There is more to Loose Parts Play than a reference to all its parts. When we hear the term “loose parts play”, we instinctively think of buttons, pinecones and shells, carefully arranged in a wooden tray for children to engage with. But there is much more to the theory behind loose parts play than initially apparent.
Related reading: Heuristic Play In Early Years
At its core the Theory of Loose Parts is about experimenting with variables – moving, manipulating and transporting things. It is about releasing the notion of what an environment is “supposed” to be and instead shaping it according to one’s own vision.
It is a beautiful gift to impart unto to our children: to let them be the inventors of their own environment and for them to create the world they wish to live in.
Definition of Loose Parts Play and The Theory of Loose Parts Play
“Loose Parts” refers to any loose, tactile and open-ended materials which facilitate and empower creativity and exploration by children during play. The term was coined in 1971 by architect Simon Nicholson who published a paper called, “The Theory of Loose Parts.”
The Theory of Loose Parts can broadly be described like this:
- Loose Parts exist as variables.
- Variables may include materials and shapes, smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism and gravity, media such as gases and fluids, sounds, music, motion, chemical interactions, cooking and fire, and other humans and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas.
- Children can use these variables to play, experiment, discover, invent and have fun.
- The best play comes from things that allow open ended play, and environments that include loose parts are more stimulating and engaging than static ones.
The Affordance Theory
The Theory of Loose Parts goes hand in hand with the Affordance Theory, which suggests that objects and environments have values and meanings that are unique to the person perceiving them. The affordance of an object or space therefore, are all the things it has the potential to “do” or “be”.
For example, a brick wall may be a demarkation of boundary for an adult, but for children, it may be a place to sit, to walk along, to balance, hide behind or jump off!
Benefits of Loose Parts Play
Loose Parts Play allows the focus of the experience to be on the process rather than a product. That in itself is a valuable contribution to our children’s way of being, in what is increasingly becoming a results-oriented society. Other common benefits that have been cited include:
- Fine motor skills development – when children use the small muscles in their fingers and hands to move, manipulate, tinker, stack, build, pick, pinch and press.
- Gross motor skills development – when children use bigger muscles to lift, pull, push and carry.
- Cognitive Development – when children use critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, abstract thinking, exploration of trial and error, questioning, enquiry and exploration.
- Creativity and imaginative play – when children use their skills to design and innovate. This type of play encourages children to think outside the box and to find creative and divergent ways to make and create.
- Social and emotional skills – when children work together, share and take turns, listen and respond to each other’s ideas and experiences in a collaborative learning environment they are developing communication and negotiation skills.
How to Get Started with Loose Parts Play
The key to setting up loose parts play is to make it look inviting. Define an uncluttered space for the loose parts play to occur (perhaps by setting out a small blanket, or introducing a limited collection of loose parts).
A popular way to display a collection is by setting it out in a tray or a shallow dish. Make sure the loose parts are in the child’s line of sight, easily accessible, and inviting to touch and experience.
When you are starting out, you may wish to pick items which your child already loves and is familiar with. Once the set up is complete, sit nearby your child but do your own thing. Observe what your child does, and let them explore the objects at their own pace.
Loose Parts Play Prompts for Open Learning
If prompts are required, you may wish to try some of these questions:
// I wonder what you can do with these?
// Can you use these to make something new?
// Which of these do you find the most interesting? I wonder what you can do with it!
Loose Parts Play Examples for Directed Learning
Loose parts play may also be used for more directed learning. Some examples include:
// Literacy – can you use pebbles to make the letter O for me?
// Maths – can you use these materials to show me whether 5 or 8 is greater?
// Logic – can you line these caps to make a pattern?
// Art – can you make a design with these buttons and glass stones?
// Outdoors – can you build a cubby / home with these materials?
Loose Parts Play Themes
To spark ideas for Loose Parts Play, you may wish to explore play themes including: Adventure (seeking the unknown), Becoming at home (creating space and shelter), Prospect (searching out high places, views and lookouts), Pathways and journeying (exploration, mapping out an area), Hunter-gatherer pursuits (searching, finding and collecting), Anthropomorphism (projecting self onto other living things), Imaginative narratives (fantasy and small world play), Making Rituals (honouring or celebrating events).
These themes reflect the patterns to children’s play which emerge regardless of climate, culture, class, gender, developmental level or age, and is a great framework from which to understand how children play and develop their identity, attachment, and a sense of connectedness to place and people.
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Materials and Resources for Loose Parts Play
Loose parts can be all sorts of things including re-purposed recycling, found objects or pieces collected over time. They can be very small or very large, new or old, used as tabletop activities, exploration trays, large floor exercises or used as an open-ended resource in the sandpit or an outdoor learning environment. The possibilities are endless. Undertake an initial risk assessment before introducing materials to children to ensure it is safe and age-appropriate.
Common materials used for Loose Parts Play may include:
From the recycling bin: cardboard boxes and scraps, bottle caps, straws, cardboard tubes, empty containers and bottles, egg cartons.
From the kitchen and household cupboards: fabric remnants, silk scarves, ribbons, yarn, embroidery thread, bowls, scoops, funnels, hair elastics and scrunchies, paper clips, pompoms, pipe cleaners, clothes pins.
From household project remnants: magnets, washers, dowels, paint sample cards.
From the outdoors: rocks, leaves, fresh and dried flowers, pine cones, sticks, feathers, shells.
If you do want to invest in some items when you’re starting out, here are our favourites:
A sorting tray is an easy way to store and organise loose parts and it’s also a great way for little ones to practise their fine moto skills when sorting out the parts by colours or shapes.
These little wooden trinkets complement the sorting tray really well. Fun and bright in colours, they’re also the perfect size for toddlers and preschoolers to practise sorting with tweezers or a tiny scoop.
An alternative to the sorting tray, the Carry-Play table comes with four clip-on side buckets which function really well as sorting trays. The two large compartments can also be used as deeper trays where kids can build small worlds or do sensory activities.
Although technically not a “loose part”, the play silk is so versatile in its use that it can easily facilitate loose parts play with some imagination.
Wooden blocks are a great addition to loose parts play, particularly our own Balancing Blocks Set, which consist of irregular shapes that stack and balance using S.T.E.M principles.
Last but not least, the Wooden Bead Kit by Melissa and Doug is a great starter kit. Bear in mind that this is not suitable for under 3s as it does contain smaller parts.
Although it’s technically a jewellery making kit, the colourful beads can easily be used for loose parts play, and the wooden tray is handy for storage.
Free Resources for Loose Parts Play
Here are some of our favourite resources for learning more about loose parts play:
Loose Parts Play is an exciting endeavour both for yourself and your child, because it always brings with it the question of potential: what can I create today?
We hope this guide has sparked your imagination. Go forth and create.