Preschool through IB Middle School

"Loose Parts" Play

Helen Peterson, Preschool Teacher
The theory of loose parts has begun to influence educators in a big way. This wonderful term was first used by architect Simon Nicholson who believed we are all creative and that 'loose parts' in a learning environment will empower creativity. 
What are loose parts?

In a preschool, loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, sorted, taken apart, and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials that are used in with no specific set of directions that can be utilized alone or combined with other materials. Natural 'loose part' examples include water, sand, dirt, sticks, grass, leaves, pine cones, pine needles, seeds, shells, feathers, etc. On a playground loose parts may include hoops, balls, rocks, straw, dirt, buckets, water, containers, tools, chalk, and fabric. In an indoor environment these may include blocks, pouring devices, buckets, play animals, pebbles, recycled containers, boxes, caps, foam, tubes, and cardboard, to name a few. 
There are many reasons why play spaces should include a multitude of loose parts, including:
  • Loose parts can be used anyway children choose. 
  • Loose parts can be adapted and manipulated in many ways.   
  • Loose parts encourage creativity and imagination.
  • Loose parts develop more skill and competence than most modern plastic toys
  • Loose parts encourage open ended learning.
  • Research shows children choose loose parts over fancy toys.

Loose Parts in Action

Often, children would rather play with cheaply available materials that they can use and adapt as they please, rather than expensive pieces of play equipment.  When we step back and give them the time and freedom to move things around, these pictures show you what happens.

Sometimes only the children know what they are creating and they don't always use the materials in they way an adult would expect. This structure in the photos began as an ice cream store, morphed into a banana launching machine and finally became an animal washing machine. As the children were building I heard them talking about  "angle makers, slopes, slides, ramps, and barriers." Here is the beginnings of engineering in action!

In these photos the children have moved a variety of 'loose part' materials from different outside spaces to build themselves a campfire. The children worked cooperatively to move the heavier logs together. In their bowls they are mixing a dinner of rocks, sand and twigs. Delicious! And just in case you were concerned about them stepping in the fire, they have it covered with their lava protection shoes!

Giving meaning to loose parts requires us to think about how a child learns and to consider the materials and environments he/she uses. Open-ended loose part materials, environments, and experiences create endless possibilities, encourage problem solving and invite creativity.
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Boulder Country Day School, where academic distinction meets education with character. BCD is a top rated, accredited private school in Boulder, Colorado where every child has the opportunity to discover his or her own unique excellence. Distinguished by small class sizes, outstanding faculty, engaging academics and a focus on community, our preschool, elementary and IB middle school teachers strive to create a well-rounded educational environment that balances traditional subjects with the arts, world languages, athletics and project-based learning.