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Loose Parts Play in Preschool: A Guide for Educators and Parents

Different types of play promote the healthy development of children. Here’s everything you need to know about loose parts play.

Loose Parts Play in Preschool: A Guide for Educators and Parents

loose parts play

Play is undoubtedly the basis of healthy development in children. The type of play preschoolers engage in dramatically impacts their future cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills. Loose parts play, where children can manipulate various objects and materials, develops creativity and critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in preschoolers.

Educators and parents can support preschoolers' holistic development by facilitating loose parts play and incorporating activities that give children opportunities to create and explore new ideas. This guide will discuss the concept of loose parts play and its benefits in more detail and we'll also elaborate on activities that encourage loose parts play.

Box of loose items in a sectioned wooden box.Source

What is loose parts play?

Loose parts play involves objects or materials that can be manipulated or moved and provide children with endless opportunities to build during playtime. Children who play with loose parts are encouraged to use their imagination and creativity. 

Architect Simon Nicholson wrote about his theory of loose parts in 1971 which emphasized the idea that children naturally manipulate open-ended materials, or loose parts, during investigative play experiences, developing skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking. In the years since, many educators have incorporated the idea of loose parts play into their play-based curriculum

Parents and teachers can  provide objects and materials suitable for their children’s age to encourage loose parts play. Children can use beads and pipe cleaners for an art project, explore a sensory bin with sand and shells, or use wooden blocks to build a tower.

What are the benefits of loose parts play?

Loose parts play is a fun and interactive way to engage children in learning. Below, we elaborate on the benefits of loose parts play for preschoolers:

Supports critical skills development 

The various stages of play are very important to a child’s overall growth and development, helping them learn essential skills they can build upon as they grow. The open-ended nature of loose parts play helps children develop cognitive skills, especially critical thinking and problem solving skills as they manipulate, explore, and experiment with different materials, objects, and shapes, either alone or in a group setting. Children can learn more about how the world works, try different solutions to problems, and explore new ideas. For instance, when playing with wooden blocks of different sizes, children can manipulate them any way they like to form towers or other structures.

Playing with loose parts also helps promote motor skills development. As children learn to thread beads on a string or scoop sand with a cup, they are strengthening their coordination skills and ability to control their muscles and body movements.

Encourages creativity and independence

When children are presented with various objects and materials to use in unlimited ways, they are provided with endless opportunities to be creative and use their imagination. Having no set rules to follow allows children to express their own ideas and plan out solutions to problems. This can also instill a sense of control and independence as they are in the lead, manipulating and combining objects in different ways.

Uses economical and easily accessible materials

Loose parts play utilizes everyday materials and objects you already have in your classroom like beads, pipe cleaners, and wooden blocks. This type of play also encourages the use of materials you might otherwise discard, such as cardboard boxes or empty toilet paper rolls, giving them new life as a play material. Loose parts can also be easily found outside in the form of leaves, pine cones, flowers, and sticks. These materials might seem simple, but they can provide countless possibilities for children to be curious and creative.

Loose parts play examples

There are plenty of materials you can use for loose parts play. Below are some examples you can consider:

Small loose parts examples

  • Buttons
  • Beads
  • Clothespins
  • Pebbles
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Straws
  • Bottle caps
  • Pom poms
  • Marbles
  • Corks
  • Flowers
  • Leaves
  • Sticks
  • Dice
  • Dominoes
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Shells
  • Feathers
  • Pine cones

Large loose parts examples

  • Buckets
  • Baskets
  • Crates
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Wooden blocks
  • Balls
  • Branches
  • Plastic bottles
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Tin cans
  • Jars
  • Cups
  • Egg cartons
  • Ice cube trays
  • Kitchen utensils such as tongs or whisks
  • Rolling pins

Loose parts activities

Below are some loose parts play ideas you can consider when promoting this type of play for preschoolers.

Building towers or structures

Provide recycled materials like cardboard boxes, egg cartons, or plastic bottles that children can use to build towers or structures.

Painting with leaves

Have children gather different leaves from outside to create a painting with different colors and shapes. Allow children to dip the leaves into different colors of paint and press the leaves onto white paper.

a young girl holds a thin paintbrush and paints a leaf sitting at a table covered in water color paint palettes and leavesSource

Seasonal sensory bin

Create different sensory bins based on the seasons as a way for children to explore using their senses. For a fall theme, add leaves, pine cones and small pumpkins to a bin. For spring, fill a container with green shredded paper and add different kinds of real or plastic flowers, and toy insects or bugs.

Sorting sizes

This activity is a great way to develop fine motor skills and cognitive abilities. Provide children with a bucket of different sized rocks or stones and have them sort the rocks by size into small, medium, and large piles.

Sorting different stone sizes during loose playSource

Making letters

Help improve preschoolers’ letter recognition skills by having children form letters using loose parts like buttons or beads. This will not only help children learn the shape of various letters, but it also strengthens fine motor skills that children will need for future writing.

A young boy sits in front of a blue mat with the letter "A" made of different sized buttons. There is a basket of buttons next to him on the floor.Source

Grouping shapes

Children can explore different 3D shapes through loose parts play. Have children sort small puzzle pieces or wooden blocks by shape. Start with easily identifiable shapes like squares, circles, and triangles and then move on to more complex shapes.

3D shapes of different colors used in loose playSource

Creating art

Provide beads, straws, toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, pom poms, and popsicle sticks and let your children freely create.

Adding loose parts to water

Let children discover what happens when you add loose parts of various shapes and sizes to a water table or container. You can explore topics like buoyancy and which items sink or float.

Glass of water with a whole mandarin orange floating in the water and a peeled mandarin orange sitting at the bottom of the glass of water.Source

Incorporate loose parts play activities into your daily lesson plans. Download our daily lesson plan template and customize to suit your teaching style and children's needs.

Daily Lesson Plan Template - brightwheel-1Download our free daily lesson plan template!

Conclusion

Loose parts play is essential for children’s development, as it helps to build important physical and cognitive skills and promotes creativity and problem-solving. Provide plenty of open-ended materials to encourage loose parts play and let children create and explore on their own terms.


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