“Loose parts enhance children’s ability to think imaginatively and see solutions, and they bring a sense of adventure and excitement to children’s play.” ~ Daly and Beloglovsky, Loose Parts, 2015
Recently I attended a workshop on loose parts. I’ve watched children play with open-ended materials for a long time, and always believed in the value of unstructured time for play and learning. I am always glad to discover that there are even more ways to enhance children’s learning and creativity. The workshop provided a fresh view of children – as curious, capable of complex thinking, bringing rich experience to their learning, and full of tremendous potential. I was reminded about the importance of learning environments and the potential of play materials, and I received a renewed sense of how to approach teaching. As I played with interesting and inviting objects and ideas at the workshop, I considered ways to bring my own curiosity into play and learning experiences I share with children in my classroom.
Loose parts is a term introduced by British architect Simon Nicholson to describe open-ended materials that can be used and manipulated in many ways. These are beautiful, found objects that can be moved, carried, combined, taken apart and changed; they provide unlimited possibilities for play, investigation, innovation, problem-solving, co-collaborating and creativity. Loose parts can include nature-based items such as sticks, rocks, leaves, shells and sand; wood-based things like clothespins, dowels, golf tees and puzzle pieces; plastic materials such as buttons, bag clips, curtain rings and milk caps; metal items including washers, bangles, keys and thimbles; things made from ceramic and glass like beads, tiles, gems and prisms; fabric, yarn and ribbons; and packaging, including bubble wrap, boxes and paper rolls. The possibilities for open-ended play with these materials are endless!
The book Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky (there are also parts 2 and 3) is a beautiful resource, full of information about how loose parts can easily be integrated into each learning area (including outdoor play), and stunning photographs by Jenna Daly. The authors describe how loose parts appeal to the senses, with their colours, textures and sounds. Loose parts augment art experiences as they allow children to explore space, line, form, shape and patterns. Discoveries can be made about design – unity, emphasis, harmony, movement and proportion. Loose parts can be moved, teaching children about trajectory, projectile movement, rotation and gliding. They can be transported in many ways (e.g., baskets, cans, buckets, wagons, as well as hands and pockets). And they can be the focus of inquiry and investigation: spatial awareness, mathematical thinking, nature, matter and energy. Children can generate hypotheses, ask questions, test ideas, and find different solutions to problems. As the authors write, “Loose parts promote social competence because they support creativity and innovation. All of these are highly valued skills in adult life today.”
I was particularly interested in the connection of loose parts to children’s styles of playing. Daly and Beloglovsky write about how loose parts support symbolic play, whether children are imitating actions and words, using sounds or words, using objects for make-believe, or discovering the functional uses for symbolic toys. In addition to emphasizing the potential for language development, theses categories of children’s play show us the continuum of children’s cognitive abilities. Children’s use of play materials can provide rich insights into this development. Michelle Thornhill’s chart, Loose Parts and Intelligent Plaything Categorized by Schema, is very specific about the types of play being observed, what the child might be exploring, and the loose parts that best support each unique play style. For example, if a child likes to cut with scissors, knock down towers or take apart devicies, they might be exploring deconstructing. Loose parts that support this exploration might include paper clips, velcro hair rollers, spring snaps. This chart is a really interesting and useful tool for observing children’s play preferences (schemas), and for providing thoughtful play materials that encourage a deeper exploration of a particular kind of play, and as the chart demonstrates, there are many kinds. What I realized from all of this is that as an educator I have the opportunity to observe more closely, understand more fully, and respond to children with greater sensitivity. This workshop on loose parts will become a more important part of how I think about children’s play.
“The natural connections children make to formal learning through the use of open ended and naturalistic resources should be a motivation to all adults to ensure that these are freely available to young children both indoors and outdoors.” ~ Erik Erikson