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Incorporating Loose Parts into Your ECE Classroom

Loose parts are becoming more and more popular in early childhood classrooms. Their purpose is to inspire creative, hands-on, open-ended play that encourages problem-solving and relationship-building. There are a variety of different ways to define loose parts, along with even more potential ways to incorporate them into your classroom. In this article, we will explore what loose parts are, and how you might use them in your curriculum to support children’s learning and skill-building.

An Introduction to Loose Parts

The term “loose parts” was originally conceptualized by architect Simon Nicholson, who wrote The Theory of Loose Parts, in which he defined the term “loose parts” as any material that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. Nicholson integrated loose parts or non-static materials into his playground and school designs. Almost any item, from rocks to corks to pieces of fabric can be used for loose parts play. Loose parts can be synthetic or organic, large or small, and used indoors or outdoors.

The term “loose parts” is frequently used in classrooms or ECE programs that follow a Reggio Emilia curriculum model. Their purpose is to inspire creativity, collaboration, and imagination.

The Basics of Loose Parts

Activities using loose parts follow some general rules-of-thumb:

  • Loose parts have no defined use or intended outcome. These materials can be anything that children imagine them to be.

  • Educators and caregivers support children’s choices about using loose part materials and follow their lead if/when they decide to change materials or the way they use them.

  • Loose parts are stored in a location where children can easily reach and access them without having to ask an adult.

  • Loose parts should be maintained by educators, and regularly changed and replenished to maintain new opportunities for learning. There should be multiple items, and enough for children to share, to encourage collaboration and to avoid conflicts.

  • As with all play, loose parts with sharp edges or that present possible choking hazards should not be offered to very young children.

Materials for Loose Parts Play

The items below are just some of the wide variety of materials that can be used in loose parts play. The items below can be used together, or individually. These are just a few suggestions because the possibilities really are endless!

Smaller Items:

  • Sticks/twigs

  • Beads (glass, plastic, or wood)

  • Nuts and bolts

  • Leaves

  • Pinecones

  • Uncooked pasta

  • Pieces of fabric

  • Keyrings

  • Tape

  • Cotton balls and q-tips

  • Pom-poms

  • Mason jar rings

  • Silicone kitchen utensils and cooking materials

  • Scrabble letters or other game pieces

  • Pieces of wood (ensure that there are no sharp pieces that could give children splinters)

  • Recycled plastic water bottles (lids can be offered separately as another item!)

  • Paint swatches (free at local hardware stores!)

Larger Items:

  • Plastic milk crates

  • Wood pallets

  • Cardboard boxes (of all shapes and sizes)

  • Pots, pants, or other cooking items

  • Large wooden spools

  • Empty baskets

  • Tree stumps

  • Cardboard kraft paper rolls

  • Pool noodles

What Kinds of Skills Are Learned with Loose Parts?

There are many benefits for young children’s learning and skill development when they engage in loose parts play. Because this kind of play is open-ended, it encourages children to be creative, think critically, and solve problems as they arise. As children build, construct, and create, they have opportunities to test their own ideas and try to figure out how to make their visions come to life.

Some smaller loose parts will encourage children to practice manipulating objects in their hands and fingers, which will support fine motor skills. Some larger loose parts, such as tree stumps, or big pieces of cardboard might encourage children to build tall or mobile structures. This kind of play enables children to engage large motor skills as they lift large objects, climb, and reach up high. Older children will enjoy working together with their peers to build and create with loose parts as they learn important skills in communication, teamwork, and collaboration.

What is the Role of the Teacher?

While loose parts play is directed by children, it is still important to have educators or caregivers available to facilitate and support the activity. As children engage in loose parts play, educators support them by observing, taking note of children’s interests and ideas, and ensuring safety.

An article from The Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children (ORAEYC) notes that “Meeting children where they are is essential, but no good teacher simply leaves them there…in settings with developmentally appropriate loose parts play, adults provide loose parts and make them accessible and available. They support children’s initiatives and inquiry. They make sure children can explore and discover new insights. They look for opportunities to broaden and deepen the learning, while allowing for open-ended play and prompting meaningful connections and experiences.”

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