Using Loose Parts for Play. Learning Naturally

Mar 2, 2014

“Have you ever noticed that if you leave old junk lying around, kids will almost inevitably play with it?
Whether it be old cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, pieces of wood, old tires [sic], bits of rope or string, kids will use their imagination and ingenuity to make something. This may make your garden look like a junkyard sometimes, but the experience for the kids is invaluable and it will keep them occupied for hours. Don't try and direct the kids in their play, just let them get on with it.” 
Nicholson, S, "How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts", Landscape Architecture 1971.

My children love using loose parts. We use very few actual "toys" in our play, as the majority of them have quite limited uses and once they've exhausted those uses, my children generally lose interest. Instead, I prefer to buy and collect open-ended materials that can have a variety of uses, only limited by my children's creativity. Children's desires to use loose parts are often demonstrated through the classic example of them being more interested in the cardboard box that a toy came in, than the toy itself. It allows us to see a child's need to be creative, to think "outside the box," to experiment and to control their play and learning while adapting it to their own interests.

Little fingers also love little things. Bits and bobs and trinkets and treasures. Usually with younger children, people assume that anything they can fit in their mouth is too small, a choking hazard and should not be played with. However, I think that so long as there is adequate supervision,  this is not always the case. Aside from the development of physical skills, such as fine-motor, hand-eye coordination, etc., children can learn so much from these real life objects that they are able to manipulate and use in a large variety of ways. 

Of course loose parts don't need to be small items. They include any item that can be used in many different ways. From items in nature such as sticks, sand, rocks, shells, leaves, to junk items, sports equipment, recycled goods and so much more. The way that my children play and interact with loose parts outside and inside differs due to the different materials and space available. Below are some examples of the loose parts that we are currently using for our inside play. 

From top-bottom, left to right we have pictured:

  • Large plastic buttons
  • perler beads
  • shape blocks (S)
  • wooden cubes 
  • glass stones
  • pattern blocks (S)
  • mini erasers
  • matchsticks
  • felt shapes
  • foam numbers
  • river rocks
  • different sizes sticks (S)
  • seed pods
  • small white pebbles
  • coloured glass jellybeans
  • marbles
  • shells
  • wooden numbers
  • pom-poms
  • circles and semi-circles (S)
  • small coloured wooden disks (S)
  • recycled bottle tops
  • Q-tips/cotton buds
  • pony beads

Most of these items can be purchased from $2 shops, found around the house or collected from nature. The items with an (S) next to them are part of our Spielgaben set. You can read my review and thoughts on Spielgaben and good quality educational toys here.

There aren't any rules about what you can and can't use and it is good to keep adding new materials and mixing things up. The same materials can be used in so many different ways by combining them with various other materials to produce different results each time.

I tend to store most of these items in cheap or recycled plastic container that are stackable. I also use things like recycled coffee jars and even vases to keep our loose parts out of the way but easily accessible.

Below you can see just a few of the many ways that my children use these loose parts for play and learning. Many of the pictures come from our Instagram account where I often share our loose parts play as it's happening. Some of the pictures I have written posts about and have provided the links for you to check them out in more detail.

Muffin tray, divided paint pallet, spoon, tongs, glass stones, shells and seedpods.

Shape sort and count with 3D shapes, paper and pen.

Marbles and an ice-cube tray

Recycled bottle tops and coloured cupcake liners

Pom-poms, glass beads, tongs and plastic glasses.

Colour match, sort, count and number writing with 3D shapes, coloured paper, plain paper and markers

Miniature erasers

Threading patterns with playdough, skewers, 3D shape beads.

Glass beads, water, medicine syringe, tongs, plastic containers.

Designs using pattern blocks, curved lines, straight lines etc.

Make your own playset using loose parts from around your house

Enticing literacy. Making and writing words. Straight lines, curved lines, nature flash cards, paper, markers.

Matchsticks, plastic bears and playdough (in the other side of a divided water table).

Coloured wooden pegs, bowl, spoon.

Which loose parts are favourites with your kids?

Happy playing,
Debs :)

{Disclosure: I have provided the link to the Spielgaben site for your convenience as part of a paid ambassadorship with Spielgaben. All opinions in this article, as always are my own} 

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