Hit the creative play button with loose parts

Published on Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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If you've ever seen the magic a child creates with a plain cardboard box, infusing it with spaceship capabilities, building a house or transforming it into a large hat that makes them disappear, you can start to grasp the idea of 'loose parts' play.

Architect Simon Nicholson, devised the term in his article, How NOT to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts (1971). Mr Nicholson believed that in any environment the amount of creativity and inventiveness is directly related to the number of variables in it.

Basically, the more materials there are, the more children interact with them to create and experiment in their play, empowering them to explore the world around them. His theory has influenced architects, play space designers as well as early childhood educators.

What exactly are loose parts?

Loose parts can be natural or synthetic. They are materials with no instructions and they can be used alone or combined with other resources. They are items that can be:

  • Moved or carried
  • Combined
  • Redesigned
  • Lined up
  • Taken apart
  • Put back together in multiple ways

Loose parts could be considered rubbish to some people. They are often inexpensive and can be found in nature, in a home recycling bin, or in charity or craft stores. While the list is endless, examples of loose parts include:

  • Natural resources – rocks, sticks, seedpods, shells and leaves
  • Materials – ribbon, fabric, cushions, chalk, pom-poms
  • Objects – boxes, blocks, buckets, balls, hula-hoop, washing basket, trays

Consideration of adding loose parts for activities can be either inside or outside. For example, children could collect items of household recycling or objects from nature and include these loose parts among the traditional rainbow of crayons, pencils and paper in an art zone. For outside, a collection of loose parts could simply be scattered within a play area.

How children use the loose parts is up to them but the provision and maintenance of the objects is the responsibility of the educator. The collection should be age appropriate and refreshed often and there should be an abundance of choice.

Loose parts can provide for collaborative group play or be used by one child engaged in solitary play. It's important to remember the addition of some loose parts can lead to risky play – which can provide opportunities for challenge and learning about injury risk – but a risk assessment is essential.

Unlike traditional play structures like swings and slides there are no pre-established goals with loose play, no how-to guide and no defined script, it's all about the freedom.

Authors Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky – both professors in early childhood education in California, USA – wrote in their book, Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children 'when children interact with loose parts they enter a world of "what if?" that promotes the type of thinking that leads to problem solving and theoretical reasoning.'

Here are five learning outcomes of loose play identified in their book:

  • Math – Children acquire their first math skills when they manipulate small loose parts like blocks and caps, by sorting and classifying, and combining and separating them. Once they begin integrating loose parts into their games, you commonly hear them start to count and see them arranging the parts in specific sequences, patterns, and categories by colour, type, number, and class.
  • Physical Science – Loose parts help children investigate and actively construct ideas and explanations about physical properties of the nonliving world. Children gain deeper knowledge of how things work when they experiment with stacking boxes, tubes, and bottles.
  • Language and Literacy – Loose parts promote language development when children use them as props to engage in rich conversations and storytelling with peers and adults. Describing the items they manipulate, children can test new, complex words and engage in productive arguments that increase their critical-thinking skills.
  • Art – Adding loose parts to an art area can enhance their creativity and help them extend their ideas and questions. When loose parts are added to your art centre, they offer children invitations to draw, sculpt, collage, explore, and extend their ideas.
  • Movement and Music - Movement possibilities with loose parts such as scarves, hoops, and ribbons are endless, and provide opportunity for children to improvise. Musical play often means hitting items as hard as possible to see how they sound, and loose parts offer almost limitless opportunities to explore sounds that can be exuberant, random, noisy, and chaotic or quiet, gentle, and focused.

Out of the box loose parts idea

The non-profit group Playground Ideas has published the free Loose Parts Manual: The DIY to creating a playground in a box, a useful step-by-step guide to creating a loose play environment. The Manual outlines the benefits, processes of environment assessments – including a risk assessment – and considerations that need to be addressed. This includes storage and maintenance, staff training and curriculum integration.

Research supports the benefits and endless opportunities for children to creatively engage in loose parts play. To a child of any age, a play space piled with an intriguing collection of objects is an exciting treasure trove to super charge an adventure, enrich their learning and to fuel curiosity.

References and further reading

Loose Parts Play: A Toolkit by Inspiring Scotland
Community Playthings The Learning in Loose Parts
First five years, Boost imagination with loose parts play
Childcare Journal, Loose parts: Adding quality to the outdoor environment

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