Monday, May 29, 2017

Loose Parts in the Sensory Table

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about ways to introduce loose parts in the classroom 
with the idea that 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.

One area of the classroom that lends itself to loose parts play is the sensory table. Very often, sand and water play focus on the simple tasks of filling and dumping. These skills are developmentally appropriate, especially for younger children, but are also self-limiting, because once the skills of filling and dumping are achieved, what’s next? The tools that children are given to fill and dump water and sand also sometimes interfere with their play. Buckets and shovels that are suitable for a sandbox take up too much space in the table, and children’s broad motions of scooping often fling sand and water onto other children and the floor, frustrating teachers and leading them to limit this play, or to wonder whether sensory table play is really worth it.

Adding loose parts (beads, shells, buttons, rocks, animals, etc.) to the material in the sensory table can open a whole new dimension of sensory play as children hunt for hidden objects, sort and classify, and pretend. Adding containers and scoops that are small enough to handle easily without taking up too much room or spilling on the floor can help make this area more manageable for adults.

Loose parts in sand lead to digging, hiding and searching, sorting, classifying, counting, and patterning. Combining different loose parts with containers that are different sizes and shapes encourages mathematical thinking and experimentation.

Adding an additional surface inside the table (a small shelf, or a hollow block or plank) gives children the work space to arrange objects and fully carry out their ideas.

Loose parts in water also lead to sorting, classifying, and counting, with the added opportunities to explore scientific properties like sinking and floating. Adding containers such as toy boats, cups, or plates give more objects to compare and experiment with.

Dark water (colored with black or blue liquid watercolor paint) is great to hide objects in and search for them.

Or, the sensory table can be filled only with loose parts – pom poms, rocks, shells, napkin rings, beads, etc. with small containers and scoops, spoons, or tongs for filling and dumping.

The magic of loose parts is providing children with that spark of imagination, creativity, and problem solving to think “what will I do with this?” How do buttons in the sand change the experience of playing with sand? How does filling a tube with sand and counting bears differ than filling a cup with sand and beads? As you add and change the tools for children to use with the sensory material, and encourage the children to add and change the tools as well, their thinking and their explorations change too.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Introducing Loose Parts - Playdough

In my last post, I talked about the challenges teachers can fact when they first start searching for ways to introduce loose parts in their classrooms. Thinking about which materials to use and how to introduce them can be overwhelming. One good starting place is to think about one material, or one classroom area, and how adding loose parts can extend and enrich the children’s play.

Playdough is a material that easily combines with loose parts. Loose parts can be stuck into playdough, playdough can be wrapped around them, or they can be used as tools to cut, stack, and connect.

One of my favorite objects to use with playdough are plastic hair curlers. The first time I used them, I expected children to use them as rolling pins. Which they did, but they also stuck them into playdough, stuffed playdough inside them, and used them as building blocks for sculptures, often with the playdough connecting the pieces.


Craft sticks, candles, pipe cleaners, or anything else that can be poked, stuck, or pushed into playdough sparks children to think about ways to make holes, experiment with balance and height, and of course, pretend to make birthday cakes, popsicles, and all sorts of food.


Small objects like beads, buttons, and counting bears can make impressions, be covered and hidden, or simply arranged in a sturdy playdough base.

Whatever the new objects, they will encourage children to think “What can I do with this?” Which is the purpose of loose parts play – giving children the opportunity to wonder, to experiment, and to approach the activity and materials with no pre-conceived notions or expectations, so that the learning is completely about the child’s ideas, and driven by the child’s process.