Using Loose Parts to Inspire Open-Ended Play

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Play is all about exploring and imagining, and nothing fosters creativity like loose parts play.

Never heard of loose parts–it makes sense. It isn't like all the TV ads for toys promote loose parts and is not typically toys found at your local toy store.

Scroll Instagram or Pinterest or search #looseparts or #loosepartsplay on social media. You will likely see hundreds of beautifully organized play spaces with expensive brightly colored wooden loose part pieces. While these ARE beautiful and a fantastic option if you have access to them, you don't NEED fancy loose parts for your kids to engage in loose parts play.

Most kids will naturally play with bottle caps, toilet paper rolls, rocks, sticks, or marbles. And there is a reason for this! Their little minds are drawn to open-ended items toys because they instinctively know that 

So what are loose parts?

Simply put, loose parts are small objects or open-ended materials that children are drawn to–they can be store-bought or items found in nature like acorns, pinecones, or rocks. The beauty of loose parts is that there is infinite ways for them to be played with. 

What can children do with loose parts?

Children can do anything with loose parts. They can play with them by themselves or incorporate them into play with their friends. They can also be a toy that stands alone or can be used with other toys–for example; loose parts can become “trash” that gets put into the back of a garbage truck and zoomed around.

Children can play with these open-ended materials by carrying, moving, sorting, dumping, stacking, or combining, among many other things.

By providing opportunities for social skills to be developed, loose parts can help keep a child engaged and interested in the world around them. In addition, the creativity encouraged by these types of toys leads children to new ideas about how they interact with their peers and themselves!

What are the benefits of loose parts?

One of the most significant benefits of children engaging in loose parts play is that it encourages critical thinking and imagination. It also allows them to learn how the world around them works to explore different materials and their various properties.

During childhood, it's so important that kids are participating in open-ended learning through play. Loose parts have endless possibilities making them a great teaching tool in the early years and beyond. 

How do you introduce loose parts?

The best way to introduce loose parts to children who aren't familiar with these toys is to just put them out alongside some of their favorite toys. For example, put a pile of small rocks out alongside your little one's favorite dump truck or a handful of feathers out with some play-dough. You can also incorporate them into a sensory bin.

How do you encourage loose parts to play?

One of the best ways to encourage loose parts play is to start by making suggestions by setting out certain materials. Then simply observe your kiddo and watch them engage in their creativity.

Keep in mind that any messes created during playtime are just another step of learning through creative processes – try not to worry about it too much. Play is messy!

Another suggestion for when kids are new to an activity is to give them a little encouragement by prompting them with some ideas to get their creativity flowing. So here are some phrases you can use to jump-start their loose parts play:

– What do you think you can make with these rocks?

– Do you think you can make a [insert something they love]?

– How many ways do you think you can use these pieces?

– Let's try to build a [city, castle, forest].

Loose parts for educational purposes

Loose parts are also fantastic teaching tools. Sometimes, you hear the phrase “manipulatives,” which is teacher talk for tiny objects that can be moved around to help children understand a concept.

Loose parts make the best manipulatives because they can be used for direct instruction (teaching something particular) and free play. 

Try using them to practice patterns, counting, forming letters, sorting by color, creating shapes, or practicing fractions.

Top 10 favorite loose parts

You can find a bunch of our favorite loose parts here!

1. Acorns

2. Pinecones

3. Leaves

4. Rocks

5. Toilet paper tubes

6. Bottle caps or plastic bottles (using recycled materials is a great way to be more environmentally conscious)

7. Small wooden rings

8. Small wooden coins

9. Small wooden 

10. Grapat mandala pieces

Using real-life materials in play

Play is an essential component of human learning. There are stacks of research about the importance of play and its impact on learning and creativity.

When your little one is given everyday materials they get ideas on how to use them while touching, looking, rearranging. Just think about your kids as toddlers who were fascinated by the cabinets full of pots and pans or Tupperware.

As adults, we should always try to give our little ones permission to explore objects from the “real world.” For example, a tray filled with different sizes of nuts and bolts and a magnet will inspire more creative thought than giving your child a plastic toy that looks like a screwdriver.

Now no one is telling you to give your two-year-old a power tool! You definitely need to keep safety in mind and make adjustments to make for different ages as well as differing needs for parent supervision. 

Real-life materials for play

Ages: Birth through 2.5

  • Plastic divided lunch tray, muffin tins, plastic bento box, small laundry basket
  • Cheerios and a shoelace,
  • Leaves/paper/edible finger paint
  • Squeeze bottle with water and dark paper
  • Pine cones/palm-sized rocks/flowers/paper
  • Bath tissue tubes/paper towel tubes/blue masking tape cut into 3+” strips
  • Ping Pong balls

Age 2.5 through age 5

  • Wooden box with dividers, cafeteria tray, metal lunch box, cylinder shipping container
  • Artificial flower petals/wire/wooden beads/feathers
  • Large marbles/glass pebbles/magnifying glass
  • Transparent colored game pieces/battery-powered candle/magnifying glass

Age 5 through age 10+

  • Cardboard boxes, wooden trays with dividers, buckets, baskets, laundry basket,
  • Stainless steel bowl, crates
  • PVC pipes/electrical tape/hose/water source
  • Large rocks/yarn/paper/white glue
  • Wire/beads/corks/bottle caps/old keys

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