by Judy Mullican
Loose parts is a term that we often see in early childhood articles these days. While that specific term may not have always been in use, the idea behind it is not new. Loose parts are objects that children can move around and combine or arrange in many different ways. While many people prefer to use natural materials as loose parts, manmade materials can also work very well. Some popular loose parts include rocks, shells, twigs, leaves, cardboard tubes, jar lids, boxes, bits of ribbon, and more. Any materials that are intriguing to children and offer many possibilities for play will work.
The value of loose parts is that they encourage children to engage in activities that help build strong approaches to learning. The open-ended nature of loose parts invites children to exercise initiative and curiosity, become increasingly engaged and persistent, and develop strong reasoning and problem-solving skills. Let’s look more closely at each of these areas.
Initiative and Curiosity
When children eagerly choose to participate in activities, ask questions, and seek out new experiences, they are showing initiative and curiosity. For this to happen, it is important for those of us who care for them to be supportive, but not controlling. For example, a provider might set a clear container of smooth river rocks in the science area. If a child decides that these would be perfect to use as food in the kitchen area, supporting the child’s choice will encourage initiative and curiosity. Another child may want to line up the rocks to make a road to a house in the block area. Of course it’s important to monitor to be sure the child is using the rocks in a safe way, but the provider should encourage the child’s creative ideas when possible. Allowing children the freedom to move the loose parts from one area to another helps them to have a richer learning experience.
Engagement and Persistence
Being able to stick to a task is an important life skill. As children progress in school they will need to engage in learning for longer and longer time periods. We all know that engagement and persistence are important in the job market for adults. So how can offering loose parts help? I remember attending an all-day get together once with people of all ages. Some young children discovered a gravel area. They played there for hours without the benefit of anything but the gravel and some sticks they found. They created their own imaginary worlds. Now that’s persistence! Because loose parts lend themselves to so many types of play, they are perfect for encouraging engagement and persistence. One way to support this is by allowing children space to keep some of their creations available for extended periods of time so they can continue to add to and revise them. You might set aside a particular spot for long-term projects or provide a way for children to mark them so everyone knows it’s not time to break them down yet.
Reasoning and Problem-Solving
Because there is no predetermined way to use loose parts, they are a great tool to promote thinking. Children can use trial and error to discover how to balance shells on top of each other or how to make pieces fit inside one another. They can decide which piece works best as a door and which piece they can use as a room for the tiny house they are making.
While loose parts offer many learning opportunities, it’s important to offer materials that are safe for the children who will be using them. Children under three (or older children who may still place objects in their mouths) should not have access to materials that can cause choking. Children of any age should not play with materials that are toxic or sharp. Natural materials should be gathered from the ground and not broken or pulled from living plants. Always avoid materials that children in the group are allergic to. Think about the developmental levels and emotional state of the children you care for and choose loose materials that you are confident they can handle safely.
Offering Loose Parts
Loose parts are most inviting when they are attractively displayed where children can easily reach them. Shallow trays or boxes work well. That way you can spread out the materials and children can see what is available. Providing containers with compartments, such as muffin tins or divided boxes, may encourage the children to think about sorting or arranging the materials. Sort trays work great for a variety of sorting activities.
As children investigate the materials, be careful not to take over. The more they can pursue their interests and ideas, the better. However, if the children seem to be getting into a rut and using the materials in unimaginative ways, you can ask questions or wonder aloud to help trigger new thoughts. For example, as you handle a cardboard tube you might say something like, “Does anyone have an idea for a new way to use this?” or “I wonder what we could do with this.” If you see the children starting to use the materials in a way that may be unsafe, you can explain the problem and encourage them to think of a safer way.
Examples of Loose Parts
There are many different loose parts that are fun to add to your room or outdoor play area! Use these suggestions as a starting point. The children and their families can be a great help in gathering materials:
pieces of yarn, ribbon, or fabric trim
colorful jar lids
large paper clips
bark (from fallen limbs)