Loose parts are collections of objects that can be used as open-ended learning materials. They are also sometimes called manipulatives or tabletop toys.
These could be things found in nature, recycled materials from around the house and school, or materials purchased for this specific purpose.
Let’s take a look at what this type of play is all about, examples to get you started and a few loose parts play benefits for children.
What is Loose Parts Play in Early Childhood?
Loose parts play examples include sorting, categorizing, sequencing, counting, stacking, matching, designing and building with any materials or loose parts.
Children move, adapt, rearrange, put together, and take apart the materials. The use of loose parts can take place indoors on various surfaces, such as table tops and floors.
Loose parts play outdoors could happen on the ground or at a picnic table. Many of the materials lend themselves nicely to working with sand, water and mud, as well.
Although loose parts play is open-ended, that does not mean that no products ever result; and wonderful art pieces, such as sculptures, can be designed with varied materials.
Natural, outdoor materials can also be combined with indoor supplies, such as leaf rubbings made with crayons and paper or pressed pinecone designs in playdough.
48 Loose Parts Play Ideas
Although you can purchase cheap loose parts materials, be on the lookout around the school, at home and while outdoors for free objects to recycle.
Keep in mind, of course, that very small pieces are not suitable for toddlers.
Offer the materials organized in buckets, boxes and baskets. Children can be responsible for helping to keep their supplies organized.
Some tools that are often considered loose parts and which can always be offered along with other materials include plastic cups, buckets, strainers and an assortment of kitchen utensils.
In addition, offer a wide variety of art supplies, along with tape, pipe cleaners and clips, to hook things together.
Loose parts play ideas include the following kinds of objects:
- animal figurines
- bottle caps
- boxes of all sizes
- bubble wrap
- canning lids and rings
- cotton balls
- driftwood, large and small
- egg cartons
- empty plastic containers of all sizes
- fabric swatches
- foam shapes
- ice cubes (or water frozen in small bags)
- nuts and bolts
- packing “peanuts”
- pom poms
- shells (watch for sharp edges)
- sticks (watch for sharp ends)
- tubes of cardboard
- wrapping papers
What are the Benefits of Loose Parts Play?
Playing with loose parts is a wonderful, educational activity. The only challenge of loose parts play is to find, organize and store the materials.
Although this type of play is open-ended, with no particular product goals, explaining rules or guidelines for using the objects safely is very important.
Also, while some kids dive right in and start to play and design, others are more apprehensive and need to watch an adult modelling several of the possibilities.
During play, adults have the opportunity not only to observe the kids but also to ask open-ended questions:
- What happened there?
- Why do you think it looks like that?
- What could you try to get a different result?
Here are a few of the developmental advantages of loose parts play:
1. Motivate Kids to Take Risks
After children successfully work with loose parts in their play over a period of time, the positive feelings gained through that success can seep into other activities.
They are more apt to take risks during active outdoor play and are also less concerned with doing things “the right way” in other aspects of the day.
2. Offer Practice with Cause & Effect
After toddlerhood, most kids know if you push your block tower, it falls down. But what about other materials?
By using a wide range of objects during loose parts play, they learn an entirely new set of cause-and-effect pairs.
For example, which pom-pom is easier to throw through the air, one that is dry or another that is wet? Why is that?
3. Increase Confidence & Independence
Too often, children have adults making choices for them, telling them what to do and instructing them how to do it.
With the options that come along with playing with loose parts, they become more independent in that setting, which can then lead to more independence in other areas of their development.
That feeling of independence often leads to increased confidence in their capabilities.
4. Instill Exploration, Imagination, & Creativity
Many kids’ toys come in sets and have a prescribed way in which they are meant to be used. That does not leave much up to the imagination.
Because loose parts play materials are open-ended, children can explore “how things work,” feel free to use their active imaginations, and strive to be as creative as possible.
5. Encourage Theoretical Reasoning & Problem Solving
While exploring with real-world objects, kids can work on concepts for which they are developmentally ready.
They make predictions, experiment, analyse and try again.
They do not need to know the word “gravity” to discover that certain objects travel more quickly down the slide or when thrown.
Where does ice melt more quickly…in the sunshine or under the shade of a tree? Why?
6. Develop Leaders & Cooperation
During loose parts play, kids observe what others are discovering in their own play. They often “assist” each other, and natural leaders sometimes emerge.
Children can become “specialists” in different areas of accomplishment, leaving space for each of them to be “the best” at something.
7. Aid Brain Development & Cognitive Skills
Having the freedom to explore a wide variety of materials offers countless opportunities for higher-level thinking skills.
They can use small loose parts for sorting, counting, categorizing, comparing, sequencing and making patterns.
8. Provide a Calming Influence & Improve Behaviour
These materials often connect children with nature, which can offer a calming effect.
In addition, the act of working with their hands and otherwise using their bodies can help to expend pent-up energy in a positive way.
9. Lead to More Complex Play
Building on the previous play, kids can find out what happens if they tweak this or that. They feel successful from their earlier experiences and confident to try something even more complicated.
There is no “right” or “wrong” result in loose parts play, so they continue to move toward activities that are fun and challenging.
10. Offer Motor Skill Development
By using the small muscles of their hands and the larger muscles in the rest of their bodies, kids gain control over movements and build their strength.
11. Build Communication Skills
Children do not play in a vacuum. They express themselves verbally and through body language. They ask questions of nearby adults and make up stories about what they observe.
12. Add Adventure & Excitement to Play
Who wants to play with the same things every day? Through loose parts play, children have dozens of new “toys” and experiences at their fingertips. Each day is a new experience.
A material used in one way today can be used for an entirely different purpose the next. Boxes used for a pirate ship today could become a robot tomorrow.
Avoid overwhelming children with too many options all at once. Add to your collection of loose parts over time, introducing them to the kids as you go.
At home, children can assist you by pointing out recyclable materials. In school settings, you can invite the students and parents to contribute!
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