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Have you ever noticed how at birthday celebrations and Christmas mornings children quickly discard the toys, but the torn wrapping paper and empty boxes provide hours of entertainment? The wrapping paper and empty boxes fit into a category of toys called “Loose Parts”. Children love playing with “Loose Parts” and it’s natural for them to do so. Additionally, they are the best type of toy to cultivate imagination, creativity, and learning!
What is different about Loose Parts?
I believe there are 3 categories of toys, “One and Done”, “Open Ended”, and the best for last, “Loose Parts”. Children learn through play, so it’s imperative that we provide materials to stimulate their development rather than hinder it.
As Susie at Busy Toddler explains it, the “One and Done” toys don’t teach, inspire, or grow with the child. These toys serve one purpose or do the “work” for the child. (Instead of a child making the sound of a revving engine for a toy car, the toy does it for them.) “Open Ended” toys hold the interest of the child because they direct the play, the toy grows with them because they use their imagination. The child does the talking for “Open Ended” toys and the talking is done for the child by a toy with batteries in a “One and Done” toy. “One and Done” toys are meant to entertain the child instead of the child entertaining themselves. With “Open Ended” toys the child has to create, problem solve, and practice life/social skills.
“Loose parts” takes “Open Ended” toys to the next level. For example, instead of having blocks to build a structure, a child could use empty tissue boxes to build a structure- or anything else for that matter. The empty tissue box is an improvement on a block because the block as a predetermined purpose- to build- but the tissue box is limited only by the child’s imagination. A tissue box could be connected to empty paper towel rolls to create a chute for toy cars. It could be part of an invention that includes taping it together with other loose parts. A tissue box could be made into a house or a toy car garage; the list goes on indefinitely.
What Are Loose Parts and Why is Loose Parts Play Important?
Loose parts can be natural or synthetic items that will help inspire a child’s imagination and creativity on their own terms and in their own unique way. Loose parts create endless possibilities and invite creativity. For example, if a child picks up a box and starts to play, that box can become anything the child wants it to be. (Most recently in our house a box was a sled and our toddler insisted that his infant sister come with him. I was thrilled that the imaginative play was safer than the real-life scenario!) Imagination, creativity, curiosity, desire, and need are the motivation of loose parts.
Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. Loose parts can be used alone or combined with other materials. There is no set of specific directions for materials that are considered loose parts. The child is the direction. This leads to explorations that occur naturally, as opposed to adult-directed. When children are encouraged to integrate play materials in their own creative ways, they are experiencing open-ended learning.
Children learn through play, so it’s essential that they have the right equipment. Selecting the best toys for your child’s learning and development is a big deal. The expensive “One and Done” toys won’t interest your child for long and won’t enable them to learn and develop. “Open Ended” toys are great for cultivating creativity and learning. “Loose Parts Play” cultivate creativity, imagination, creativity, and exploring without any suggested direction. We all want to raise brilliant children and providing loose parts for toys gives them the best start!
What are Examples of Loose Parts?
The best thing about loose parts? They are often FREE. Yes, free. You just need to pick up rocks out of your driveway and save your “trash”. Lids and empty containers can be washed, save empty tissue boxes/toilet paper rolls/paper towel rolls, etc. Other loose part ideas can be found at your local dollar store and won’t cost much.
- Containers: small buckets, boxes, pots, jars, baskets, bowls, trays, bottles, cups, empty plastic food containers, etc.
- From Nature: wood cookies, pine-cones, sticks, stones, shells, leaves, flowers, rocks, etc.
- Purchased/Re-purposed: pipes, ropes, pom poms, lids, fabric, tubing, buttons, gems, beads, marbles, Q-tips, scarves, pipe cleaners, straws, ribbon, yarn, etc. And yes, you have just found the excuse you needed to collect more wine bottle corks 😉
How Do You Get Started?
If you’re convinced that loose parts play are fantastic, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Start simple, no need to collect and organize “all the the things” immediately. See what you already have – maybe you have an extra set of measuring cups and a plastic snack tray that you rarely use in your kitchen, pull those out for your kiddos to explore.
- Loose parts should be replenished, added to and changed regularly to maintain interest.
- They should be stored where they are accessible for children without having to ask an adult. (For children under 3 years old, use an empty toilet paper roll as a “choke tube” to test and make sure that an item isn’t a choking hazard. Attempt to drop an item through the tube and if it falls through, do not allow play with that toy unsupervised. Other items that pose a safety risk and should not be accessible to children under three include, but are not limited to: button batteries, magnets, plastic bags, Styrofoam objects, coins, balloons, latex gloves, and glitter.)
- The children need to know that they can use loose parts whenever and however they like; they should have no defined use.
- Flex YOUR creativity muscle! What can you find that would be fun? Rope dog toys and loofahs at the dollar store? Pine-cones and leaves from your backyard?
- A fun way the “extend play” is by adding an item of interest, after your child has become bored with the basic materials. Check out this fun post with a free printable for making Crazy Faces!
- Try not to co-play with the children, but instead observe what they are working on. Ask questions about what they are doing and make comments to stretch their thinking by making “I wonder” questions. For example, “I wonder if this tower could reach the ceiling!”
Loose parts play provide the most stimulation and learning for your young children. They can natural or synthetic materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways, which help inspire a child’s imagination and creativity. Set out some loose parts and watch the magic take place. Start simple and start now! (If you’re a Type A mom such as myself and you would like a thorough guide with more ideas, I love this book and this loose parts table is a phenomenal resource!) You’ll be AMAZED by what little minds can imagine and create!
What are your favorite loose parts play materials or experiences?