The Magic of Loose Parts – How to incorporate Loose Parts play in to everyday learning

Ever got frustrated that your child was more interested in the box than the Christmas present that was contained inside it? It’s because children have the most amazing unhindered imaginations. They are creative people that are able to make that simple box in to absolutely anything and everything. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘open ended play’ and the same is true when we talk about ‘Loose Parts’.

Loose Parts play simply refers to the use of loose objects, small or big, to enrich play. Objects can be based around a theme or can be sourced from the natural environment around the child. The Theory of Loose Parts was developed by a British Architect, Simon Nicholson in 1971, who saw that children would use any object to play with. Though the approach also reflects the philosophies of child-led and open-ended play advocated by Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi (the founder of Reggio Emilia).

Simon Nicolson said, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and variables in it.” In other words, children like to play in settings where there are lots of things to do, lots of things to move and lots of things to create with.

Loose Parts themselves are the materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. The idea of ‘Loose Parts’ uses materials to empower a creative imagination. The more materials and individuals involved, the more ingenuity takes place. Exactly what happens when children use a box and packing in their play, rather than the box’s contents.

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Loose Parts can be:

Twigs and sticks, pine cones and fathers, pebbles and shells, the clean contents of your recycling bin, sheets, tyres, leaves, milk crates, guttering, feathers, dolly pegs, driftwood, pots and pans… The list in endless. Most of them can be found for free: try asking your families or community. Maybe you have access to a local scrapstore? I also pick up resources for pennies in charity shops.

Loose Parts should:

  • Have no defined use and play facilitators must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them.
  • Be accessible physically and stored where they can be reached by children without them having to ask for them. The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they wish.
  • Be regularly replenished, changed, and added to.
  • They can be used indoors or outdoors, wherever play takes place.

Loose Parts do not just facilitate smaller-scale creative play. Abundant loose parts for children to play with are central to the adventure playground ethos going back to the famous ‘junk playgrounds’ (known as ‘skrammellegeplad’ or ‘byggelegeplad’) first created in Denmark in 1943. If you have access to an outdoor area, you can incorporate this use of larger loose parts in to your setting, by setting larger pieces out to encourage open-ended play.

Importantly Loose Parts are open-ended and stimulate creativity and keen be used as an antidote to the rise of structured and formal learning in childhood. On the Beach and in the Forest, we are endlessly lucky as natural Loose Parts are abundant.

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The Educator’s Role in Loose Parts Play

Wherever you are educating, be it outdoors or indoors, when children pick up ‘loose parts’ it can be anything they imagine it to be. This allows the children to have fun, experiment, discover, and invent new things. During the time the children are exploring loose parts, the adult’s role is to be an observer and researcher as well as to provide language. Loose parts play is a wonderful time to observe and assess what the children are playing with and how they are playing.

I have used Loose Parts throughout both my Beach and Forest School programmes. But I always start the programme with slightly more structured ideas and more signposting and the parts get ‘looser’ and more open-ended as the programmes go on – reflecting the growth in confidence in both the children and, particularly, their accompanying adults, in the child-led nature of the Forest School Process.

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There are multiple ways you can link Loose Parts play to the Early Years Curriculum:

  • Problem Solving
  • Engineering
  • Creativity
  • Concentration
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Fine motor development
  • Gross motor development
  • Language and vocabulary building
  • Mathematical thinking
  • Scientific thinking
  • Literacy
  • Personal/ Social/emotional development

As with all new activities and materials, you will need to risk assess your Loose Parts:

  • Risk assess your resources as part of your daily checks
  • Model moving and carrying resources that are large and heavy
  • Add Loose Parts to your risk assessments, especially if you work with any oral learners. I have a risk assessment that covers this type of play with natural materials.

Many educators and parents worry about is managing loose parts. Like much of the best learning, things can look kind of messy and I appreciate not everyone works outside. Loose part management tips from Fairydust Teaching are:

  • Start small – offer limited materials to begin with and slowly add throughout the year
  • Modeling – show and practice how to get the materials out and how to put them away
  • Labeling – clearly label where all your loose parts live.

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I have found Loose Parts play to be very liberating in both my parenting and my educational practice. It has given me a new found appreciation for ‘just playing with the box’. If you would like to know more, please check out the following:

Inspiring Scotland’s Loose Parts Play https://www.inspiringscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Loose-Parts-Play-web.pdf

The Wide School’s The Theory of Loose Parts –  http://www.thewideschool.com/the-theory-of-loose-parts/

Published by Rachel Stevens

Nature Lover. Educator. Fascinated with people, spaces and places. Lover of life.

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