician at heart! A collection of interesting metal bowls, baking pans and spoons might at one time be used in the mud kitchen for making the perfect cake and at another time used as an outdoor percussion band!
Working with the Weather: Loose parts play outdoors need not be reserved for the warmer months! One morning my preschooler observed ice that had formed in a pie tin the night before. After school, we bundled up and used some of nature’s loose parts along with a sliced lime and some yarn to create our own hanging ice sculpture.
Once you start the process of infusing outdoor play with loose parts, you’ll likely be inspired to take it inside with you. Perhaps you’ll try this fabulous Bird Nest Play Dough Invitation! And if you’ve made it this far, you likely also can see that while they are busy at play, children using loose parts are learning a lot, too. Join me next time when we will explore the use of loose parts for teaching math! Be sure you’re on our email list, so you don’t miss the next post in the Loose Parts Play series.
For more outdoor inspiration read this article about setting up your own outdoor classroom.