Inclusion and wellbeing

Why loose parts play unleashes creativity — and how you can start

Is loose parts play the key to creativity and imagination?
Two children engaging in loose parts play with a treasure chest full of objects
April 6, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Loose parts play is, very simply, play with open-ended objects. It can be anything from cardboard boxes to leaves.
  • You’re using loose parts play every single day – even if you don’t realise it! Laura shows you how your everyday activities are actually loose parts, and how to extend that.
  • Inspire creativity, a love of learning, a culture of inclusivity and a lot more just by taking that extra step and introducing new forms of loose parts play – it’s a piece of cake!

Also -- Consider the loose parts you choose alongside the ages and stages of development of the children you offer them too. Avoid items that could present choking hazards to toddlers and babies and always supervise children carefully.

Loose parts play is magic. It’s creative, it’s entertaining and it’s limitless. The question I get the most is how to introduce loose parts. It’s funny really, as most of you are using them without even realising it!

Loose parts, in their simplest definition, are open-ended materials. They are anything and everything that children can use in creative way. This ranges from blocks to cardboard to teaspoons – the options are completely endless. Chances are, you have a lot of these materials at your fingertips this very second.

Although loose parts are nothing new, they have become even more popular in the last 5 years. There’s been a wonderful shift towards play and creativity, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

Let’s take a look at why loose parts play is so beneficial, and how you can take what you already own and turn them into fantastic learning opportunities in your setting.

What’s so good about loose parts play?

Before I get into the hundreds of ways you can introduce loose parts play to your setting, let’s look at why it’s so magical and helpful for children’s learning.
When we boil it down to the basics, open-ended resources encourage children to really be creative. Creativity itself is fantastic, as it’s been shown to have incredible benefits as it:

  • Creates a love for and an interest in learning – Loose parts play is open-ended and allows children to learn in their own unique ways creating a positive attitude towards learning.
  • Has a positive impact on wellbeing – Due to there being no right or wrong way to play with loose parts we take away the fear of failure when it comes to learning.
  • Promotes high levels of engagement – Children are more engaged when they’re leaders of their own learning and loose parts play allows just that.
  • Encourages lower levels of negative behaviour – The freedom that loose parts play gives means that we see more engagement. This leads to less negative behaviour as they’re immersed in their play.
  • Creates a culture of inclusivity – Loose parts can be used in so many different ways which means all children, no matter their age or developmental stage, are included.
  • Creates opportunities to engage in sensory learning – Loose parts such as natural resources and malleable materials are brilliant for this, as children can explore different senses like smell and touch.

How to introduce loose parts play

Even though there are so many benefits to loose parts play, practitioners sometimes worry. What about the risks, the small pieces, the mess and the upkeep? What about understanding all those barriers in the first place?

Don’t panic.

You already understand loose parts play, and you’re probably already doing it in your setting in some way or another. Do you have a sand or water tray? Guess what, that’s loose parts play. That construction area with all its blocks, and those treasure baskets in the baby room? Those junk modelling materials? You’ve got it – they’re all loose parts play!

It isn’t that you don’t provide loose parts play in your setting, it’s just that you don’t recognise it.

With that in mind, I’ve put together some ideas as to how to introduce loose parts play that will deepen your understanding of it, as well as unlocking the children’s creativity.

Loose parts play for babies

Let’s start with the activities you can start with young babies. The earlier we introduce loose parts play, the more we can maximise its benefits!

  • Blocks: Blocks come in many different shapes, sizes and materials. Even on their own, they can create an engaging and inviting loose parts play space for babies. I also believe that good blocks are worth investing in. They will last a lifetime if cared for properly and can be used by all ages and stages of development. We often rotate our blocks throughout the setting.
    Be on the lookout for different types of blocks; metallic, clear, ones that light up and in different shapes. You can add plastic cable reels, tin cans (you can buy safety tin openers that leave a smooth edge) and large log slices alongside your blocks for further investigation and exploration.
  • Cardboard: Another great resource that is open-ended but safe. Collect cardboard boxes, tubes, egg cartons and rolls from the things in your kitchen. As a bonus, it’s easily replenished – it doesn’t matter if it gets ruined.
  • Treasures: Treasure basket items are a sure winner – brushes, wooden items, wicker balls, fabric and curtain hoops are all safe and large enough for babies to handle. From the very youngest babies, who will explore the items through their senses, right up to 2-year-olds, who will explore using schemas and treasure baskets. They’re the perfect resource.
  • Sensory: Observing and interacting with lights is loose parts play, as well as, exploring lots of different mediums including water, sand, dough and ice.

Inviting toddlers and children to loose play

Moving on to toddlers and children in your setting, let’s start with learning invitations. An invitation or learning provocation invites or provokes a child to engage.

This will often be a collection of items that spark curiosity, awe and wonder which will encourage children to explore and play as much as possible. For me, an invitation is a stepping stone between an activity and free play – it might be the perfect way to start loose play if you haven’t done it before.

Why not try collecting things you find on your morning walk alongside scales, rulers, tens boards and number lines? This is the perfect way to let loose play teach children maths in a simple way.

Although loose parts play is about allowing children complete freedom, invitations are still a useful way to encourage this at first and to help you understand where learning takes place during this type of free play.

You may add other resources to extend what the children do with the loose parts which may include weighing scales, magnifying glasses, scissors and more. These resources will encourage children to explore objects further by weighing them, observing them closely and dissecting them which encourages deep level play and investigation.

The big ideas

Finding loose parts play in nature

The play doesn’t have to stay within the walls of the setting – bring it outdoors! You can find so many natural loose parts outside, and most children will already recognise them.

Taking the place outside is the perfect way for practitioners to observe how the children play with the objects they are already familiar with, and gain an understanding of how the children are used to using them. This will give you inspiration on how you can plan on extending their play and introduce new objects they might enjoy.

Another benefit of taking it outdoors? There’s a lot more space for larger loose parts such as crates, tyres, planks of wood and tarpaulin. These are absolutely perfect for making obstacle courses and dens – both of which are great creative activities to boost engagement.

Most times with loose parts, it’s about you planting that seed and before you know it the children are adding more materials and being creative in ways you wouldn’t even imagine possible. Play really is a wonderful thing.

Tinker trays and loose parts play

Tinker trays are another great way to make loose parts play a part of your setting. A tinker tray is a tray with compartments that you can fill with anything from buttons to pompoms, from bolts to wooden discs. The possibilities are endless.

As the name suggests, the children can ‘tinker’ with the items. I find it useful to introduce tinker boxes with a base material. A base material material can be: sand, play dough or a light tray, for example. Adding a base material lets children explore the loose parts further, as they’re exploring the objects in a different way and in a different environment than just picking them up.

The key to this is to be open minded, allow the children to interact in whatever way they choose to and observe their play. If this is a totally new concept to children it can be helpful to model by playing alongside them.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t be telling children how to play with the objects. Loose parts play is about giving the children complete freedom to play how and as they like – it’s an independent learning activity that allows them to really explore their creativity.

Where to go next with loose parts play?

As you progress with loose parts play, try adding small amounts of loose parts within continuous provision such as a jar of buttons in the role play area and a shoebox full of pine cones alongside the art supplies.

Over time your collection will build naturally and so will the children’s creativity. I have seen children use a jar of buttons as ‘soup’ in a pan, to explore schematic play by ordering and sorting them and as ‘money’ during shop role play; the possibilities are only limited to their imagination. Let their creativity run free!

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

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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.

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