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.
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
- Pipe cleaners
- Bottle caps
- Pom poms
- Popsicle sticks
- Pine cones
Large loose parts examples
- Cardboard boxes
- Wooden blocks
- Plastic bottles
- Toilet paper rolls
- Tin cans
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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