Loose parts play: how to get it right

Get your loose part play up and running
Best practices in loose parts play
September 16, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Loose parts play is all about the power of open-ended resources. That is, stuff that leaves the choices up to the children, and not to the manufacturers.
  • We’ll start by running you through what loose parts is, and why it’s so important, before going through some ideas to improve the way you’re supporting children in their loose parts play.
  • You'll finish this article with a better understanding of what loose parts play is, what it does for children, and how you can encourage more of it.

What is loose parts play?

First coined by architect Simon Nicholson in 1971, loose parts play is all about encouraging children to be creative, and empowering them to explore the world around them.

Loose parts resources are not pre-designed and have multiple ways you can use them. They are open-ended, meaning there should be no obvious, prescriptive use.

Ways in which children can use loose parts include:

  • Taking apart
  • Putting back together
  • Combining
  • Lining up
  • Joining
  • Transporting
  • Redesigning

Let’s consider an example to give you an idea of how one open-ended resource can be used in loose parts play.

The big ideas

Example: loose parts play with guttering

Imagine you have some pieces of sturdy guttering. They could be used to transport sand and water through. They could be used as obstacles. They might be taken apart and put back together, or used as a support when walking.

Children can throw, carry, hold onto, or discard them. They can be hidden, added to a pile or attached to something out. The choices are truly limitless.

Why should I try loose parts play?

That might sound all well and good, but why should you actually care about loose parts play?

For the most part, it all comes back to offering children a choice. Consider this in the context of a not-so-loose parts idea:

Consider two different marble runs. One comes with instructions, to make sure you build it in the way the manufacturer designed it. It might be fun to build it once and watch as it transports the ball around it’s carefully constructed inner workings. But after that? It’ll probably be left in the box.

Now consider a marble run with all kinds of different wooden blocks, tunnels, loops and bends, and marbles of all different sizes. How many times do you think a child will play with that? And how many different learning experiences will they get from it?

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What are the benefits of loose parts play?

This aspect of choice and repeated use means that loose parts play is great for developing:

  • Creativity
  • Skill and competence
  • Problem-solving
  • Real-life counting
  • Sorting
  • Cooperation
  • Physical development

What’s more, it offers children the chance to acquire life skills from real-life experiences and resources, something advocated by many early education experts like Montessori and Steiner. Loose parts resources also tend to be free from the sort of social or gender bias that we can see with many other toys.

Not yet convinced that loose parts play is a great option to provide a more enabling environment? Well, there’s concrete evidence that it’s powerful too:

How to get loose parts right: 7 top tips

Whether you’re just getting started with loose parts, or you’re looking for ways to improve your loose parts environment, you’re bound to find some helpful tips here that you can take back to your setting.

1. Collect opinions

Whenever you’re making changes to your provision, evaluation before and after is key.

Start by taking photos, including at different times of day, to find out how the current provision is being used. This can be helpful to identify underused spaces and also gain some insight into the children’s preferences.

Another good idea before you start your loose parts hunt – ask the children. Give them a list of ideas and ask them what they think would be fun to play with. Not only are you teaching the children by involving them in the process, but you’re also building excitement. When those resources arrive, they’ll be engaged right away.

2. Risk assessment

Part of bringing in new resources is having a good system for risk assessment. This way, risk assessing every new resource can be done safely and thoroughly, without taking hours.

Look out for risks like:

  • Gaps for fingers to get stuck
  • Loose bits which may come off and become choking hazards
  • Electrical problems
  • Chemical problems
  • Splinters or shattering
  • Flammability
  • Infection

Remember that, as with all potentially risky play, it’s about considering the benefits of risky resources too. Is there a certainty of danger? Well, that’s not okay. But if the potential injuries are either minor or very unlikely then the resource is probably fine to be included within your provision if you think it has a benefit.

3. Find loose parts

Finding loose parts resources should be cheap and sustainable. Part of the reason why loose parts play is so valuable is that it instils environmentally sustainable approaches into everyday play too.

Some ideas for finding resources include:

  • Reusing and recycling unwanted resources from homes or businesses.
  • Donations by parents and the local community
  • Charity shops
  • Car boot sales (building blocks)
  • Natural resources (pine cones, wood scraps)
  • Everyday objects (picture frames, cardboard boxes)

It’s important that you keep your resources replenished and updated. You can do this by asking for donations when you speak with parents or having boxes out for donations outside the nursery. It’s also crucial that you make good relationships with local suppliers, builders, plumbers or anyone who may have access to lots of great stuff!

In essence, it’s about making it known you’re on the lookout for resources. That way the supplies should come to you.

4. Start small

Often, change doesn’t happen enough in settings because it’s too daunting. ‘How can I overhaul my entire setting to be loose parts focused in a weekend?’, you think, and then never even start.

But that’s not how it needs to be.

Start off with one corner of your outside provision, for example. Lay out some loose parts for one session every now and again and learn from the process.

This is useful for more than just learning. With loose parts play, you will need to establish routines and relationships around clearing up, and around expected behaviour. These can be difficult to do when the change all happens at once, so starting small gives you the opportunity to establish these ideas at your own pace.

5. Be patient

Be aware that whenever you transfer to loose parts play from a more rigid set of resources and activities it’s going to take time for the children to adjust.

In many ways, loose parts is about more than just the loose parts themselves – it’s a new way of thinking for the children. They need to get used to crafting their own play spaces and use everything they have access to in order to create and play.

6. The adult’s role

Just because loose parts play is all about child choice, does not mean that you don’t have a role to play. You have the most important role of all!

Of course, it starts with planning the resources properly to fit the children’s interests and empowering them to get involved, but you also have a key role during the play.

You should be using open-ended questions, helping to extend vocabulary and scaffolding each child’s learning. You also need to be modelling good creative play behaviours for children who are unsure or who appear uninterested. You need to get on the floor and get involved!

You also need to be a great observer in order to see what is really going on. Not just in the literal sense, but what is going on in their minds when they play. It is these in-depth observations that help you to identify areas of interest and help you to plan resources that extend those interests and help children to develop.

What not to do? Pretty simple really. Don’t force children to play with things they’re not interested in, or close off the resource by putting expectations on how it should be used. The children should be leading the play as often as possible.

7. Get parents on board

Any learning environment that you’re trying to foster in your setting becomes more valuable if it’s consistent at home too.

If you have a situation where children are not being similarly challenged in their home environments, and only have access to a lot of closed off resources, then it may be difficult for them to engage when they come to the setting.

That’s why it’s key to properly explain loose parts play and its benefits to parents. This can be done in many ways, through workshops, stay and play sessions, learning journals and all the other wonderful ways in which you engage your parents.

Providing a consistent message is important and encouraging your parents to try out loose parts play at home can be hugely beneficial to what you’re trying to achieve. What’s more, those same parents could become a brilliant supplier for your loose parts resources too.

Further reading on loose parts play

We read some great stuff in the process of creating this piece, so we thought it only right that we share the best resources with you too!

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

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