Loose Parts Play is an engaging and self-directed type of play that’s perfect for toddlers. In this article learn more about the theory of Loose Parts Play, how it benefits toddlers and a list of toddler approved loose parts that will stimulate your toddler’s curiosity, creativity, problem solving skills and more!
My toddler loves Loose Parts Play!
Just the other day my toddler discovered a pail tucked away in the corner of our kitchen. With some effort she opened the lid only to discover a bag full of potatoes! Before long, she had potatoes tucked all over our home. There were potatoes in buckets, boxes and drawers. For several days she played with the potatoes, moving them from one container to the next, trying to see how many she could hold at once, rolling them on the ground and testing them for taste. Now before you start wondering if my toddler plays with potatoes because she is deprived of toys, I want to assure you that she does in fact have several full bins of toddler-friendly toys. And yet, despite the stacking cups, pulling toys, teddies and puzzles, the potatoes won. Why is that? As a adult we could hardly consider a pail of potatoes entertaining, especially when we think of having to peel them for supper, but the answer to that questions can be found in the The Theory of Loose Parts Play.
The Theory of Loose Parts Play: Where did it come from and what is it?
In 1971 architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for the journal Landscape Architecture titled “How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” Nicholson observed that young children regularly encounter environments filled with rules and restrictions that stifle creativity and inventiveness. Among his list of unsuitable environments were schools, daycares, preschools, play grounds, children’s hospitals, museums and more (yikes!). He claimed that these environments were damaging to children’s development because they were too sterile. His vision was that children need environments rich in variables (aka loose parts) that stimulate discovery, interaction, experimentation, and self-guided play.¹
In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.Simon Nicholson, How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts
Nicholson’s theory opened the door to the importance of Loose Parts Play but his article left more questions than answers. What exactly is loose parts play and does it make a difference in child development? The answer is complex which is why educators, researchers and interested individuals continue to unpacked and extrapolate on Loose Parts Play to this present day.
Loose Parts Play: Defined
One thing that most can agree on is how to define Loose Parts Play. Essentially, Loose Parts Play involves self-guided play using materials (natural or man-made) that can be used in an open-ended way (more than one way). The fact that Loose Parts Play doesn’t come with instructions gives children complete freedom to experiment with and discover how to use the materials in their play. They can move and manipulate the materials in a varieties of way, and there are no “right” and “wrong” ways of going about it. Ultimately this is the reason why Loose Parts Play is so beneficial for early childhood development.
Loose Parts Play: How does it benefit toddlers?
Between the ages of one to three, toddlers navigate through significant developmental milestones. From taking their first steps to running, from speaking their first words to saying sentences, from learning how to interact with others to discovering imaginative play. It’s an intense time of growth and change, as any parent of a toddler will tell you. Loose Parts Play can help toddlers navigate through these milestones by:
- Encouraging creativity and imaginative play.
- Improving movement patterns, coordination and physical activity.²
- Developing communication and socialization skills.³
Common Problems and Solutions for Loose Parts Play
Some of the biggest complaints about Loose Parts is that they can be expensive to buy, challenging to store and messy to use.
The first two issues (cost and storage) can be easily solved by using what you already have on hand inside your home or out in nature. By gathering loose parts from nature (sustainably of course), reusing items from around the home or rescuing items from the recycling bins, Loose Parts can be low cost and easily returned to their proper place when your toddler looses interest in them.
The third concern (mess) is a bit more tricky. At heart Loose Parts Play is messy! Chaos and creativity often go hand in hand. The easiest way to avoid hard-to-clean disasters in your home is to take Loose Parts Play outside, as much as possible. Generally speaking I save dirt, sand, mud, rocks, sticks and other related loose parts for outdoor play while pillows, silks, cardboard are used for indoor play.
A List of Loose Parts for Toddlers
Safety first! Loose Parts Play for toddlers needs to be age appropriate and safe. Avoid small loose parts that could be a choking hazard or toxic if mouthed or ingested. Below I’ve included a list of loose parts for toddlers with some safety tips when necessary. Please use you own discretion since you know your toddler best.
Natural Loose Parts for Toddlers
The great outdoors is filled with loose parts that can be easily used and sustainably gathered. Below is a list of some of my favourite loose parts for toddlers.
Water: Water is a loose part! Search for water in nature in its liquid form (puddles, streams, lakes, ocean) or solid form (ice and snow). Another option is to fill the bath for water play indoors. Water pairs well with buckets, containers, funnels and sieves. Always keep a close eye on toddlers near water.
Rocks: For young toddlers, look for rocks that are easy to handle but too big to fully fit into their mouths. That being said, I do let my toddler play with small rocks if I’m keeping a close eye on her. Encourage your toddler to notice different rock colours, textures and sizes. Rocks pair well with a shovel and pail.
Wood: I suggest collecting smooth sticks of various sizes that are splinter free and don’t have sharp ends. Some other toddler safe wood ideas include: driftwood, wood disks, and thick branches cut into small logs. Just be sure to remove bits of wood that easily break off.
Shells: Toddlers are still learning how to be gentle so choose larger and thicker shells that won’t easily break when handling and won’t easily fit into their mouths.
Leaves: Leaves are a great Loose Part for toddlers. Throw a bunch into a container or rake them into a pile. Just avoid any poisonous leaves like poison ivy.
Grass: My toddler recently discovered a pile of freshly moved grass left behind by our lawnmower. She scooped it, spread it and shoved it into a bucket and down her shirt (so itchy!). Other option for grass are hay, straw or long pieces of ornamental grass. Just be warned that grass can cause a mild allergic skin reaction with some toddlers.
Pine cones and large seeds: Large seeds like walnuts (unshelled) and pinecones of various sizes make for fun loose parts for toddlers.
Cork: Save the corks from wine bottles or grab a bag of them from your local winemaking shop or online. Cork is soft on the hands by can be easily chewed and broken pieces so this Loose Part might be best for older toddlers.
Hard vegetables: Grab some potatoes from your pantry for some easy and safe loose parts play. Pair potatoes with baskets or pots.
Dirt: Dirt comes in different forms (mud, sand, and clay) which toddlers enjoy playing with. If you’re worried about your toddler getting dirty with mud or clay play, dress them up in a waterproof rain suit. Letting toddlers play in the dirt has many benefits so try not to worry about the mess.
Man-made Loose Parts for Toddlers
Man made loose parts are those that are human made. These could items from the recycling bin, around your home or toys specifically made for Loose Parts. Trust me when I say that toddlers don’t need fancy Loose Part for engaging play so there is no need to go out and spend a fortune on these items. Here are some of my favourite easy to access man-made Loose Parts for toddlers:
Cardboard: Cardboard tubes, egg cartons and boxes of various sizes make for great loose parts for toddlers. Save items throughout your week like toilet paper rolls and cereal boxes and laid them out for some fun Loose Parts Play.
Textiles: Things like blankets, towels, pillows, scraps of fabric, wool, felt, and silk are wonderful and safe Loose Parts for toddlers to play with. Currently, my toddler’s favourite loose part textiles are pillows and play silks. You can easily make your own playsilks with silks and cool aid!
Containers: Containers of various sizes are a great must-have Loose Part that your toddler can have easy access to. My toddler loves her toddler sized sand pails and uses it for toting, storing, and sorting other Loose Parts she discovers inside and outside our home.
Large rings: From a young age my toddler was fascinated with putting rings onto her arms and legs as well as using them for other types of creative play. Some ideas for rings are canning rings and wood rings. Big scrunchies also make for a fun soft version of a ring.
If you are looking for more helpful resources for Loose Parts Play for toddlers or older children check out some of the resources below:
Loose Parts Play: A Toolkit by Theresa Casey and Juliet Robertson
Loose Parts Learning in K-3 Classrooms by Carla Gull, Suzanne Goldstein and Tricia Rosengarten
Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky
Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky
- Nicholson, S. (1971). How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-34.
- Hyndman, B., Benson, A., Ullah, S. & Telford, A. (2014). Evaluating the effects of the Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) school playground intervention on children’s quality of life, enjoyment and participation in physical activity. BMC Public Health, 2014; 14 (1): 164.
- Maxwell, L. E., M. R. Mitchell, and G. W. Evans. 2008. Effects of play equipment and loose parts on preschool children’s outdoor play behavior: An observational study and design intervention. Children, Youth and Environments, 18 (2), 36-63.