When browsing the toy section of any large big box store, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer volume of toys and games available for purchase. These rows upon rows of products with every accessory imaginable seem to be a child’s greatest delight, but have you ever considered how beneficial these things are for children in terms of their learning and development? In our house, we regularly use the term “plastic crap.” If it’s made out of plastic and has only one use, then it’s not something we want to bring into our home.
By their very nature, children are drawn to explore, discover, and investigate. They like to seek out answers and test their ideas until they find a solution that works. Children are intrinsically imaginative and wonderfully creative. We also know that there are certain kinds of play materials that encourage and support children to be masters of their own learning. This is why we love loose parts and not plastic crap.
What is loose parts play?
Loose parts are basically resources and equipment that have no set purpose. They are sometimes referred to as “open-ended resources” and can be used in a multitude of ways.
Where did loose parts come from?
While children have found ways to play creatively with random objects throughout history, an architect called Simon Nicholson developed the theory of loose parts in the 1970s. He believed that loose parts could facilitate and empower creativity and exploration and saw them as being far more valuable than fixed materials with a limited purpose.
In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.— Simon Nicholson, The Theory of Loose Parts, 1972
Even though children might have naturally played with loose parts forever, Nicholson’s research has led to many schools and preschools developing an appreciation for the value of loose parts play. Early childhood educators across the globe have embraced this concept, which has resulted in loose parts play becoming an integral aspect of most high-quality early learning programs today.
Loose parts materials list
Some examples of loose parts materials include:
- Clay and play dough
- Cardboard boxes
- Fabrics and ribbons
- Building bricks and pipes
- Sticks, stones, and gravel
- Bark, leaves, and feathers
- Pallets, planks, and tires
- Rope and chain
- Blocks and Lego
- Beads, baubles, buttons, and wool
- Milk crates and empty spools
You might have noticed that many of these things are relatively inexpensive or even free. A simple stick has millions of different uses in the hands of a child.
These items can be used to build, invent, or create. They also invite children to use their imagination and think innovatively. This play promotes the kinds of knowledge and skills that children will need to be successful in our technology-driven 21st century.
Why do children love loose parts play so much?
Something magical occurs when you provide a child with possibilities rather than instructions. A jigsaw puzzle works in one specific way-the child must figure out what pieces are meant to fit together and then assemble them correctly to make a single picture.
There is certainly value in this kind of learning, but children can learn so much more when presented with experiences that allow them to think creatively and imaginatively while problem-solving. Engaging with loose parts activates so many areas of the brain while children can do what they do best-play!
Any early childhood educator will likely tell you that kids prefer to play with loose parts rather than engage in structured activities. Loose parts invite children to investigate, explore, and think deeply during their play. It’s through loose parts that children are able to follow their own interests and ideas and be active facilitators of their own learning. This kind of play is just extremely powerful, which is probably why kids love it so much.
What can children learn from playing with loose parts?
Loose parts provide countless valuable opportunities for learning and are great for inviting pretend play, encouraging social interactions, and creating opportunities for collaboration with others.
Interestingly, research has shown that when engaging with open-ended play materials, children are likely to use more words to describe and express their ideas, and these words are often more complex than the language you might hear from a child playing with conventional toys. This means that loose parts play actively fosters and supports children’s speech and language development.
Open-ended resources unlock possibilities for children. There are no instructions, rules, or set sequences necessary for the play. When there are no right or wrong ways to engage with objects, children become free to take risks and can confidently experiment as they build, stack, arrange, and sort the materials in various ways. This kind of play also helps to build resilience as kids engage in a trial-and-error process of learning but without the pressure to “get it right.”
As parents, we want our children to grow up having the skills to solve problems on their own and make decisions about their lives. Open-ended play fosters the intellectual abilities of children, helping them to develop a stable foundation for life-long learning.
Through exploring these kinds of materials, children become designers, innovators, and artists. Open-ended materials afford them the opportunity to be scientific investigators, learning about the wonderful world around them in a way that inspires interest and wonder. When we observe children playing in this way and take the time to really look at what they are doing, we can see that even very young children are capable and competent learners when allowed to follow their own ideas and interests.
This video explains how to introduce, encourage, and incorporate loose parts play in kids:
A few safety considerations
Yes, loose parts are amazing, but it’s important to remember that not all items are appropriate for all ages. Small loose parts are certainly not suitable for children under 3.
All items used for children younger than 3 should be at least 2 inches in diameter, meaning that objects such as buttons, magnets, and coins aren’t suitable. Plastic bags, balloons, and Styrofoam objects can also pose a choking hazard, so please consider carefully the items you make available to children.
The future is near
The research strongly supports the use of open-ended play materials as educational resources for children. Not only are these materials great for promoting cognitive, physical, and social development, but they are also great fun! Providing opportunities for children to engage and play with loose parts will help us to raise the innovators, designers, and inventors that we need for the future. After all, the future is really not that far away.
If you’re a parent, caregiver, or educator interested in learning more about loose parts, I highly recommend this award-winning Loose Parts series of books by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky:
- Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children, which is the first in its series, is an inspiring book that provides detailed information about how loose parts can be used to support learning, enhance play, and empower children.
- Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers has new and innovative loose parts ideas perfect for Montessori and Reggio-inspired programs and educators.
- Loose Parts 4: Inspiring 21st-Century Learning is the most recent version and focuses on integrating loose parts into family environments.