One of my favorite types of materials are “loose parts” – open ended materials that can be used and manipulated in different ways, providing limitless opportunities for play and exploration. When teachers talk about incorporating loose parts into curriculum, they often focus on what loose parts are: which objects would be best to use, and how to display and store them in the classroom. I’d argue that more important than what materials to select is how children are encouraged to use them, and how teachers create an environment that promotes creativity, open-ended play, and freedom for children to use the materials the way that they choose. Nearly any collection of objects could be loose parts. The teacher’s role is to present these to children in a way that encourages this open-ended exploration.
When discussing loose parts play, I often hear teachers searching for ways to get started, or suggestions for how to introduce loose parts without “getting out of control” or “making too much of a mess”. I think “out of control” and “mess” are personal opinions that differ by individual teacher, but that in general, intentional planning of the environment can help the children structure their play in a way that is both open ended for children and manageable for adults.
Playdough is a material that easily and naturally combines with loose parts play. Objects can be pushed into or hidden in playdough, or used as tools to roll, press, and make holes. Or playdough can be a loose part itself, used to fill containers or connect other objects together.
2. Sensory Table
Sensory table play often focus on the tasks of filling and dumping containers of sand, water, or similar materials. Adding loose parts to the sensory table creates new challenges, such as searching, sorting, classifying, stacking, building, and connecting, as extensions of familiar sensory exploration. Containing these materials within the physical boundaries of a sensory table or sensory bins adds scaffolding for children who may be overwhelmed by having a large assortment of objects, or for teachers who may be worried about mess and clean-up.
One common aspect of loose parts is that they are transient – they can be used, re-used, re-imagined, and re-purposed. But they can also be combined with glue, paint, and other art materials to make more permanent creations.
4. Housekeeping and Pretend Play
Loose parts are the original pretend play props. We all have childhood memories of collecting sticks and rocks and using them in our play. The rocks might be soup stirred by a large stick spoon, or a seashell or seed might become a treasure searched for as part of a complicated adventure. Loose parts provided alongside housekeeping or other dramatic play props allow the children to extend their pretend play themes and use materials more imaginatively.
And of course, loose parts can be used on their own, just like any other manipulative. Building, sorting, classifying, patterning, arranging, lining up, stacking, enclosing, filling, dumping…
...the possibilities are endless.