The term ‘loose parts’ might bring to mind parts in a car or that random collection of lost items in your home that end up in a drawer together. But when it comes to play, loose parts means so much more than that. Within education and especially early childhood education, loose parts are open-ended or abstract items and materials that children can manipulate, move, change and explore. These can range from outdoor materials such as rocks, sticks and leaves, to items from a home such as nuts and bolts, buttons and fabric, to items that would otherwise be going out to your recycling bin such as pie tins and paper towel tubes.
But why use these types of items instead of those nice store-bought toys? To quote our favorite new LEAP resource book, Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky (seriously, this book is amazing and has fantastic photos), “When children interact with loose parts, they enter a world of ‘what if’ that promotes the type of thinking that leads to problem solving and theoretical reasoning. Loose parts enhance children’s ability to think imaginatively and see solutions, and they bring a sense of adventure and excitement to children’s play.” Because the materials and activities do not have a specific outcome or way to play with them, loose parts promote active learning and creative thinking, deepen critical thinking, and they support physical, cognitive and social-emotional development.
So how can you make loose parts stations at home? With almost anything! As you saw from the list above, loose parts vary tremendously as long as they are safe, open-ended and foster experimentation and manipulation of the items. There isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it, but here are a few tips and ideas that can help you get started:
Pick a few different items that have some kind of theme or interesting ways they can be used together.
- Colors and textures are great themes for early learners. You could gather fabric pieces, marbles, and buttons of all different colors. Or focus on one color, such as the color purple, and offer items that have various shades of purple.
- We always love offering outdoor materials with different textures, such as pointy pine cones, smooth rocks and soft feathers. Some items we purchased, but we also work with our Horticulture Department here at Lincoln Park Zoo to gather other fun plant items from around the grounds.
- Some objects especially promote tinkering, such as nuts and bolts and magnets with various magnetic objects. They promote critical thinking and focus as well as fine motor skills.
Provide containers for kids to fill up, dump out, transport and repeat.
- Kids love filling up baskets and dumping them out again! You can make this more interesting by offering buckets and baskets of varying sizes and materials. Having metal bowls and wicker baskets, for example, will create different sounds when you drop stuff in them.
- Try out tiny buckets or containers, such as a muffin tin or little jars. You might see different play happening with large versus very small containers. For example, with large containers often all of the objects end up in the same big bucket. But with small containers, you might find your child get more into a sorting activity with it.
Loose parts can also be big!
- Many of the items we use and have discussed so far are small items because they are easily manipulated by a toddler. However, you can also provide bigger items such as empty boxes, pillows, or sheets and clothespins like we have at the fort and reading nook.
Chances are, your little one already plays with loose parts at home. Children often surprise us with the potential for play they see in ordinary items. A simple bottle cap could be a boat, a turtle, a soccer ball, or endless other things. We encourage you to save some items that would normally go in the trash or recycling bin like paper towel tubes or empty spools of thread, or items collected on a walk outside like rocks or pine cones. The opportunities for creativity and discovery with loose parts are limitless!