What is “Loose Parts” play?

Play with “loose parts” already happens when you watch what children are naturally eager to do in their play. They often take parts of one toy and use their imagination to create a whole new play scenario, beyond it’s original design. Or, they pick up a stick outside and it magically transforms into a wand, paintbrush, or sword. So why not encourage this further and see what creativity can flourish from the experience?

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Simon Nicholson was an architect who created thoughtful landscapes and outdoor spaces that allowed for creativity to be freed, coining the term “loose parts”. From these beginnings in the 1970’s, came an adaptation into early learning classrooms and outdoor play spaces today where using various open-ended materials and spaces, children can put new meaning into their play. As noted above, when given the opportunity children will naturally do this and it is up to us, those providing the care and enrichment to children, to offer opportunities for this creativity to flourish. By allowing the children to take the lead in designing the environments and games in which they play, we are empowering them. This is core to the loose parts idea, in that children are more than capable of co-creating their own play and that as adults we should let them do so.

Playing with loose parts ideas for toddlersLoose parts play inspire learning through: selecting and testing materials, asking questions and making conversation, experimenting, imagination through pretend, movement in lifting and readjusting materials large and small, and so much more. As adults, we can guide and ask questions, encourage and document the learning. Providing the materials can be as simple as using materials that are natural are of course easily accessed in the outdoors, blended with odds and ends you may find around the house, but anything that can be easily moved or manipulated can be a part of loose parts play both indoors and out in this self-directed play.

As most of the play we love and use at Daycare, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Learning through play comes naturally for children and it is us, as grown ups who have to “re-learn” these approaches. Having grown up in a pencil to paper world (or… fingers to keyboard) it’s hard to imagine that VALUABLE learning can be done from playing with “random stuff”. But there is little random about it, and the children themselves add the value. It is through our preparation of materials, encouragement, and support that we can discover what they already know, and experience experimentation in a natural play setting.

I love to incorporate something natural in my loose parts invitation but it’s not necessary. I find including rocks, sticks and leaves for indoor play maintains a connection to the outdoors and has in my experience allowed for more natural play when actually being outside as these items become familiar as a tool and less a part of the setting. When outdoors, I love to bring out elements of inside: baskets, bowls, sheets, pillows and boxes, to see what comes of the creativity.

To keep in mind:

As with all play, there is the aspect of risk with loose parts. Some parts can be small so for those with small children or children who still gravitate toward putting parts in their mouth, it’s important to think about what you are providing to the children to investigate. Our loose parts play invitations change with who is taking an active part, or will be within reach of materials. I keep parts large and more simplified (lighter, fewer, less overwhelming) for those new to this type of play or for my younger players.


A great resource for loose parts play can be found in this book as well as additional editions by the same authors – really excellent examples are provided in the book and have been a great source of inspiration for us:

For your child’s bookshelf to encourage imaginative play with loose parts, here are two stories we love to read which are so sweet and illustrate how a box or stick can be anything at all!

I would love to hear how you implemented loose parts play and if you have ideas to share with your approach!


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