Everything You Need to Know About Loose Parts Play for Toddlers

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Loose Parts Play: How to Encourage + What You Need to Get Started with Loose Parts Play with your Toddler or Preschooler.

Have you even bought your child an expensive new toy, and then found them having more fun playing with the cardboard box it came in, instead?

Toddler girl playing in a cardboard box

We’ve all been there.

The curiosity of turning that box into a race car, a rocket ship to the moon, or a castle for royalty is part of a child’s imaginative development. It’s wonderful to observe and should be nurtured.

And it’s this theory, of taking loose parts with no official ‘rules’ for how they should be used, that educators and early childhood centers are returning to. It helps foster learning and thinking skills for toddlers’ brains, and it’s something you can encourage in your own home, too.

The Basics of Loose Part Play

Loose Parts Definition: What Is Loose Parts Play?

Loose parts play is any imaginative play with a variety of tactile materials. It happens naturally when children are given the open ended freedom to make their own narrative with disparate objects and materials.

View from above as a toddler girl organizes different elastic hair ties and bracelets

Who Developed the Theory of Loose Parts?

The theory of loose parts was first coined in 1971 by Architect Simon Nicholson. He proposed that having open-ended materials in a child’s environment can support the development of creativity and critical thinking skills.

Can You Give Me Some Examples?

Pretty much anything can be used according to loose parts theory.

It can be done indoors or outdoors and on a large and small scale.

A child's hand is seen holding a car at the top of a makeshift ramp made out of a wide board set onto the grass
We use this random teak board, which used to form the side panel on a doll’s house, a lot, and for a variety of activities!

On a small scale, it could be making patterns from beads and feathers. On larger scales, it could be creating a castle with a drawbridge outdoors, using crates, planks and tyres!

Your children probably partake in loose parts play naturally when they take out the Duplo blocks and combine them with their cars to make a garage. Or combine with their train set to make a town.

They’re combining materials they have around them, and creating imaginative narratives and scenarios as they go. Even more simply, they come up with wildly different ways to use the same materials, over and over again.

What Can I Use for Loose Parts Play?

A collage of 10 photos showing examples of loose parts preschool aged kids and older might use in loose parts play. The photos show feathers, screws, pinecones, leaves, corks, pompoms, straws, elastic bands, pebbles, and buttons.

If you really want to encourage this type of play at home, you need to build a collection of materials that will engage and be fun for children to create their own play with.

The parts can be anything you can think of, and can be large or small depending on where you set up your area.

However, they often aren’t toys exclusively. While toys can be used in this type of play, it’s usually by incorporating toys with other materials, rather than using the toys alone.

They are often natural or repurposed elements that your child can allocate a role to.

For quite awhile, we had a bag full of plastic bread tags and lids from milk jugs and squeezy packs that we used daily!

Plastic bread tags, round milk jug lids, and lids from baby food squeeze packs are scattered on the ground of a tent to show examples of some items that can be used in loose parts play

Other bits you can easily find at places like the dollar store, yard sales, or craft shops.

Remember small pieces can be choking hazards for little ones, so bigger, chunkier objects are better for the youngest kids.

A Basic Loose Parts List for Indoor Play

  • pine cones
  • flowers
  • popsicle sticks
  • leaves
  • clothespins
  • corks
  • pebbles
  • acorns
  • shells
  • slices of log/tree branch
  • straws
  • beads
  • pompoms
  • stones
  • wooden blocks or yoga blocks
  • cups
  • screws
  • bolts
  • rubber bands
  • cardboard
  • newspaper
  • buttons
  • cotton spools
  • feathers
  • string
  • ribbons

The list is really quite endless! Use your imagination, and pick things that pique your curiosity, as those will be exciting to your kids, too!

Outdoor Loose Part Play Ideas

Try things like:

  • tires
  • drainpipe
  • bricks
  • planks of wood (wide and narrow)
  • crates
  • logs
  • log slices
  • rope
  • buckets

What are The Benefits of Loose Parts Play?

Playing with loose parts has so many benefits to the developing minds of little ones!

Supports Imagination Development

Loose parts play is incredibly open-ended. One day a bowl of pine cone cones can be a dragon’s breakfast, the next they could be the treasure the pirates are searching for!

Even though kids are utilizing the same things in their environment day in and day out, their narratives and how they play can be totally unique each time. This type of activity really helps their creativity bloom!

Encourages Independent and Creative Learning and Thinking

As there are no ‘rules’ to the game and how to play, kids can make their own ideas. Upon finding some twigs, they could decide to create a home for the fairies in the garden, and then expand and create the furniture to go inside.

They can choose the parts that are appropriate and how they fit together.

Longer Attention Span

When playing with loose parts, children lose track of time and get into what adults might call a “flow state” in which they’re totally present.

The play is free for them to develop and you’ll find they can concentrate on what they’re doing for far longer than within a guided, prescribed activity.

Develops Problem Solving Skills

This links to the previous benefit, but as kids choose the parts they need to make their play, they learn how to select the right things within their environment, such as choosing leaves instead of a plank of wood to create a blanket for a mouse house.

They’ll also encounter aspects with building and engineering, making loose parts for toddlers a natural early STEM activity. Maybe they’re building a structure from sticks and they can’t join them together. In this case, they’ll need to find other materials like string or clothespins to help them.

You’ll find that during play with loose parts children persevere for longer and learn how to learn from mistakes by adapting and trying new things, which promotes a healthy mindset for life!

Supports Acquisition of Motor Skills

Manipulating objects, big and small, support the gross and fine motor skills your children need to develop.

From moving and lifting large items like planks and tires, to opening clothespins, and fiddling with buttons and screws. All will be done naturally through their play!

A toddler preparing to zoom a fire truck toy along a narrow board

Encourage a Sense of Risk

Risky play isn’t always a comfortable aspect for some adults, who want their children to be safe in all they do. But risky play is also an essential childhood activity to promote problem solving and independence in your child’s mind.

It doesn’t mean allowing your child to do things that are obviously dangerous, but just allowing them a little more freedom to learn through risk.

Like during outdoor loose part play, they may set up a balance beam with a plank between two supports. If one support is rounded, or unstable, the beam will be wobbly, and the children will feel and can re-design their course by making it more stable.

Obstacle course for a toddler made out of a wide plank, yoga blocks, and a small wooden box

Supports Language Development

As kids are open to their own ideas, they can develop their own narrative for their play. This is especially true when children engage collaboratively with their siblings or peers.

You’ll see your kids engage in conversation and storytelling as they describe what they have created. Often this is made through connections between the stories they have heard, such as making houses for the three little pigs that the wolf can’t blow down!

Develops Skills in Other Areas of Learning

As they play with loose parts, children begin to understand how things work and about the world around them. Even though it’s not an objective, through building towers and creating, they will learn concepts such as gravity, forces, and weight.

They may develop mathematical skills by sorting, classifying, combining, and separating. Children often begin to count and arrange parts in specific patterns. Early types of measuring, thinking with spatial awareness, and logical classification are developed too.

Return to Nature!

In this modern age of children who are so engrossed in the immediate gratification of fasted paced tablets and technology, allowing them to play with an open-ended structure takes away the limitations in their development. You can see them really blossom as they play and create their own narrative in what they do. You can even collect objects for play during your outdoor adventures!

Cheaper Than ‘Toys’

Modern playsets, dollhouses, and car garages are costly, and only have one way to play with them.

You can set up a loose parts area easily and for a relative fraction of the cost of buying things from the toy store. A lot of your piece you can find on a nature walk, and buy others from dollar stores.

How do you Introduce Loose Part Play Theory?

This is simple. Just set it up and allow your child to use loose parts freely. A loose parts shelf is engaging to little ones.

For very small toddlers you don’t need a lot of choices, and there doesn’t need to be more to their play than stacking, or sorting and exploring the textures.

Older children can explore bigger narratives.

However, This may take some getting used to, especially if they are new to it. But the more they are exposed to creating in this way, the greater their confidence will grow.

You will see them build on concepts they have made on previous occasions.

If your children are struggling with the lack of structure, you could give them a question or task to explore and let them do it in their own way.

Maybe they could build a bridge to cross a river (you could put a sheet across the lawn to help them visualize it!)

Maybe they could make an art face using different elements for eyes, ears, and mouths.

Or they could create a home for a squirrel to live in. Use what they find interesting to hook them in!

How can Adults Facilitate Loose Parts Play?

Loose parts play should be fun, creative, and child-led. As parents, you may need to take a step back, and allow your child to take the lead in choosing which parts they need and how they will use them.

Ask them questions, and delve into their stories to expand, but simply, enjoy watching them beam and create their own world and explore their own concepts which they find interesting. The possibilities are endless and a child’s imagination is free to decide.

Managing Loose Parts

This is one of the important parts of the loose parts aspect, and making the loose parts accessible for children to use will help them develop their creativity and be able to refine their problem-solving skills when the (many) opportunities arise!

General Storage Principles

Loose parts should be stored at an easy to access height and in easily visible containers. A lot of loose parts play theories advocate keeping it as natural as possible (which links beautifully with Montesorri theories of learning) and find that using baskets and wooden storage boxes are a great way to display the parts for easy accessibility.

Plus having them displayed in this way makes it easier for curious minds to think critically and select the parts they need – for example, if a child is looking for an appropriate way to bind two sticks together, they can select string or a rubber band as a good resource based on its properties and usefulness, rather than rummaging through a box of mixed loose parts and finding the first thing they come across, that may or may not be suitable.

Ideas for Storage

Baskets can be found easily on Amazon, like this sturdy set, or for a cheaper option, grab this bulk pack, but they may not last as long with curious hands playing frequently with them! You can also keep an eye out at yard sales and thrift stores for great odds and ends! Arrange the baskets on a shelving system, and your kids will be so curious, they can’t NOT play! They’ll be so excited to dive in.

Wicker and natural materials can be an expensive option though, so for a more budget-friendly choice, this colorful plastic-style storage unit can be easily turned into a loose parts station for your children to select what they need as they play. (It also comes in a white option for a more toned-down look!)

And the best part about the loose parts play is that the parts stay loose, it’s not about sticking the bits together to make a picture. It’s about the freedom to move it and change it so glue is a no-no! So at the end of your loose parts play all of the bits and pieces can be reused for the next days discoveries!

Encourage Good Habits

At the end of loose parts play, support your children by congratulating them on their incredible creations and imaginative ideas. And incorporate ‘tidy-up time’ within the play too. encouraging them to put the loose parts back in the right baskets and boxes to make them easy to utilize the next time they play! (unless of course you have a large enough place to play and can leave out their creation to be expanded on the next day!)

Outdoor loose play is a little trickier to manage in an organized way, but still possible. You may consider a loose parts ‘small shed’ with shelves and hooks to keep things together.

Final Thoughts on Loose Parts Play

I hope you have enjoyed reading about this concept of loose parts play theory. The loose parts play ideas from Simon Nicholson is becoming more popular in early childhood settings, especially in other areas of the world, like the UK and Australia.

I hope you try to set an area up in your own home and see the beauty of how this style of learning can influence and support your little one.

If you want to share these loose parts ideas with other parents and families, pass on this article!

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