What is loose parts play and children’s development? - Sticks & Stones Education

What is loose parts play and children’s development?

What is loose parts play and children’s development?

Loose Parts Play: Nurturing Creativity and Learning in Early Childhood

In the world of early childhood education, there exists a treasure trove of resources for fostering children's development and learning. One such gem is the concept of "loose parts play."

This unstructured and open-ended form of play, which involves providing children with a variety of materials to explore and manipulate, has gained prominence in recent years. In this blog, we will explore the value of loose parts play for children in the early years, drawing upon the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) for Australia and the insights of prominent theorists.

Loose parts are one of the most wonderful early learning resources for the home and the learning environment. They are open-ended resources that are so very versatile and encourage children’s infinite imagination and creativity. I strongly believe a mix of repurposed, found and ethically sourced loose parts are the perfect resources for children’s learning. 

Understanding Loose Parts Play

Loose parts play is a concept rooted in the belief that children learn best when they are actively engaged in their environment and free to use their imagination. Loose parts can be virtually anything – from sticks, stones, and shells to fabric, cardboard, and natural materials. The key to this approach is that these parts are open-ended and can be used in countless ways. This process is not about the materials themselves, but rather the possibilities they present.

Linking the EYLF and Loose Parts Play

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) is Australia's guiding document for early childhood education. It emphasizes the importance of play-based learning as a way for children to explore, investigate, and make sense of the world around them. Loose parts play aligns perfectly with the principles of the EYLF, which recognize that children are active learners who develop a strong sense of identity, social and emotional skills, and cognitive abilities through play.

In the EYLF, Outcome 4 specifically highlights the value of play-based learning:

Children are confident and involved learners, who explore and develop their understanding of the world through play.  Loose parts play supports this outcome by giving children the freedom to explore, experiment, and construct their own understanding through unstructured play. It fosters a sense of agency, independence, and self-confidence, all of which are vital aspects of early childhood development.

Linking Theorists and Loose Parts Play

Prominent theorists in early childhood education have long recognized the importance of play in children's development. Here are a few theorists whose ideas align with the value of loose parts play:

Simon Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts:

Simon Nicholson is known for his theory of "loose parts," which directly relates to the concept of loose parts play. Nicholson's theory emphasizes that the open-ended and creative use of materials, what he calls "loose parts," can stimulate children's creativity and problem-solving abilities. Here's how Nicholson's theory connects with loose parts play:

  • Loose Parts as Catalysts for Creativity: Nicholson's theory highlights that the more open-ended and diverse the materials, the more creative and innovative the play becomes. Loose parts play follows this principle by offering children a wide range of materials, allowing them to use their imagination and creativity without predefined outcomes.

  • Environmental Design: Nicholson's work in environmental design involves creating spaces that encourage active, imaginative play through loose parts. In loose parts play, the design of the environment is a critical component, as it should be safe, flexible, and conducive to exploration.

  • Complex Problem Solving: Nicholson's theory acknowledges that playing with loose parts presents children with complex problems to solve. In loose parts play, children are constantly faced with challenges and opportunities for problem-solving as they manipulate materials to achieve their goals.

  • Promoting Intrinsic Motivation: Nicholson's approach emphasizes intrinsic motivation, where the play itself is rewarding, and children engage voluntarily because it's enjoyable. Loose parts play encourages children to pursue their interests, fostering a love for learning.

Simon Nicholson's theory is foundational to the loose parts play concept, emphasizing the importance of providing children with an array of materials that inspire creativity, exploration, and problem-solving. It is an essential addition to the list of theorists supporting the value of loose parts play in early childhood development.

Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development and Loose Parts Play:

Piaget's theory of cognitive development emphasized the importance of sensorimotor experiences. Loose parts play allows children to engage their senses and construct knowledge through hands-on exploration.

Jean Piaget's theory emphasizes that children actively construct knowledge through their interactions with their environment. He identified several stages of cognitive development, one of which is the sensorimotor stage, where children learn by engaging their senses and motor skills. Loose parts play aligns with Piaget's theory in several ways:

Sensorimotor Exploration: In loose parts play, children actively engage their senses by touching, smelling, and manipulating various materials. They explore textures, shapes, sizes, and weights, helping them develop sensory perceptions and refine their motor skills.

Constructing Knowledge: Piaget believed that children build cognitive structures through their actions and interactions. In loose parts play, children create their understanding of the world by experimenting with materials, making connections, and solving problems, which aligns with Piaget's concept of assimilation and accommodation.

Object Permanence: Piaget's theory includes the development of object permanence, the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight. Loose parts play can help children grasp this concept as they manipulate objects and observe their properties.

Lev Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory and Loose Parts Play:

Lev Vygotsky: Vygotsky's sociocultural theory highlights the role of social interaction in learning. Loose parts play often involves collaboration and communication among children, enhancing their social and cognitive development. This theory aligns with loose parts play in the following ways:

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)Vygotsky introduced the concept of the ZPD, which represents the range of tasks a child can perform with the help of a more knowledgeable person. In loose parts play, children often collaborate, sharing knowledge and skills. They can work together to solve problems, which pushes them into their ZPD, fostering learning and development.

Scaffolding:  Vygotsky's theory suggests that adults or more capable peers can provide support, or "scaffolding," to help children achieve tasks they couldn't do independently. In loose parts play, adults or peers can provide guidance, encouraging children to explore new ways to use materials and expand their skills.

Cultural Tools: Vygotsky emphasized the role of cultural tools, which can be physical objects or symbols. Loose parts play introduces children to a wide range of materials and encourages them to use these "tools" to create and communicate, enhancing their understanding of their cultural environment.

The Reggio Emilia Approach and Loose Parts Play:

The Reggio Emilia Approach is not attributed to a single theorist but is a philosophy of early childhood education rooted in the practices of the Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy. the Reggio Emilia Approach to early education places a strong emphasis on open-ended exploration and the use of a wide variety of materials, making it closely related to the concept of loose parts play. This approach aligns with loose parts play in the following ways:

Open-Ended Exploration: The Reggio Emilia Approach promotes open-ended exploration and hands-on learning. Similarly, loose parts play encourages children to use a wide variety of materials in creative and imaginative ways.

Project-Based Learning: In Reggio-inspired settings, children engage in long-term projects based on their interests. Loose parts play can serve as a foundation for these projects, providing materials and inspiration for children to delve into topics deeply.

Documentation and Reflection: Both the Reggio Emilia Approach and loose parts play value documentation and reflection as ways to make learning visible and encourage children to think critically about their experiences.

In summary, loose parts play is enriched by drawing upon these foundational theories in early childhood education. It aligns with Piaget's emphasis on active, sensorimotor learning, Vygotsky's focus on social interaction and scaffolding, and the Reggio Emilia Approach's promotion of open-ended exploration and project-based learning. These theories provide a strong theoretical framework for understanding the value and benefits of loose parts play in early childhood development.

What are the Benefits of Loose Parts Play?

Promotes Creativity: Loose parts play encourages creativity as children invent new uses for materials, building everything from castles to spaceships from simple items.

Develops Problem-Solving Skills: When children manipulate materials, they encounter problems to solve, which enhances their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Fosters Social Skills: Collaborative play with loose parts promotes cooperation, negotiation, and teamwork among children.

Supports Fine and Gross Motor Skills: Picking up, stacking, and arranging loose parts hones fine motor skills, while climbing, balancing, and building develop gross motor skills.

Cultivates a Love of Learning: Loose parts play instills a sense of wonder and curiosity, nurturing a lifelong passion for learning.

In conclusion, loose parts play is a magical avenue for children in the early years to learn, explore, and grow. With its strong alignment with the EYLF and the support of influential theorists, it provides a rich and holistic learning experience that nurtures creativity and prepares children for a lifetime of discovery. So, let's celebrate the power of open-ended play and watch as children's imaginations flourish.

At Sticks & Stones Education we have an extensive range of Loose Parts to support children's learning and development. 


Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) The official document outlining the EYLF's principles and outcomes.

BOOK:  Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children
Loose parts are natural or synthetic found, bought, or upcycled materials—acorns, hardware, stones, aluminum foil, fabric scraps, for example—that children can move, manipulate, control, and change within their play. Loose parts are alluring and beautiful. Loose Parts capture children's curiosity, give free reign to their imagination, and encourage creativity. With more than 550 color photographs of many kinds of loose parts in real early childhood settings, classroom stories, and a dynamic overview, Loose Parts provides inspiration and information about the ways everyday materials can support open-ended learning, enhance play, and empower children. With loose parts, the possibilities are endless. Tillywig Award Winner 2015, Brain Child "What this book does, in addition to demonstrating the immense educational and developmental benefits afforded by loose parts, is to provide a framework that guides and inspires parents and educators to make full use of what they have to offer. Its pages are rich in clear ideas and beautiful photographs. Above all, this is a book about the essential value of creativity, the many forms it takes, and the ease with which children can achieve remarkable heights of learning through play with simple objects that abound in our everyday lives."

BOOK:  Loose Parts 2 - Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers by Lisa Daly, Miriam Beloglovsky. This follow-up to the wildly popular Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children brings the fun of found objects to infants and toddlers. A variety of new and innovative loose parts ideas are paired with beautiful photography to inspire safe loose parts play in your infant toddler environment. Learn about the safety considerations of each age group and how to appropriately select materials for your children. Captivating classroom stories and proven science, provide the context for how this style of play supports children's development and learning. Because the possibilities are endless, each child can use the materials appropriate for their developmental level and safely explore their world.

BOOK:  Loose Parts 3 Inspiring Culturally Sustainable Environments
Loose parts are natural or synthetic found, bought, or upcycled materials—acorns, hardware, stones, aluminum foil, fabric scraps—that children can move, manipulate, control, and change within their play. Loose parts are alluring and beautiful. They capture children's curiosity, give free reign to their imagination, and encourage creativity. The next installment for the award-winning Loose Parts series offers inspiration and guidance on creating culturally sensitive and culturally sustainable early childhood environments. With the help of over 400 full-color photos this book guides readers to use their environment to promote a sense of wonder, curiosity, and joy, and allow children to explore their identity. Loose Parts 3 analyzes environment design through six key terms: Aesthetic—the nature of art and beauty. Authenticity—helps us avoid stereotypical and biased assumptions. Equity—is about achieving equal outcomes by the individualizing support for each child. Dynamic—always changing and supporting children’s critical thinking. Praxis—actioned informed by theory. Critical reflection—the on-going process of consideration, analysis and informed decision-making applied to daily work. Peer-reviewed by a team from diverse backgrounds—Loose Parts 3 includes a note on the peer review process, and the authors’ own journey looking at their classrooms.

BOOK:  Loose Parts 4   Inspiring 21st Century Learning In the newest installment of the popular, award-winning Loose Parts series, Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky focus on family engagement and competency building. With inspiring full-color photographs Loose Parts 4 is organized around competencies and life skills children need for success in the future: knowingness, engagement, risk, connections, leadership, innovative thinking, and creativity. Lisa and Miriam explain the value of loose parts, detail how to integrate loose parts into the environment and children’s play, and specifically focus on loose parts for children in family environments—helping educators engage families and extend learning beyond the classroom.

Loose Parts Play: A Powerful Way to Ignite Creativity  - An insightful article on the benefits of loose parts play.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach A book discussing the Reggio Emilia Approach's philosophy, which aligns with loose parts play.

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