Using Loose Parts for Free Play

by Josée

“Maman let’s go to the beach!”, exclaims my daughter. We’ve just had breakfast and a long list of household chores is looming before me. “Pleeeeeeease”, she begs, sensing my indecision. My boys are rushing for swim suits and towels before I can think of a reply. I’m a bit sluggish in the morning; it doesn’t help that I don’t drink coffee. “C’mon Mom!” encourages my oldest son, practically pushing me out the door, “We want to play”. And just like that I’m caught up in the flurry and excitement of my kids as they barrel down to the beach. As I sit near the water I watch them with a sense of wonder. We didn’t bring any beach toys (having been lost and broken long ago) but they don’t mind. Instead my children are drawn to the water, sand, driftwood and rocks. These things fully captivate them for hours as they build castles, make moats, splash in the water, collect rocks and search for treasure.

Before the advent of cheap, mass produced toys, children turned to whatever was available in nature and around their homes for toys. A stick became a sword, a collection of rocks a treasure beyond compare, many hour were spent playing in sand, dirt, mud and water.

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What are Loose Parts?

Loose Parts are materials with no fixed purpose that can be moved around and manipulated by children and used in many different ways.

The idea of Loose Parts came from architect Simon Nicholson. In the 1970s he was taking an interest in how children play and interact with their environments. He noticed that children weren’t given the opportunity to play and experiment with “Loose Parts” so he wrote: How NOT to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts

All children love to play, experiment, discover, invent and have fun.” – Simon Nicholson

Kids Love Loose Parts

It’s early spring and I’m on a decluttering frenzy. I make my way from room to room filling a box with items to give away. Eventually I find myself in my daughter’s room. I’ve dubbed her “my little collector” for a good reason. Little piles of things are scattered around her room. It looks like a disaster to my eyes but as I crouch down I see order to the madness. Here there’s a pile of shells, and there some pressed leaves. In the far corner there’s a pile of her favourite LEGO pieces, all shiny, and on the window sill a jar beads and buttons.

Kids are naturally drawn to Loose Parts when they play. Whether it’s things like rocks, sticks and shells or buttons, Loose Parts fill children with a sense of curiosity and imagination. This is why kids are constantly picking things up from the ground and tucking them into their little pockets.

Loose Parts vs. Regular Toys

There are some distinctive advantages to Loose Parts over today’s conventional toys. That’s not to say that there aren’t great kids’ toys out there (my kids love LEGO!) but consider these advantages of Loose Parts before heading out to the toys store with your child.

  • Loose Parts are often cheaper (even free!) and easily found. You can use items found in nature, recycling bin, thrift store or around the home.
  • Loose Parts aren’t attached to a specific brand. This helps kids and parents from getting trapped into the cycle of consumerism attached to brand specific toys.
  • Loose Parts don’t come with instructions. Kids can play with them however they wish. There is no right or wrong way to use loose parts, in fact there are many right ways!
  • Loose Parts encourage divergent play, which means there are many possible paths and solutions. This helps children learn how to be creative and problem solve.
  • Loose Parts get kids outside. When outdoor play spaces have Loose Part kids are  draw outdoors to play, experiment and have fun.

Gathering Loose Parts

Loose Parts come in many forms and can be organic (natural), inorganic (man-made/synthetic) or a mixture of both. As a parent, grandparent or educator it’s helpful to keep a list on hand so that the next time you’re at a garage sale, thrift shop, junk swap or out in nature you can keep your eye out for these items.

Organic Materials

  • Rocks
  • Wood (sticks, stumps, boards, coins, branches, wood chips, cinnamon stick, pegs, beads)
  • Shells
  • Dirt (mud, sand, clay)
  • Water (ice, snow)
  • Seeds (acorns, nuts, dried beans, seed pods)
  • Pine cones
  • Leaves
  • Grasses (hay, straw)
  • Mosses
  • Flowers (petals)
  • Textiles (hemp, cotton, wool, felt, silk)
  • Corks
  • Sea sponges

Recycled and Reused Materials

  • Paper (newspaper, shredded, cardboard, paper tubes)
  • Containers (milk jugs, yogurt containers, metal cans)
  • Textiles (sheets, shower curtains, blankets, towels, pillows)
  • Ropes (used climbing ropes)
  • Tires (inner tubes)
  • Gutters
  • PVC tubes
  • Buckets
  • Nuts and bolts

FREE PDF – Loose Parts List

Tips for Loose Parts

  • Be environmentally friendly! When purchasing or gathering Loose Parts consider how they will impact the environment. Many inorganic (synthetic) materials, especially items like plastic straws, Styrofoam, beads and glitter, are very harmful for our planet. Avoid purchasing these types of materials, or look for natural (biodegradable) alternatives. Another options is to look for synthetic materials at garage sales, thrift stores and recycling bins (reuse!). For organic materials be mindful about taking things out of protected or conservation areas or other people’s yards, unless you have permission to do so.
  • Choose Loose Parts that are: open ended, safe (no rusty nail and sharp bits) captivating and easily manipulated by your child.
  • Encourage your child to collect Loose Parts from nature (where appropriate).
  • Avoid directing your child to use Loose Parts in a specific way.
  • Hold off on cleaning up Loose Parts right away. Give your child ample time to return and play with them over the course of hours, days and even weeks (depending on where they’re set up).
  • Set up Loose Parts outside to encourage plenty of outdoor free play.

Recommended Books and Articles

Loose Parts Play Ideas for Toddlers

The Backyard Play Revolution: How to Engage Kids in Simple, Inexpensive Outdoor Play and Increase Child Health and Motor/Sensory Development

Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children

Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers (Loose Parts Series)

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1 comment

Janet Pavlinch October 27, 2020 - 4:15 pm

I LOVE LOOSE PARTS! This is my childhood in two words!! My single favorite sentence in this lesson is this: Loose Parts don’t come with directions. That’s the best part of this whgleidea of play.


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