What Are Loose Parts?

Loose Parts Collection. A list of loose parts featured, shells, pinecones, wood rings, wood acorns, corks, wood cookies, wood rounds, honey dippers.

If you are new to the world of Loose Parts, there are a lot of intricacies to understand. One of them is understanding how loose parts inspire play. Most of the time it comes from the open-ended materials provided to children in combination with their creative imaginations.

What are loose parts? Loose parts are resources that children can move, manipulate, control, and change throughout their play. They provide a sense of wonder, as loose parts have no specific direction or ‘right’ or wrong ideals. A plastic apple, for example, will only ever be seen as an apple in a child’s play.

Loose parts offer the freedom of turning a single object into anything they can think of. The possibilities are endless. A wood button may become an ingredient in a child’s imaginary soup, or a character in one of their stories. These types of open-ended materials can be adapted and manipulated through a child’s creative and imaginative mind.

A List Of Loose Parts

Loose parts often tend to be materials that can be found in the real world, as everyday objects. For example; sticks • branches • logs • driftwood • leaves • flowers • pinecones • seedpods • shells • bark • feathers • pebbles • river stones.

However, loose parts can also be man-made objects like; blocks • mirror spheres • textured fabric off-cuts • silk scarfs • flooring samples • traffic cones • recycled materials (cardboard tubes, ribbons, bottle caps, wood off-cuts) • stainless steel soaps • corks • wooden parts (buttons, rounds, large rings, spools, peg dolls, acorns, popsicle sticks, beads) • tyres • planks • pipes • crates • boxes

Choosing Age Appropriate Loose Parts

It is extremely important to ensure that any loose parts you buy or gather from nature are appropriate for a child’s age level. Safety is a high priority, especially when you are looking after someone else’s child. It’s vital that you don’t offer any loose parts that can be harmful.

Babies/Infants: At this age level babies love to taste everything. How they learn is through their sense of touch, sound, and taste. I recommend choosing parts that are larger than their mouth and do not have any parts that may break off. Heuristic baskets are a popular choice for this age group. Heuristic means ‘hands-on’ ability to learn and discover something for themselves.

Toddlers: At this age children I’d still be cautious of what loose part materials I offer a toddler. Sticking to large resources is a safe bet. As they start to get a bit older you can slowly start to introduce smaller loose parts with adult supervision.

Young Children: At this age, there is a level of trust and understanding between adult and child. Communicating with children about why it isn’t safe to put things in their mouth is key. I start to introduce smaller loose parts, like wood acorns, to this age group. Always keep a close eye, until you feel comfortable that a child isn’t going to put it in their mouth.

How Loose Parts Can Inspire Play

Sometimes you look at an object and think how would that object spark enjoyment for a child. I know I thought that way when I was first being introduced to open-ended loose parts play. After I was given a few examples of loose parts and their possible uses it was like a light bulb moment. I suddenly found myself wanting to replace every little toy in the play kitchen to a loose part. Here are a few examples of how loose parts can inspire open-ended play.

  • Sticks = Wands, swords, fishing pole, fries (if you have a lot of them), role playing a man/woman with a cane…
  • Fabric off-cuts = Baby clothes, blankets, placemats…
  • Large Wood Buttons = Donuts, plates, cookies, wheels, a hamburger bun, coasters…
  • Tyres + Cardboard boxes = Car, train, truck, digger…

Organising And Storing Loose Parts

It may take a while to build up a collection of loose parts, but before you know it you’ll have loose parts everywhere. Here are a few easy organisation and storage solutions to keep things looking neat and tidy.

Shelving: Logically, the best place is to have loose parts out on the shelf for children to pick and choose. Ideally on a low shelving unit for children to access. To accompany the shelf add baskets and wood bowls. They are perfect for nestling loose parts. I’m always searching through local opshops (donation stores) for these items. You’ll save a lot of money buying secondhand than brand new.

Just be wary about having too many loose parts out for children to access all at once. More often than not you’ll find loose parts in places you wouldn’t even dream of! I have children who love to collect one of everything, sometimes more, and store it in their dress-up bags. At the end of the day, it can be a big mission trying to put everything back where it belongs. I recommend having 4-5 different types of loose parts out at any given time for children to use. It also adds to the excitement when it comes to changing out a loose part for another.

Jars: The perfect solution when you have an overflow of materials. I often find that I get an influx of bottle caps and just not enough space to store them all. Keeping a large jar on a high shelf or in a cupboard serves as a good storage solution or back up when loose parts start going a miss, or get used for arts and crafts.

Trays: When setting up table provocations the centerpiece is often a tray with divided sections (look for old wood printers trays. These are my favourite). Personally, it brings me a lot of joy to feel like I’m looking into a trinket box with lots of niknaks. Printers trays have lots of sections for storing an abundance of little loose parts.

Half a Wine Barrel: These make for the perfect outdoor storage solution for those larger loose parts. Place the barrels of loose parts near an open space for children to have easy access to building and creating with the various loose parts.

Cookie Tins: Move over sewing community these make for the perfect loose parts storage solution. I often find beautiful decorative tins at donation stores and in cupboards when visiting relatives.

Labeling: When having lots of loose parts, especially when you have a large number of identical materials labeling comes in handy. At tidy up times it’s important to get children involved in the process. However, you don’t really want a child coming up asking where each individual item belongs. By taking a picture of the loose parts in their designated location and placing it on the front of the basket, tray, tin, or jar can save a lot of time.

Young children rely on visual or verbal aids to support their learning. Having a large image of the loose parts with the name of the part written below starts to support their language awareness. Even if they can’t read the words their brains are starting to subconsciously recognise and associate the letters.

The Value Of Loose Parts

To understand the true value of loose parts you have to understand that you need lots of the same thing. Children can’t have a tea party with their friends if there is only one wood acorn. I suggest collecting 10-15 items that are identical or fairly the same. For example, 10 buttons, 12 wood acorns, or 15 shells. Just remember sourcing and building loose part materials and resources collection takes time, especially if you are on a budget.

I recommend checking out the book Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly for more ideas

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