Loose Parts Play in an Early Learning Environment

Hi! My name is Ashley Elliott – I live on Vancouver Island, British Columbia in a community called Campbell River. My program, Aster Meadow Early Learning and Care, is a licensed multi-age program, but primarily caters to 3–5-year-olds.

I began my journey into the field of childcare in 2013 as a family childcare provider after taking the ‘Good Beginnings’ course. It wasn’t long after that I realized what an investment it would be to obtain my Early Childhood Education Certification. After completing that at Northern Lights College, I quickly became enamored with learning outdoors with children and the Reggio Philosophy. I am passionate about working outside with children and documenting their discoveries, play, and determination. It brings a lot of joy to my work to be able to share with families the learning that takes place through learning stories or video documentation. With some of my free time in the last year, I’ve been mentoring in a program offered by ECE BC called “Learning Outside Together” – a beautiful 32-hour workshop highlighting the benefits of learning outdoors with children.   

Loose part play – what is that?

‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” Simon Nicholson

 The theory of loose parts was coined by an architect named Simon Nicholson in the early 1970’s. Nicholson described loose parts as variables and proposed that everyone has the ability to be creative and inventive – his theory greatly supports autonomy of children and defines loose parts as materials that have no defined use. This means that there are unlimited possibilities to explore the materials.

 Loose part play greatly supports children’s autonomy as they can create their own rules and ideas about their experience and play – a bucket filling activity.

If you are unfamiliar with loose parts, I’ve curated a list to spark some creativity.

Up to down, left to right: Beads, pebbles, sticks, flowers, stones, wooden blocks, pegs, shells, magnets.

Loose parts play encourages open ended learning; the materials can be used alone or alongside other materials. Materials and environments that are open ended (no defined outcome) greatly support the child’s creativity and supports problem solving. You might find that children generally choose loose parts over manufactured toys when given the opportunity. It’s often the joke we hear often around holidays surrounding gifts – the child often really does prefer the box.

Photo taken by Ashley.

Bringing Loose Parts into practice

One of the more beautiful aspects of working with children, primarily outdoors, is that there are loose part materials everywhere you look; imaginations are eager to turn rocks into fish, sticks into magic wands, and fallen leaves into potion. When we are engaging in play in the wild woods, which is often, we never run out of things to do or games to play. We have limitless materials that nature has provided us – and often the most seamless and the most collaborative play. Loose parts aren’t just found outside – they are truly any material that can be moved and used in any way.

There are often periods of time that our preschool group sticks close to home base; times where we are not frolicking into the woods. This is usually dependent on the seasons – living on the wet west coast, we often soak through our rain gear for the first half of the day and enjoy our late afternoons in a different way. This is when we utilize our indoor and outdoor classroom. While we don’t have endless supplies of pinecones and pebbles, I think it’s really important to offer   activities or experience that mimic our play in the forest – a feeling of calm and connectivity. I do this by ensuring the children have the opportunity to stretch their imagination in the same way we do in the forest – with loose parts.

When considering which materials, I’m going to introduce into both our indoor or outdoor classroom, I consider the items ability to mold with the children in both development and creativity. A quality item to us, is an item that develops children’s foundational skills, such as: social and emotional, speech and language, fine and gross motor, and cognitive development.  Ideally, the toy or materials can check off most, if not all of those boxes. It can sound like a big task – which toys or material can possibly do all of that? This is why loose parts should be a big part of your learning environment.

It can feel overwhelming as an educator, parent, or caregiver to    obtain piles of pinecones, napkin rings, wood planks, sticks, pebbles, seashells, and more…and then bringing them indoors. If the concept of loose parts is new to your environment, there is no doubt that it may feel messy and chaotic. I would recommend starting small – you can do this by introducing one material at a time and in smaller quantities. As children become more familiar with loose parts, you will have the pleasure of observing them utilize the materials with more intention and creativity than you could have imagined.

While it is true that you can obtain loose parts often for free by walking the beach or local trail – there are many wonderful resources that can be purchased as well. Wooden rounds, are a beautiful addition to any learning environment. You can utilize them in your sensory bin, for an invitation to play, add them to your building blocks area, or just leave them out and let the children decide if they are cucumber slices, coins, or snails.

I recently invited my group of preschoolers to play with a set of Little Pavers. Often, when first introducing a new material, I just leave the materials out as an open invitation for the children to come and explore them. I try to not influence them in any ways, my own ideas tucked into my pocket.  I was so impressed with the quality of these hexagon shapes – I couldn’t wait to observe how my group would use them. These Little Pavers are a great example of a quality item that supports the developmental needs of a diverse group of children – and an item that can be used in a variety of ways.

The set of Little Pavers comes with a beautiful set of resource cards. The children utilized these as both inspiration and as a base for their building and driving. Along with the Little Paver pieces, the children also gathered other materials from their surroundings including sticks, dump trucks, wooden rounds, the water table, and a large ramp. I observed as the children tested theories, built different structures, engaged in some peer scaffolding, created patterns, communicated effectively, sorted, counted, and many more. Little Pavers can be used in a variety of ways – a must have addition to any loose part collection – the perfect example of the unlimited possibilities that loose parts can bring to child’s play.

As the children had more exposure to this particular loose part material, I observed their creativity bloom with these hexagonal miniature pavers. They were left outdoors and over the course of several days, I noted them being utilized as ice cubes, bricks, fish, dice, and even as steppingstones in an intense game of ‘Floor is Lava’. I am looking forward to observing the play expand and bloom as the seasons change and nature offers us some of its own loose parts to add to this play – fall leaves, ice, snow, muddy paddles – all a sure compliment to this play.

Photo taken by Ashley.

Often, observing the children engaged in such meaningful work, I am struck by how seamless their play – how deep and creative they become when they are playing with open ended materials; how adaptable and receptive they are to their peers’ ideas and thoughts. After ten years working in the field of early childhood education, I sometimes chuckle at the faint memory of the time between my own childhood and adulthood when I thought a stick was just a stick. Ah, the magic we miss out on when we are looking without really seeing.

Author: Ashley Elliott.

Check out Ashley’s review of the product Little Pavers here: Little Pavers, 60 Pieces – YouTube

2 Replies to “Loose Parts Play in an Early Learning Environment”

  1. I absolutely love this approach to learning through play. It allows the children’s imagination to invent and create. In my, unschooled, opinion it seems this would be the perfect base for critical thinking.
    Without being educated in ECE I did use this approach for my own kids and now grandkids. I’ve always loved how a stump or log can become a throne, a boat, a horse …. But a plastic toy is only ever the one thing.

Leave a Reply