The Theory of Loose Parts has been exciting play experts, educators and parents ever since it was developed and published by architect Simon Nicholson in 1972.
The concept of playing with loose parts however has been around since children have been playing with whatever they could find in nature. More recently it has become better known and popular through implementation in Steiner (Waldorf) education since the 1920’s and exploration by Malaguzzi (Reggio Emilia) in the 1950’s.
Since the possibilities and benefits of loose parts play are literally endless I am sure many therapists, teachers, parents and of course children have experimented with different materials and ways to engage with them.
It’s impossible to talk you through it all. But for all parents and educators willing to learn more and give it a go, I’ll try to give you a bit of an oversight of how you can start playing with loose parts at home. And for those who are quite familiar with the theory of loose parts, I’m hoping to give you some new ideas.
This post is a follow up of my previous blog post: The Theory of Loose Parts and The Right to be Creative.
The Key to integrating The Theory of Loose Parts at Home
The Theory of Loose Parts (in my opinion) is first of all a way of thinking.
Let’s think for a moment about what our children play with. Do we consider the quality and quantity of the toys we have at home? Do we think about the amount of ‘finished toys’ (that only have a single purpose) compared to the amount ‘open ended materials’ (that could be anything) that we present our children with?
The theory of loose parts implies that the more loose parts you have in different varieties, the higher the degree of inventiveness and creativity will be.
Maybe there are ways to change that ‘finished toy’/’open ended toy’ ratio in your home in favour of the last one in order to encourage creative play.
Please keep in mind though that there is no need to get rid of all of your children’s favourite toys! A few simple changes to their toy box or play set up can already go a long way.
Once you get your head around it, you’ll find it easy to make it work for your own children in your own home. You’ll start seeing loose parts potential everywhere and I promise you’ll get crazy excited about new discoveries. Playing with loose parts really is THAT much fun.
Now, let me aim to help you on your way by giving you some practical examples of how we play with loose parts in our family:
5 Types of Play where you can easily include Loose Parts
1. Imaginative Play
Here are some ideas for including loose parts in different areas of imaginative play:
Fabrics in different colours and textures are a great addition of loose parts to your dress-up box. These can be shawls, sheets, scraps, old clothes, blankets, …
They can be used for just about anything: making dresses, capes, flags, tails, hair, … You name it, I’m sure it has been done.
Small World Play
You can use just about anything to create little worlds in small world play!
Most people (you included!) probably have a basket with small animals and figurines that are the starting point for most small world set ups.
What you can add to that: blocks, leaves, stones, sticks, pebbles, fabric scraps, pine cones, sea shells, buttons, pegs, flowers, …
All those little materials can be used as mini ‘props’ to mimic things (anything) like the food for the animals, trees, treasures, making pathways, fields, snow, houses, caves, … You get the idea.
With pretend play I’m thinking of play kitchens, pretend post office, space ship, shops, preschool, …
There is so much space here for adding loose parts! A few things come to mind:
– loose parts for setting up the play scene: sheets, cardboard boxes, baskets, pillows, ribbons, … for building and constructing (don’t forget to have scissors, tape, rope and maybe pegs handy)
– loose parts for playing: anything from outside (rocks, shells, branches, driftwood, leaves, flowers, pebbles, …) or inside (check your craft box and kitchen cupboards for interesting items like cupcake liners, pompoms, cups, buttons, paper, pencils, toilet rolls, …) for children to move around, sort, mix, line up, and so on
– think about the way small loose parts can be presented and interacted with: cute bowls and cups filled with materials look very inviting and empty rolls and bowls and spoons encourage engagement
2. Construction Play
Construction play obviously refers to the building aspect of play, there are both toys and non-toys that are excellent for experimenting with different aspects of design and construction.
There are heaps of quality construction toys existing out of loose parts out there. These modern toys might be plastic and/or are limited in use because they were designed with a specific purpose in mind. They still have a lot to offer and can definitely be part of an invitation to play with loose parts.
Toys that I can think of for instance are Duplo/Lego, Magna-Tiles, K’NEX, Kapla, … and of course your standard wooden block sets and quite possibly many many more.
And then there’s a whole world of materials out there you can use to let children design and construct their own creations.
Things you could use: recycled items you might normally throw out (paper rolls, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, …), recycled items from the tip or second hand shops (plastic plumbing tubes, old cables, …) and your necessary ‘gear’ (scissors, tape, saw, glue gun, …).
The possibilities are endless! Ideally we’d all have a warehouse filled with such materials and equipment where children could tinker under supervision. (Such a place actually exists!) But in real life we need to be slightly more organised, so what you could do is put together inventor’s boxes or tinker boxes. Depending on the age of the child, their interests, the materials available to you, the amount of mess and level of experimenting you are comfortable with, … you can make your own inventor’s box.
3. Artistic Play
While some activities follow certain guidelines for what you can use and how to make something, at times it’s quite possible to freestyle a bit. Think about when and how you can add loose parts to the mix. Craft materials in themselves after all are a great source of loose parts!
The Artful Parent has a whole website (and a book!) full of creative ideas, including loose parts, where you can find examples and inspiration.
4. Outside Play
Going outside literally opens up a whole new world of opportunities for playing with loose parts.
My biggest tip would be to take the children to a park, forest, beach, … and let them play. Once they get into it, they’ll naturally start exploring, collecting, creating and constructing. It’s what they do. Do join in too, it’s surprisingly therapeutic!
Even in your own backyard there is a huge opportunity for exploring loose parts in a way that you can’t do inside. Usually there’s a bit more space outside so children can explore bigger materials and/or explore on a bigger scale.
5. Sensory Play
Sensory play is a very broad umbrella for many types of play. Loose parts play in itself is a sensory experience as is for instance heuristic play.
But what I’m referring to today are activities based on one central ingredient like play dough, sand, water, shaving foam, slime, … and the list can go on and on.
I’m quite possibly stating the obvious here since most sensory play activities already include a huge variety of loose parts. But when we look at our standard set up for play dough or in our sand box, we see we can often improve on that from the loose parts perspective.
For sensory play activities in our home we mostly use small loose parts such as beads, buttons, pebbles, tooth picks, flowers, leaves, … But by all means, use whatever you want in any combination you want!
And there is so much more …
There is so much to say about loose parts and I’m only scratching the surface here, there are just so many variables!
The oversight above is only a little insight in how we use loose parts in our everyday play at home. There are still so many great ideas to explore and in a next blog post I’ll happily share some awesome loose parts projects I discovered. I’m sure you’ll be planning to get stuck into a few of them soon.
As an afterthought I’d quickly like to mention that playing with loose parts can be so different for different people depending on where you live, the materials available to you, the ages of your children, their interests and so on. Regardless of any differences I sincerely hope this post was valuable to you in any way.
In case you are still wondering about what kinds of loose parts you could use and in what way, feel free to read this article I wrote about the Theory of Loose Parts and have look at our loose parts play ideas for inspiration.
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